The Right Stuff

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Those who make a living with horses know one thing all too well: Solid breeding can mean the difference between a good horse and one that is mediocre—or worse.

Given that the stallion contributes 50 percent of his genes to the resulting foal, the decision of which stud to use should not be taken lightly.

Stallion Prepotency

When choosing a stallion, the stallion’s abilities as a sire should be crucial to the decision. While some people are tempted to breed to a stallion based on his apparent potential to sire good foals, the wiser move is to go with a horse who has already proven his mettle.

“If you know a stallion has produced a lot of successful horses, that is the truest test of his abilities as a sire,” says Denny Emerson, an owner of Tamarack Hill Farms, a hunter and event horse facility in Strafford, Vermont. “That means the best litmus test comes from a large number of offspring. The more foals on the ground, the more you can see the sire’s abilities.”

Emerson notes that it can often be difficult to determine a stallion’s abilities as a sire in disciplines where stallions are not typically used at stud until they are no longer being ridden. At this point, the stallion is older, plus it takes time for his offspring to prove themselves. “There is a saying about sport horse stallions,” he says. “They get popular about 30 minutes before they die. That’s because it takes so long to find out if they are good sires.”

While considering a stallion’s offspring is an important way to make a decision on a sire, considering how he will blend with the mare in question is also vitally important.

“We use the stallion breeding indexes from Germany to find out in what areas the stallion improves or detracts from his offspring,” says Ingrid Matthiessen, president of Matchmaker Equine Services, a sport horse brokering and semen importation service in St. Chrysostom, Quebec, Canada. “For example, if a client has a mare that needs improvement in the back end, we might recommend Ravallo who is known for improving the power and angulation in that area. But if the client wanted to get a pretty, refined head, then we would pick Lordanos, since the Ravallo horses have a more ‘warmblood head’ and are not great at improving and refining the head.”

Laurieann Moran, owner of Shireland Stables, a sporthorse breeding facility in Graham, Washington, places emphasis on quality of both the stallion and the mare, and looks for horses that will better each other. “I try to breed the best to the best, or match up the mare and stallion by how they can best complement each other,” she says. “Where one is lacking, the other may have what it takes to hopefully make up for it.”

The best way to determine the traits and record of a stallion being considered for breeding is to use the tools available within the horse’s discipline. Susan Locke, owner of Blueberry Hill in Dawsonville, Georgia, a facility for the English disciplines, uses a variety of sources to get a sense of a stallion’s abilities as a sire. “I use registries, warmblood publications, videos and opinions from other breeders,” she says. “I then match the traits of the stallion to the mare to improve on her.”

Physical Qualities

When evaluating a stallion as a future prospect for a mare, the stallion’s individual qualities should be an important factor.

Betty Lynn, ranch manager for Lynn’s Quarter Horses in Corvallis, Montana, breeds for reining and cow work, and strongly considers a stallion’s physical characteristics. “We want a pretty head, a big soft eye, short ears, a ‘V’ in the chest, well-muscled forearms and gaskins, a well-muscled hip, with a low tail set,” she says. “He has to have straight legs, good solid bone and big enough feet to carry his weight. The head needs to be wide and short, and he has to be able to pass all of his good qualities on to his foals. Some stallions are good looking but their foals don't inherit this. His gaits have to be smooth, also. If his conformation is such that he has a bone jarring jog or lope, why use him for a stallion and produce more like him?”

Moran has specific conformation she looks for in a stallion, keeping the creation of a good sporthorse in mind. “The stallion should have a short-coupled body, a medium-to-long neck right up out of the wither, and a nice slung-back shoulder,” she says. “He should have a long hip with a nicely set croup and medium to long legs in comparison to the short coupled body. Long forearms with short cannons front and back are important, as are nice strong hocks set directly in line under the point of the hind quarters. The head should be typey to handsome.”

Vital: Disposition

Probably the most important quality in a stallion is disposition. Without the right attitude, good conformation and soundness can often be meaningless in a sire.

“Disposition is of major importance; breeders should not be passing on a temperament that is difficult,” says Moran. “A good temperament will make a superior athlete despite physical shortcomings because the horse will work harder. A bad-tempered animal can have all the talent in the world and you may never see it fulfilled if he resents his work.”

According to Lynn, “Disposition is everything. A beautiful, athletic horse that is as mean as sin won’t do you any good if you can’t train him. If you are raising horses with the general public in mind, you need to raise a gentle, dependable horse that’s trainable, and useable even if he only gets ridden once in awhile. If the horse gets the winter off, he ­shouldn’t dump you in the spring. If he was well broke in the first place, he should stay trained.”

Plenty of anecdotal evidence exists to prove that disposition is indeed inherited in horses, and breeders are certain of it.

“Disposition is most certainty inheritable,” says Matthiessen. “In our case, we always try to match the stallion to the client’s mare, and if a mare is not 100 percent sound mentally, then we recommend Raphael, Ravallo or Lordanos. The ‘R line’ is known for producing kind, brave horses that are forward, but not hot, and is a great cross with Thoroughbred mares. Landor S, on the other hand, while having a nice, brave temperament, throws horses that are a bit more ‘up,’ so that is not for everyone. Having said all that, we do not recommend breeding a mare that is really neurotic in the hopes of cooling her out by breeding. There are enough horses in the world, and not all of them need to reproduce.”

Lynn is also certain that disposition is inherited, and has seen examples of how a stallion’s temperament can override that of the mare. “We have had mares that were standoffish and not very friendly, and yet their foals by our friendly, gentle, people-loving stallion, walk away from mom and come to see us of their own volition. That’s when we know the stallion’s disposition came through. The way I see it, they inherit the way his brain operates. Colts from our favorite stallion, Snipper Music, will surprise us, and actually do things exactly the way he did, even though they had never even seen him do these things. For example, he always loaded in a trailer by lifting his front end off the ground and putting both front legs in the trailer at the same time. His foals inherited this behavior. We have never seen any other horse do this.”

Lynn points out that negative temperament can also be inherited from the stallion. “We know of a stallion that had a nasty disposition and had to be muzzled or he would bite. One of his foals was at our farm and he was dangerous—he would charge and bite or kick. He was a gelding and had always been treated with kindness and was well broke. He inherited the bad attitude from his sire.”

According to Emerson, “Disposition is right there with soundness in terms of importance,” he says. “Who likes to ride a hot horse? The great majority of buyers are not professionals. They don’t want a horse that is difficult. If you are looking for a big-time show jumper and you are a hot-shot rider, you can get away with having a horse with a not-so-good temperament if he has the talent. But that kind of rider is a small percentage of your market.”

On the other hand, Locke believes the bulk of the foal’s disposition rests on the mare because of her early influences on the foal.

“I think disposition comes mostly from the dam,” she says. “I have had many foals from the same dam and they usually have similar temperaments with occasional exceptions. If the dam is high strung, then she gives off that attitude to the foal—it may be some inherited and some learned. Stallion owners like to say the disposition of the stallion is passed along, but I don’t pay as much attention to that as I do the mare. The foal spends the most time with its mom and she is hugely influential. The bottom line, though, is if you don’t like the mare, don’t breed her!”