The Bloodline Factor When Assessing a Jumper

Devine ODF (Fantastique x Ruby). Bred by Pony Lane Farm (Bluffdale, Utah) & owned by Alex R. Jayne. Photo © Adam Hill.

By Charlene Strickland

How important is pedigree when choosing a jumper? Do bloodlines forecast how and why a jumper jumps with a certain style? What about the gallop he requires to navigate the course at speed? And let’s not forget the horse’s desire to please and his work ethic.

A jumper prospect’s parentage can help market him – or raise a red flag about his family’s known traits. We talked with expert trainers, riders and owners, some European, to ask how much they weigh bloodlines when buying and selling horses.

For simplicity, horses are referred to as “he” or masculine in gender in this article. But as the 2018 World Equestrian Games demonstrated, we recognize mares have both the will and talent to be at the top of this sport.

Why Consider Bloodlines

“I believe in good families. I think at the end of the day, if it comes down to your horse needing to step up on course, breeding will tell,” German rider and trainer Wilhelm Genn says.

He uses the KWPN stallion Heartbreaker, sire of his to jumper Bugatti (damsire Pilot), as an example. “Heartbreaker is a very good stallion. When Eduardo Leon imported Bugatti as a five-year-old, Heartbreaker was not so popular then. I saw Bugatti’s pedigree, and said, ‘Send me that horse.’ That was seven years ago.”

“Bloodlines are very important. It’s the foundation, like a house. And you can’t put a roof on something if you don’t have a foundation,” Max Dolger, a rider who represents Great Britain, adds.

Bruno Diniz Das Neves of Portugal now trains in Del Mar, California. He also cares very much about a horse’s bloodlines. “When you are looking for horses, or you want to know about a horse’s breeding, you start to get educated about bloodlines. You see the resemblances of some horses that come from the same breeding line, the same stallion. You start to see similarities. Not just physical, but their mind, the way they jump, the way they put the front legs and the hind legs.”

The impact of even an excellent pedigree can vary, however. Many riders repeat the caveat, “It depends.”

“If I see a really good sound horse, even if the breeding is not what I am looking for, I would still consider him,” Wilhelm says.

Susan Artes, partner with Max at their Los Angeles barn, agrees bloodlines are important. “But they are not the end all. Certainly there have been some great bloodlines that thrive at having good careers.” she says, but also notes that horses of less popular lines can jump consistently (while well-bred horses may not).

“I find in show jumping that you could have the best bred horse in the world – it could have the best bloodlines – but that doesn’t necessarily mean it will be the best horse in the world. Look at the horses that aren’t bred well and can still jump at the top level of the sport,” says Canadian team rider Jaclyn Duff of Edmonton, Alberta.

When to Investigate

Should a buyer inquire into a pedigree early, after trying a horse – or perhaps never?

Bruno’s opinion is definite. “The first thing I ask is ‘show me the papers.’ I want to see the bloodlines. I have friends that say, ‘I don’t care. How do they jump?’ What I care about is the way that they jump. Do they have some natural reason about how they jump,” he says.

Others want to see the horse jump before looking at the ancestry. “I believe for myself that I approach every equine athlete with an open mind,” says Ray Texel, a trainer from Sebastopol, California. “Knowing their bloodline is interesting and sometimes helpful, meaning some horses develop a little later than others. Some have characteristics that you know are pretty prevalent in the line. Those are really helpful guidelines when selecting or looking at an athlete whom you might want to work with.”

He defines bloodlines as helpful, calling them “a good blueprint.” “I give so much credit to the breeders who have the passion to take the risks in breeding and exploring and experimenting with which combinations they think are strong and competitive,” he adds.

How valuable is the reputation of a stallion, such as an Olympic horse that people know? “I find a lot of people are dead set on bloodlines,” Jaclyn says. “There are particular stallions that they love and certain bloodlines that they will pick over others. When I try a horse I go by how it jumps. Half the time I don’t even know the bloodlines when I am trying them. After I look up their bloodlines, I’ll say, ‘That’s interesting. He goes like a Darco, or he goes like a Contender.’”

Neil Jones, of Palm Beach, Florida, markets sport horses chosen for American riders. He says he worked in Europe for a long time, and they had a lot of horses by the same stallions. “A lot of time I think the mare is more important than the father. In particular, I have horses that are by two different stallions with the same mare. One of those is Disco Lady, who competes in Grand Prix with Taylor Harris,” Neil says. He adds others out of the same mare have all been good, sired by horses like Indoctro, Balou du Rouet and Heartbreaker.

“We have to sell the horse on the suitability of the horse on the purpose that it is going to do,” Neil continues. “Sometimes, a particular stallion like Diarado breeds jumpers, equitation – he’s got a very laidback character. He’s very popular.”

