Willy Arts on the Spectacular KWPN Dutch Warmblood

Koning DG. Photo by Liz Van Woerden

This is the second story in Margie Sloan’s “So! Who’s Your Daddy” series about some incredible stallions and their babies   

By Margie Sloan

The elegance and athleticism of the international dressage horse begins in the mind of the breeder asking what makes the perfect competitor, one able to flawlessly execute the piaffe and passage in front of a crowd of spectators and judges. 

Most horses of any breed can learn a few basic dressage moves, but to reach Grand Prix level, it takes more than introducing a flirtatious mare to a frisky stallion. It takes years of studying the pedigree and the achievements of the bloodline of the sire and dam, and then looking years ahead with a vision of the dream horse.

Considered the dressage cream of the crop is the Royal Dutch Sport Horse, known as KWPN, the acronym for Koninklijk Warmbloed Paadenstamboek. In 1988, Queen Beatrice of The Netherlands gave the stud book the royal designation. In North America it is KWPN-NA. 

Originating in The Netherlands when agricultural horses were being replaced with farming machinery, the Dutch Warmblood gained in popularity. They became the modern horse evolved into a sport horse for the disciplines of dressage, jumping, and harness. Their breeding became more specialized with the selection of studs and mares with the traits desired for high level dressage and jumping. Foremost are the soundness, strength, and longevity genes for the demands of a performance career. At the Tokyo 2021 Olympics, half of the dressage horses were KWPN Dutch Warmbloods.

“He has had his hands on them since birth. He lovingly sets strict boundaries,like a parent. This mutual respect is what allows Arts to bring the stallions to their potential.”
—Christine Traurig on Willy Arts, seen here with L Primo DG showing a medium canter
Photo by Tamara With The Camera/ Tamara Torti

We asked Willy Arts of DG Bar Ranch in Hanford, CA, to tell us what makes the Dutch Warmblood horse so special, and to explain his practice of animal husbandry. Arts is a KWPN-NA designated platinum breeder who has spent decades perfecting his process to produce dressage horses capable of going the distance from birth to stellar performances that stun a global audience. His dedication to studying proven stallions and dams has paid off handsomely as his own two young breeding stallions, Koning DG and L Primo DG are KWPN-NA licensed stallions with promising progeny.

Breeding 101

“It’s all in the genetics,” says Arts. “The lineage of the sire and the dam are each scrutinized and then we study their offspring. It’s not just the sire that we look at. The dam and her lineage are just as important. The foal is going to get the best from his parents. Just like people.”

Growing up in Holland, Arts learned horse breeding, care, and management from his father Gradius Arts. After high school, Arts entered the five-year program at the Dutch Equestrian School in Deurne, learning everything about horses and targeted breeding. Upon graduating in 1981, he focused on dressage. 

Arts came to the USA in 1984 to help the DeGroot family expand their dairy cattle business to include horse breeding. Today, Arts is co-owner of DG Bar Ranch. Arts works every aspect of the business. He is on the tractor, checking the hay, setting up clinics and horse shows, and shepherding an array of students of all ages and levels. His American breeding business is now well established in California with top riders eager to learn about dressage stallions and mares born in the USA. Among his frequent visitors are Olympians Guenter Saidel, Debbie McDonald, Kathleen Raine, Steffen Peters, Sabine Schut-Kery, and Christine Traurig.

“When he came to the USA in the ‘80s, Arts was already competing at the Grand Prix level. He’s a true gentleman, the real deal with a keen understanding of what is required of horses in international dressage and in the American market,” says Christine Traurig. 

“He really likes what he does in selective breeding and working with the young horses. Arts gets it, and knows what it’s going to take to win in temperament, character, and athletic ability. The young breeder/trainer would have a tough time competing with Arts’s decades of experience in making the champion dressage horse.”

Willy Arts and Koning DG show the crowd the elegance of a medium canter. Photo by Tamara With The Camera/ Tamara Torti

Arts and the late Tony DeGroot and his wife Betty DeGroot established DG Bar Ranch shortly after one of Arts’s visits to Hanford in the mid ‘80s. Tony wasn’t a rider, but an admirer of beautiful horses. And he had 2500 acres, a family who loved horses, and confidence in Arts.

“The longer I am at selective breeding, the better I can predict the offspring. It takes a lot of time and money to develop the program. In 35 years of doing this, I clarified my vision and philosophy by looking back at the horse’s family history and doing my best to look into the future for dressage winners,” says Arts. “I’ve learned how to anchor the strong points in each generation with more reliability. Lots of ups and downs, but very rewarding in the long haul.”

How do you anticipate the future of a winning dressage horse? Arts says he studies the horse for the first five years, from conception onward. 

“I monitor everything. The nutrition of the pregnant mare is important. Is she healthy and sound? Then doing everything to ensure the safe delivery and handling of the foal to get it started correctly with the proper nutrition and exercise,” says Arts. “When beginning the development of the young horse, it’s important that he or she accepts the bridle and saddle with ease and then learns to balance and collect. By age five, the horse is set to have a long career. I can provide the buyer with a lot of information so that both the horse and the rider will have a good life together.”

