By Patti Schofler
A man who bred five Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes winners and the first Triple Crown winner ever (in 1919) was also a successful trainer of both Thoroughbred and Standardbred race horses. Clearly John Madden knew a lot about both breeding and training. He is responsible for the popular breeding adage, “Breed the best to the best and hope for the best.” It’s a succinct statement breeders live by—or so it seems. Such a statement begs the question of what criteria determines what is “best.” Ultimately, a breeding horse’s proof of value is in what he or she produces, but that proof may be years in coming, if at all. On the other hand, a performance career provides valuable information about a horse and the potential progeny. And while a performance career has long served as a standard by which to judge a breeding stallion, a career record is not always held to the fire for the arguably more important half of the equation, the mare.
Traditionalists have maintained that broodmares should not be ridden. Some believe a mare should be bred after she has gone as far as she can in her sport career and can no longer perform. Other breeders embrace embryo transfer to allow a mare to continue in her performance role while a surrogate mare bears and raises her foal(s). But is there another – and possibly better – way to heed John Madden’s advice?
It is feasible to juggle a talented mare simultaneously between breeding and performance, which has many advantages. Breeder Elizabeth Houtsma, owner of Hillside H Ranch, Warrensburg, Missouri, and Willy Arts, co-owner and head trainer at DG Bar Ranch, Hanover, California, have similar systems that keep mares in both lifestyles. They breed young mares out of proven mare lines, usually at three, while getting them started under saddle and doing basic work. These mares foal at age four and might be bred again, all while they continue their training.
“How do you know you have the best if you haven’t ridden those bloodlines for many generations? You see a lot of nice pedigrees, but you have to see the horse in front of you.
I want to see her compete in the sport as it is today, not from four generations of mares that have been broodmares,” says Elizabeth.
“You don’t know ultimately what that foal can do until it’s four or five. Then the mare is going to be nine,” she continues. “So why not let her have the first foal, put her into sport herself and get feedback faster?” Elizabeth has a great affection for retired sport mares since many of the jumpers on her ranch reached the Grand Prix level before they joined her band. And most have also had foals along the way.
“I am breeding for the top of the sport and I like knowing the mare can do the job.
We expect so much from stallions and not enough from mares. If she’s older and she holds up in an upper level career, it answers a lot about rideability and soundness. We know that jumping is very heritable. If I can get two parents that perform, the deck is stacked in my favor.”
Waiting to breed until the mare is in her teens and finished with a sport horse career may put the breeding result far behind advances that have been made in the quality of horses produced. “If you wait to breed a horse until after it has had a career, you are about fifteen years behind improvements that breeding has made during that time,” Willy says. “We decide if she is doing well under saddle or to breed her another time, keeping her in training all the time. You can see the foal when she is four and have the information much faster than waiting for the sports career to end.
Making the Transitions
How a mare accepts the transitions from motherhood to performance and back to motherhood depends on her character. “From three to five are the best years to establish a strong work ethic and basics in a horse, and if done correctly you can ride and breed or do both at any time,” Willy explains. “We have one that is coming five who we started under saddle at three. She was bred and I got her ready for KWPN testing. She foaled and now she’s back in foal. I lunged her once with the tack on, hopped on and started riding like she was ridden yesterday. It all depends on the character and temperament of the horse and if you have a mare line that has produced sport horses. If you have a mare that has never been ridden, who has been in the pasture for eight to ten years, and you try to start her under saddle, you may have a bit of a problem. But if she is started as a young horse with basic training technique and then given a couple of years off as a broodmare, it shouldn’t be a problem when you start riding her again.”
Willy approaches conditioning a broodmare as he would a three or four-year-old rather than a rehabbing horse. “They’ve been in pasture and they run around with the foal and get exercise. So, unless they were bred when they had an injury, you can go to work for a half hour or so right away,” he says.
Bakara KS (Sir Sinclair x Thea KS/Idocus) was bred as a three-year-old and in 2010 had her first foal, Freya DG (by Devon Heir), who is currently competing at Fourth Level with amateur Sandy Harper. Bakara competed in the National Young Horse Championships as a five- and six-year-old. In 2014, she had colic surgery, after which owner Gundi Younger bred her twice.
In 2016, at 10, Bakara was sold to amateur rider Ellie Kennedy, who bought her sight unseen knowing both the horse’s owner and Bakara’s show record. “I bought her pregnant, then saw her in a pasture with her baby. Once the baby was weaned, I had her vetted and brought her home,” Ellie says. This year she will be competing at Intermediaire I after a few times out at Prix St. Georges.
Bringing Bakara back from motherhood has progressed slowly, even though Ellie will soon be showing at the highest level for the mare. “I was super careful. Our biggest hurdle was conditioning. She had a belly. That takes time to build up stomach muscles and to lose weight. It took me awhile to get her nutrition right. It’s only been in the last six months that I feel she is in condition for FEI.”
