Trust the Breeder: Addressing the Issues American Sport Horse Breeders Face

By Kimmy Risser, member of USHJA Hunter Breeding Task Force, USEF National Hunter Committee, and USSHBA Board of Directors

When I was recently asked by The Plaid Horse to address some of the issues American breeders are currently facing, it was a familiar trip down the rabbit hole of hardships. If you have tried to breed and sell a homebred in North America, you may have had this familiar conversation about the hurdles we face as breeders. And as I started outlining what would be considered the most common concerns, I realized that a lot of it comes down to two words: trust and support. It may seem that I am oversimplifying, but bear with me. These two seemingly understated words hold big meanings. 

In my experience, there seems to be a lack of trust in American breeders: trust in our education, trust in our knowledge, and trust in our production. We are lacking the trust of the entire industry- from trainers to riders to owners. There is little trust in the ability of an American breeder to produce a quality animal conducive to the North American market, no matter the discipline. As breeders, we need to EARN the trust of the buyer. We need to be providing the best product we possibly can, using the best horses we can manage, making the best decisions possible. I believe we have a branding problem, and the trust in our product has been called into question. Buyers, you need to meet breeders halfway.

For example, refusing to look at anything but imports needs to be a practice of the past. Trainers could make more of an effort to reach out to breeders and see what is available. (Maybe by adding the growing list of young horse trainers/starters to your rolodex, and making them your first call when you’re looking for a young prospect.) Trust the next winner is in the field of foals you pass on your way to the barn every day. 

Recently at the USHJA Annual Meeting, there was a fantastic roundtable discussion on the Young Hunter division. The questions seemed to boil down to one thing: why are the young hunter classes not thriving? Well, here is where support comes in. Our governing body, as well as the horse show industry, does not support young horse development. The Pre Green Incentive program was such a great step forward in encouraging buyers to invest in young horses. However, as soon as divisions were renamed and restructured it became the Green Incentive – open to any age horse, jumping up to 3’9 – so the incentive to invest in a young horse went out the window. Why wasn’t it made the Young Hunter Incentive, to stick with the original purpose? Instead, the Young Hunters have no finals, no prize money, no indoors opportunity… zero incentive to participate. Because competing in the jumper division does not count towards eligibility in the hunters, a ‘green’ horse may not really be green.

The West Coast is a thriving area for young hunters because shows offer discounted stalls, low/free entry fees, and big money championships. Why are we not emulating this model all over the country? Why, when discussing the grassroots of our industry, are we not discussing the young horses? Why is there an Emerging Athletes Program catered toward the kids that can afford the 1.40m horse, but not an Emerging Horse Program to help teach kids to bring along their own horses so they can eventually make it to the 1.40m instead of being priced out? I strongly believe that Europe will soon eliminate a large part of our buyer market with their increasing prices. Which means we will need to be looking closer to home. If we don’t have the programs and support to develop our horses, where will the horses then come from?

The mindset of our leadership needs to change. We need to be investing in the education of our riders so the middle class junior rider has the ability to purchase a young horse, bring it along, and show it. Shows across the country need to step up and be creative, even simply offering discounted schooling to young horses (say, under the age of 5). On the flip side, there is so much untapped opportunity in the local show scene that breeders are not taking advantage of. We say it is too expensive to keep a horse we bred and get mileage, but I can go to a local show and walk away spending less than $100 for 2 classes. Or the Hunter Breeding National Championships which offers under saddle and over fences classes for 3 and 4 year olds. I think the lack of support creates a vicious cycle of breeders not getting their horses out there showing, so the shows aren’t holding the classes. As breeders, we need to start investing in our own program. If that means breeding one less mare a year so we have the budget to keep one or two horses to campaign, then I encourage all breeders to consider a new business plan. 

If we can shift the market by garnering the trust of buyers and trainers to invest in young American bred horses, the support will follow the demand. If breeders can sell what we’re producing at appropriate prices, we can afford to support our own breeding program. 

The American market is different from the European market. From sport to rideability, there is no comparison. We need to build our own pathway that is appropriate for our riders and horses. I know trust and support are just the tip of the iceberg, a generalized description of the uphill battle we as breeders are climbing every day. But, if we can develop a relationship of trust and support, it will be a strong foundation to build on.

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