So! Who’s Their Daddy?

Family is everything. Bordeaux was the 2009 Champion Stallion KWPN Licensing. He comes from one of the best dam lines that include Holsteiner, Oldenburg, Westphalian, and Trakehner. Bordeaux descends from the Olympic line created by the late German breeder Herbert deBaey. deBaey produced three Olympic medal winners—Ahlerich, Amon and Rembrandt. Arts said deBaey was far ahead of his time.

Ahlerich, ridden by Dr. Reiner Klimke, took individual gold at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Amon, full brother to Ahlerich and ridden by Annemarie Sanders-Keyzer, came in 4th with his team and 8th in individual dressage performance.  Rembrandt won four gold medals with Nicole Uphoff in the 1988 Seoul Olympics and 1992 Barcelona Olympics. Bordeaux’s son Bohemian competed in the 2021 Tokyo Olympics with Cathrine Dufour, riding for Denmark.

So! Who’s Their Mommy?

“When selecting the dam, it’s important to keep updated on her foals. We like to see their achievements and proven records. This way, when we choose the dam, we have excellent criteria,” says Arts.

Koning’s dam Darcy CL, a KWPN-NA keur mare, was the highest scoring mare in the Pavo Cup as a four-year-old. She comes from a mare line with great success in dressage. She was the reserve champion five-year-old at the USEF Young Horse Championships. Arts imported Darcy CL from Europe, and she is now a favored mama, delivering outstanding foals. 

L Primo’s dam is Satina. She is also a favored dam, passing on her natural ability, pleasant temperament, and stunning looks to her offspring. Because of an accident as a young horse, Satina never competed, but instead became a brood mare. Her offspring include four KWPN-NA keur mares, two Grand Prix competitors, and a licensed KWPN-NA stallion. Satina’s dam, Alona, was still competing at 23.  

Get to Know Koning and L Primo

Both Koning and L Primo have clean legs, good confirmation and a strong desire to work. Their gene pool is clearly visible, earning them high scores in the KWPN-NA North American Stallion Sport Test. Koning scored 80 points for confirmation, 85 points for free movement, and 85.5 points for the performance test. L Primo scored 90 points for confirmation, 85 points for free movement, and 83.5 for the performance test. 

Developing the muscular body of a dressage horse takes consistent work. Arts schedules the stallions in a 45-minute daily session where they learn the correct walk, trot, and canter while being balanced and collected. The daily interaction of the horse and teacher gives the horse leadership and allows the horse to learn his job. And he does it willingly. 

Christine Traurig appreciates the understanding and respect that Arts gives to the stallions—for the inexperienced, that can be a daunting task.

“I’ve watched how Arts handles them. They are big, powerful stallions that can be intimidating for some, but not for him,” says Traurig. “He has had his hands on them since birth. He lovingly sets strict boundaries, like a parent. This mutual respect is what allows Arts to bring the stallions to their potential. Their response is clear when you watch them working.” 

Arts also notes, however, that it is rare for a horse to achieve full potential. 

“Lots of reasons for this. The horse might get injured, or the rider might not be interested in high level competition,” he says. “It’s a matter of choice for the owner.”

Personality also is a deciding factor for a rider dreaming of winning big. Horse and rider need to like each other and enjoy the process of learning the levels of dressage. The horse needs that special spark that ignites the chemistry with the rider. The savvy rider will learn how to use that spark when communicating with the horse. It’s considered the magic ingredient by many top riders who feel they merely have to think about a move and their horse responds.  

Arts says both his stallions have the work ethic and the ease of temperament to achieve Grand Prix level. They are half-brothers with distinctive personalities. Ashlyn DeGroot is riding both stallions, looking to go to Grand Prix level.

“L Primo, a copper chestnut at 16.3 hands, is very sweet and friendly. He’s really a nice guy who likes to work. A little mischievous and very smart! We like to think that he has a sense of humor. He wants to do it all,” says Arts. “An experienced rider brings out the best in him. He challenges his rider and then accepts the rider’s challenge.” 

“Koning, a dark bay at 17.1 hands, is both sensible and sensitive,” Arts says. “He’s a real people-pleaser and wants to learn to do his movements the right way. If he is doing something wrong, he just needs to hear a strong voice telling him no. He’s intelligent and learns quickly. He likes praise and knowing he is doing a good job.” 

This observation of the sensitivity of the horse and the compassion Arts shows them is something that Sabine Schut-Kery appreciates in Arts’s training style. 

“This invaluable information about a horse is not something you can find on a Google search. Because Arts lives and breathes with the horse, and has been literally hands on from the day they were born, he is able to tell a rider exactly what the horse needs to be a winner,” says Schut-Kery. “He knows his horses inside and out.”  

*This story was originally published in the September 2022 issue of The Plaid Horse. Click here to read it now and subscribe for issues delivered straight to your door!

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