Another modern stallion, Chacco-Blue, sired eight competitors at the 2018 World Equestrian Games. “When you see the Chacco-Blues, a lot of them have different types of mothers. It’s not a particular type of mother you’re looking for with that stallion,” Neil says.

When looking for a horse for an amateur, Max says he prefers an equitation type who comes out of northern Germany or Holland, and notes the Zangersheide is getting very strong, too.

“I’m very happy with the Oldenburg sport horses,” Max continues, “who are very strong in the jumper divisions. Paul Schockemöhle is behind that. He’s done a very good job.”

Ray believes bloodlines have a certain degree of importance. “There is definitely a lot to genetics and good genes being passed along. We’re not at a point where that’s a real science yet. A lot of the breeders in Europe think they have learned a lot about good combinations and good bloodlines. And you’re still taking a shot, but it’s a slightly more calculated shot at producing a great athlete,” he says.

Similarities among horses of the same parentage can lead to stereotyping relatives. Can a sire or damsire’s reputation predict its future?

“If you have any questions about the way you try the horse, maybe the bloodlines give you extra answers. Maybe you will stay away from something that tends to have known complications genetically,” Bruno surmises.

“You can see some bloodlines give more spooky horses, a little bit more special horses. Some bloodlines give the very solid minds on a horse, more amateur-friendly, with more heart, more scope,” he adds.

Some particular lines – not named here – have been labeled for having bad mouths, being spooky at water jumps, having uncooperative attitudes or being prone to soundness issues. Susan commends Max’s experiences at German barns, and says, “He’s good at knowing which horses tend to have tougher mouths, and which horses tend to be forgiving.”

Also, a horse’s ancestry can affect its treatment in training. A horse from a prominent line could be expected to be a star from the start.

Could the opposite benefit the less fancy prospect? “Just like any sort of system, there are always going to be the outliers and the anomalies,” Ray admits. “In some ways the horses that are outliers and anomalies are often free from restrictions and expectations. That could be through the training and the development of the young horse, when there’s very little expectation or preconceived notions in place, which is why we see the anomalies who really rise up to the top.”

“You have your genetics, and you have your environmental influences,” he continues. “Those environmental influences carry a lot of weight in the horse’s early experiences, his training and what makes an athlete what they are.”

The Mare’s Influence

When selecting jumper prospects, buyers should closely consider the dam. It’s generally accepted that the mare influences more than half the parentage.

Patrick Seaton, originally from England, now trains in San Anselmo, California. He sees many of the same stallions being used whether the horse is born in Holstein or Hanover or France. “I think they cross differently with different mothers. People forget that 60 percent comes from the mother. It’s got to be the right bloodlines. It’s also the education and the atmosphere of where the horse grows up.”

At his Rheinland Farm in Lebanon, Ohio, Wilhelm breeds proven mares. “They were Grand Prix horses. I breed a mare that jumped 1.60 meter, and have a few other mares. I think it’s 65 percent the mare, 35 percent the stallion.”

Wilhelm grew up on his family’s farm in Rheinland Pfalz, Germany, where he says they bred about 400 mares a year by live cover with as many as five stallions.

“Coming from the breeding [background], I’ve seen a lot of mares who produce good horses, where it didn’t matter how good or bad the stallion was. If I have a choice between a good mare and mediocre stallion, or a foal out of a mediocre mare and good stallion, I would pick the former, the one from a good mare,” he says.

“The important part is to match your mare up with the stallion to complement the mare, without trying to overcorrect anything,” Wilhelm also advises, noting there are many good stallions available. “My best mare, who is small and has a lot of French blood, won 60 Grands Prix.”

That mare, Happy Z (High Valley Z x Almé), is one of the horses who helped Wilhelm to be the first rider to reach the $1 Million Club (a USHJA rider recognition program, ranked by money earned). Herself 52 percent Thoroughbred, Happy Z is the dam of yearling Happy Go Lucky Z, by Kannan.

Bruno rates the mare’s importance as 70 percent, a higher influence than what most people think. “A lot of people do not follow mare lines because they think only about the stallion, the sire. The mare is very important—in many cases, more important than the sire. She can bring those extras that the sire may not be able to pass on.”

Max believes it’s very important that the mother line have a certain proven success themselves.

“Bloodlines are one thing, but the mother gives a lot of character. If you have a scared mother, you will have a foal who is scared of things. If you have a brave mother or an intelligent mother, hopefully she’ll teach the kids the same thing. So the upbringing is as important as the actual bloodlines.”

He notes a horse’s first few months make a big difference feed-wise, exercise-wise, if they can run on grass or not, if they find their balance early or not and if they are

confined or not. Max’s young horses grow up at large farms in Germany and he breeds mares who have achieved success in sport. “To me it’s the proven mother side that makes a big difference.”