With as much experience as Bakara had in the show arena, Ellie assumed that she could put her in a trailer and take her just about anywhere. Unfortunately, a clinic two and half hours away proved to be overwhelming for the mare. The trip entailed a lot of bucking and rearing. “She was really stressed out. It hadn’t occurred to me to treat her more like a young horse. In hindsight I should have taken her on short rides to local places and just ridden her around,” says Ellie, who worked for several years as an assistant dressage trainer and often worked with young horses. “Like a young horse, she was fine when she first arrived at the barn. They’re compliant at first, as they’re figuring things out. Then they get more suspicious, a little defiant and testing.”
Bakara returned home from the clinic not quite right and Ellie gave her some time off. Nonetheless, Bakara rebounded and has taken to barn life in a big way. “She loves being fussed over, coming out and doing her job and showing off. She nickers at me when I come into the barn. She is bred to be a performance horse. I feel like I won the lottery. I took a chance on her and it has really paid off. She’s the nicest horse I’ve ridden and I’ve ridden a ton of horses. She works hard for me. I joke with my instructor that I’ve never had a horse where you apply an aid and she actually does it.”
Willy is not surprised at Bakara’s success under saddle, knowing both her offspring and her family tree well. He has had two of her foals and owned two of her half-sisters. More importantly, he knew her as a foal and later rode her in the KWPN keuring which led to her crowning as North American KWPN champion as a five-year-old. He also competed her mother at Prix St. Georges. “Her grandmother was number one in the nation as a foal and her great grandmother was a phenomenal producer in Holland who came here at age 9 or 10 and we had super riding horses from her,” he explains.
“The mare line is the most important. Work ethic and rideability are natural traits,” he continues. “So if they are ridden and competed, you know how they take to training and how that line will be as dressage horses. Jumping is heritable. Dressage is more training, gaits and soundness. You can have a horse with three nice gaits and then with a good rider it can turn into a good Grand Prix horse. It’s character and training. Then you know there should be no problem putting them back to work after they have been broodmares.”
Lady Calido’s Story
Eventing trainer Robyn Fisher also took a gamble on a baby momma. Holsteiner Lady Calido (Calido I x Aronny/Renomee) would go on to be USEA Horse of the Year
in 2009, but when Robin got her she was nine and had had foals at four, six and eight years old with one at her side. She had been backed and could walk, trot and canter under saddle. That was it. And as expected, the mare had never seen a cross-country course.
“She was out of shape. The ligaments around her sacroiliac joint had dropped for that baby. But she was very keen to start work,” Robyn recalls.
With baby at her side, Lady Calido was lunged in a small ring. “The first day the baby stayed with her. The next day the baby didn’t stay with her, but watched. By the third time, he wandered around the property, not caring what his mom did. I kept the training easy and fun. If I had had her for six years, it might have been quicker because the muscle memory might have come back quicker. So it took longer, especially since she needed to be really fit for three-day. But better to be slower than faster in bringing them back.”
As it was, by the time the 1996 Holsteiner was nine years old, she was competing at Preliminary and did her first one-star. The next year, 2006, she went Advanced. “If you have a strong foundation at Preliminary, the horse understands the questions and it’s just adding a little more height and a little more technicality,” says Robyn, who now has her training business in Los Angeles. “She and I had something special. She knew when we were competing and always brought the best that she could.”
In 2009 Lady Calido sustained an injury, so Robyn bred her again. “Then she went right back to work. Then a friend competed her Preliminary. She had a few more babies. Now she’s 22 and carrying beginners around.”
Transitioning into Motherhood
At the other end of spectrum, transitioning a performance horse to broodmare life also has its challenges. Moving from show barn life with lots of attention to a quiet pasture takes time. “If I throw them out with the broodmares, they’re fretful. They don’t always interact with the others. They may walk the fence line or stand by the gate, ‘omg, where is my structure, my stall, my attention,’” says Elizabeth, who starts these girls out in private paddocks next to the broodmare pasture. “They get to know each other across the fence. It really works well if she goes out with a mare she knows. Establishing the pecking order is a challenge.”
“For your mare to get pregnant and for everything to go well, you have to make sure she’s not stressed,” she continues. “You think, ‘what horse wouldn’t be happy going out in a big pasture with a bunch of horses and having free time?’ But it can take a month to six months for a mare to relax enough to go out in pasture.. These Grand Prix [jumper] mares were in sport for a long time. Some come to the Midwest when they’re used to going to Florida in the winter, and here they are coming straight from the show ring.”
Another challenge is to remove shoes. “Horses from sport arrive with all kinds of shoeing. You can’t pull shoes and expect them to be okay. First pull hind shoes to see if that is alright. I got a horse from California in September who still had the front shoes on in December because she would get too sore on the frozen ground. And she’s under a pile of blankets and comes in at night because she was clipped for the show ring.”
These examples and anecdotes demonstrate mares are often more flexible than we credit them to be. They can transition from the show ring to the broodmare pasture and back again, very successfully if managed correctly. Importantly, this system provides information about mares that supports better decisions about the quality of their breeding programs.
John Madden likely saw that with the mares he put on the track. His harness racing mare Nancy Hank set a record on September 28, 1892 by trotting a mile in two minutes and four seconds; she ran undefeated and was inducted into the Harness Racing Hall of Fame. Blue Girl earned over $68,000 on the flat track with Madden as her trainer and in her lifetime would produce 13 foals.
Originally published in Warmblood’s Today