BY ELYSE SCHENK
Breeding horses takes imagination. Great breeders use creative foresight in order to envision an ideal mare and stallion combination. They paint a picture in their minds of how traits might match up to form a perfect foal. Though not exactly custom made as potential offspring are constrained by an uncontrollable combination of parental genetics, a breeder’s job is to stack the odds in their favor by breeding only excellence to excellence. It’s a craft to choose horses worthy of reproduction and then wisely pair them together. Breeders exhibit the same knowledge, ambition, risk and imagination that an artist would.
Alex Jayne, 5th generation patriarch of Our Day Farm, dreams to produce horses for his family to ride to international victory. Out of their Elgin, Illinois farm, Jayne develops superb homebred, American-made warmbloods in order to partner with Olympic-level son, Charlie Jayne. Alex’s decades of industry knowledge, experience and success has prepared him for this endeavor. This dream has a long history.
“I’m a fifth generation horseman, but breeding was never anything really on the radar for my dad. My dad was mostly a racetrack man, and bought Thoroughbreds as yearlings, and that sort of thing. He wasn’t in the breeding aspect of it. As I grew up, and as my kids started growing up, I always had a love of horse breeding. I thought it was something I wanted to do someday.’”
So Jayne started small—literally.
“When [my daughter] Maggie was born, I started raising ponies. I raised probably 50 or 60 ponies, and had great success with that. I fooled around with [breeding a few horses], and had little or no success with it. I found the ponies bred much truer than the horses did. I thought I would lose a lot of money doing [breeding horses]. You can spend four years until you realize what you’re going to have, and if it’s not going to be good enough, I don’t think I want to get into that.”
His attitude changed when a magnificent stallion, Dulf van den Bisshop, entered the picture.
“Just by accident, we bought Dulf van den Bisschop (aka Danny) for the Thatcher family when he was seven. He had won the Stallion Testing in Belgium when he was a youngster, and had shown very successfully as a six and seven year old. He was very popular in the breeding shed over there before we bought him. We bought him just to be an amateur jumper, but as he progressed, he did some Grand Prixs. Actually, if he had an international rider on him, I’m quite certain he would have been an international horse. But his job was to do the amateurs for Kelsey Thatcher.”
Meanwhile, Danny grew wildly popular overseas.
“While he was doing his career over here, all of his youngsters started growing up in Europe. Suddenly they’re winning five stars left and right. Pretty soon they all were trying to buy the horse back from us to take him back to Europe, because he’s so popular. I said to Mrs. Thatcher, ‘why don’t you just sell me half of him and we’ll go into the breeding business together?’ That’s what we did.”
With a suburb foundation stallion in their hands, Thatcher and Jayne strived to breed only the best to the best.
“Now we’ve got to get [Danny] to the best mares possible… We’re trying to breed horses that are going to win in WEF, and win Grand Prixs, and win internationally. Our top group now, which are seven and eight year olds, looks like we have three or four international horses. Out of 20, that’s a pretty good average.”
Jayne adds that “even breeding the international horses to international horses, we still sometimes just get a very nice, average horse. And that’s fine. I have a market for those, so I can sell them locally to the fox hunters, or pony club horses, or B Circuit horses. Our goal is to raise international jumpers. So if anything falls short of that, we try to sell off before I have too much money invested in it.”
When it comes to selecting the mares capable of producing his desired international horses, Jayne focuses on performance over bloodlines. “I’m much more into performance proven mares. If they go out and they win a Grand Prix, they can come to my breeding shed. Just because it’s a full sister to a Grand Prix winner or a full sister to an international horse, I might look at her, but it doesn’t necessarily mean I’ll want her.”
The mares who join the program must meet a high quality standard of reproduction in order to stay.
“I’m very quick to clean house. We’ve been doing it long enough now, if I have a mare that has two or three babies that are just average, she’s [sold]. She’s [sold] and the babies are [sold]. I have no time for average. And as a breeder, you have to look at it that way. It costs too much money to raise them up. So unless they’re special they don’t get to stay.”
Breeding expenses are no joke, which is why Jayne cuts unnecessary costs, starting with veterinary breeding fees.
“I used to spend ten grand per embryo transfer [even if they failed to produce a foal]. And I thought I’m just not going to do that. I said to the veterinarians, ‘you’re going to have to stand behind your work and guarantee results’. I made a deal with [the veterinarians] that I’d pay $10,000 per weanling they produced. I gave them a list of who I wanted bred, and to who, and I said, ‘I will pay you for them when they are ready to be weaned.’” This strategy worked to produce over 20 weanlings in one year.
“Now we do almost all of the breeding ourselves– we collect ourselves. We do the insemination ourselves. We do everything ourselves. So we’ve kind of cut the vet out of the equation.”
Once the foals are on the ground, they’re raised similarly to the European breeding model– out in a spacious green field, free to be a horse.
“My babies are at Rolling Oaks Farm, two miles down the road from [Our Day Farm]. I rent the whole back hundred acres and there’s a big run-in shed. I have a field of yearlings, a field of two year olds, a field of three year olds and a field of mares and babies. It works really well to drive the two extra miles and just use the facility that was set up to raise young horses. And it’s very private and secluded. If you were a horse, you would love to grow up there, surrounded by a forest preserve. It’s just great.”
As for costs, “I pay $300 a head for them to be boarded there. We run them several times a year. They get their feet done every two months. There’s some other various costs, but I try to keep my cost at about $4,000 or a little bit under per year for each baby.”
Reducing costs is crucial to keep a breeding operation afloat and to compete with the dominant European warmblood market. Part of the problem is the quality of horses produced in the US compared to overseas.
“There’s just far too much mediocrity here. People breed their old children’s jumper to a Grand Prix horse and think they’re going to get something more than a children’s jumper. And it just doesn’t work that way. And there’s exceptions to every rule. I mean, it’s not that it couldn’t, but it’s very unlikely. It’s going to take [Americans] producing a couple of international horses ourselves before people stop thinking they’ve got to go to Europe to buy that next international horse. I don’t think that’s necessary. And honestly I think if you go to Europe and you want to buy an international two-year-old or three-year-old, you’re not going to see them anyway. They’ve got all the ones that they’ve pegged as international horses stuck off in the back 40 and they’re going to show you everything else they have. I mean, I’ve been there. I know that.
“So I really think if [the US] is going to try to raise some truly international horses, we’re going to have to do it ourselves. Otherwise, you’re going to have to wait and spend several million dollars and buy them when they’re in the international rings already. And I just can’t afford to do that and I’m not going to do that. I’m going to try to raise some top, top horses. And so far we’re having a lot of fun doing it.”
His international hopes are currently staked on Alligator, a two-year-old who showed exceptional form free jumping this summer.
“His very first jump in his life, he took dead aim, sighted in on the jump, jumped two and half feet over it in spectacular fashion. His knees came up to his chin, arched his back with a perfect bascule, and followed through with a kick. He did that every single time. We jumped him about five times. Only three feet high but for a two-year-old that’s plenty. He loved it. He just floats. He floated down to the jump, he floated over it, landing light as a feather. This is what we breed horses for. Everybody in the ring was excited. I had goosebumps. There’s nothing more romantic than potentially raising yourself an international horse.”
Alex Jayne hopes his horses will grow to reach international ranks and to pass his breeding dreams on to his family. For now, he’s grateful to gallop in wide open fields with his four-year-old grandson (and future champion), Oliver, and passing his incredible horsemanship legacy on to the 7th generation of Jayne riders.