Lines that Excel in Modern Sport

Overall, certain lines tend to excel in the current show arenas. Rankings of sires can indicate consistent performers, such as numbers of top competitors from Baloubet du Rouet and Chacco-Blue.

“I believe in breeding, and I believe in the intentions behind it,” says Ray. “I definitely think that if you looked at the numbers and statistics, you would see probably a high degree of consistency.”

“You can see at the shows, ‘Oh, that horse has the same sire,’” Bruno says about the breeding listed on the show’s start order. “Then someone with a little bit more knowledge will explain, yes, this sire brought a lot of good horses to the sport. So the better the sire, the more horses he has in the sport.”

Lines can also suit riders who compete below the elite level. “Certain bloodlines are known for having some good amateur horses, like the stallions Kannan and Casall. A lot of those horses are straightforward and simple types to ride,” Susan explains.

Max says there are lines he likes, and other ones he doesn’t. “Some lines I think are soft to ride, and some I think are harder. It’s all in the mix. I like the French horse matched with Holsteiner.” He named Kannan and Zirocco Blue as some favorites.

Wilhelm also likes the Holsteiners, plus a little French blood. “The Holsteiner gives power and scope, and the French a little more athleticism. I love buying Holsteiners with a little French blood – Almé or Galoubet.”

“He’s out of a French mare,” Wilhelm says of his jumper Dirocco Blue (Zirocco Blue VDL Keur x Quat’Sous). “He is a good horse, who has all the scope.” The gray, 61 percent Thoroughbred, is currently jumping 1.55 meters.

“Landgraf made a lot of good jumpers, showing a lot of scope and power. The Dutch have a lot of Holsteiner stallions; a lot of times they lease them and then they go back to Holstein,” Willhelm adds.

The Speed Factor

In today’s jumper arena, the time allowed makes the difference between a clear round and prize money. Course designers, limited in obstacle dimensions, use the time on course to separate competitors. Therefore rideability is crucial in tight turns. “The horses make the time by being super efficient on the turns. You have to be on the inside track everywhere. On course, you don’t have time to pick a second distance,” Patrick explains.

With breeders’ trying to produce for an evolving sport, Ray notes he’s seeing a shift back to the Thoroughbred type. “Now the environments are very much controlled, meaning very flat surfaces, very controlled footing. We’re not dealing with undulating fields with big scopey courses anymore,” he explains. “You need a careful, fast horse now, which is a little more what the Thoroughbred always was, and the endurance and stamina. So I see a little bit of a shift in the type. I say that in a general sense.”

“The times are getting so precise now in our sport. It’s all amazing and wonderful to see, in the one-hundredths of a second time differences. You’re not going to get that done in a very heavy horse that dwells in the air,” he adds, noting the top-tier horses have to be extremely careful, fast, light and quick.

“The breeders have really figured out how to lighten up the horse, to modernize the horse,” says Patrick. “You’re just seeing more and more ‘blood’ horses.”

“I like horses where the motherlines have a little Thoroughbred in there,” Neil says, mentioning Belgian Warmblood and the Selle Français specifically. “In Holsteiner breeding, you have a lot that go back to Thoroughbreds, such as Cottage Son and Ladykiller. I think the cross is very good.”

About the successes of the Belgian Warmblood, he says, “They are not opposed to using a Belgian stallion with a French mother, which is a good mix in my opinion. Any of those good French bloodlines, of which there are many – it’s a good cross.”

Susan agrees about horses with blood. “In the modern sport horse world, everything has gotten so competitive and very fast in the jump-offs that the old-fashioned colder types are not as desirable anymore. It’s hard to be fast enough to make the time, unless you have a fast horse.”

Patrick also prefers modern horses. “As the sport progresses, the time allowed is getting tighter, the jumpoffs are getting quicker and the jumps are getting lighter. It’s not very often now that you see the old-fashioned, big jumping, slow horses. They can jump any track in the world, but they’re not going to win a ribbon.”

He mentions his mare, Veronica (Verdi x Elmshorn), who is 55 percent Thoroughbred. “I have blood taken at the beginning of the year to check. She has so much red blood cell count – a high red blood cell count. In the Open Prix jump-off, she came out of the ring and wasn’t even puffing.”

Jaclyn describes a young Selle Français she’s competing, Venus de Gue (Cap Kennedy 2 x Quaprice Bois Margot), as a good example of how show jumpers have evolved. “She is a very hot Thoroughbred type and she’s very French. They are more modern show jumpers in thesense that they are very light on their feet and not big and heavy,” she says. Those two mares exemplify the jumpers that riders want and breeders now supply. “Everybody now has a common goal, to breed a modern horse,” summarizes Wilhelm. “The sport has gotten so careful and fast, that you have to have the athletic ability and the speed.”

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