Monday, December 9, 2013

Thoroughbreds and the Hunter Ring

"Just as no good horse is a bad color, no good jumper is a bad breed. I have known good jumpers that were Quarter Horses, Palominos, Standardbreds, Appaloosas, Morgans, Arabians, and American Saddlebreds, as well, of course, as all the traditional breeds, and every imaginable kind of mixture. Deep down inside, I think the Thoroughbred is the best equine athlete that has yet evolved. My advice is to judge each horse on its individual merits and welcome an outstanding jumper no matter what sort of pedigree it happens to have."
-William Steinkraus, from Reflections on Riding and Jumping

Bernie Traurig riding Gimlet, courtesy The Wheeler Museum

There is an interesting, if not somewhat complicated and confusing, discussion on the COTH forums about whether the recent emphasis on the Thoroughbred in the hunter/jumper rings was helping or hurting the breed.  The original post opens with the current "Thoroughbred revival" (I'm assuming the marketing of ex-racehorses and cropping up of Thoroughbred symposiums, clinics, and other media features) and whether or not this campaign draws negative attention to the Thoroughbred breed.  Does the extra attention and highlighting put the breed in the spotlight for a positive reason, or does that extra attention make the breed seem even more inadequate for the modern hunter ring?

The discussion evolved into several Thoroughbred related topics:
1.  Why aren't Thoroughbreds as popular as the Warmbloods these days?  Wouldn't just having competitive horses be better than all the extra spotlighting?  And if TBs are as competitive, why all the highlighting and marketing?
2.  What is the purpose of the new Thoroughbred-only breed shows?
3.  Should we be purpose breeding Thoroughbreds to be more competitive in the hunter and jumper ranks at the upper levels?
4.  Bitch bitch bitch bitch bitch. Personal insults, things taken entirely out of context, and bitching.

So I thought I'd take on some of these themes on the comfort of my own blog, where no one but me reads it and I can say whatever I want without 357 other people saying the exact same thing in 458 different ways.

1.  Why aren't Thoroughbreds as popular in the hunter ring as the Warmbloods these days?  Wouldn't just having competitive horses be better than all the extra spotlighting?  And if Thoroughbreds are as competitive, why all the highlighting and marketing?
Basically put, they're not.  Not anymore, at least.  To start, watch this lovely clip where George Morris describes the roots of the American Forward Seat, and describes the role that the American Thoroughbred played in its development (I'd post it as a video, but Blogger is being a little shit about it).  Seriously...the video is GM talking old school riding on Bernie Traurig's YouTube channel.  If you're still reading my rambling and not watching this video, you're wrong!  Anyway, now that you've seen the video, you hopefully have an appreciation for how closely linked the American style of forward (hunter) seat riding is to the American Thoroughbred.  As this lovely Oughton Limited blog on Thoroughbred Hunters notes, “most all of the significant international titles garnered by the United States Equestrian Team from the 1930s right up until the late 1980s were earned on Thoroughbred horses" (Leslie Mangan, USHJA Executive Coordinator).
Thoroughbred hunter, 1972 (The Chronicle of the Horse)

The domestic horse shows up until the late 1980s revolved around the Thoroughbred as the hunter horse, the jumper, and the equitation mount.  Read this great article about a current amateur rider recalling how things were "back in the day," where he rode his Thoroughbred Junior Hunter in the Maclay Finals, which was the norm back then:  Throwback Thursday - When Junior Hunters did Double Duty.  Shows were held on big, wide open fields (hunt courses).  Fences were solid and often upright.  Lines were long and hand galloped (sometimes galloping), not carefully cantered in short, measured distances.  Blood and brilliance were rewarded.  Pace was key.  Hunters went more like a traditional field hunter would in the hunt field chasing hounds.  It was a different era. 

So if the American Hunter Seat developed and thrived domestically and abroad on the back of the American Thoroughbred, why are we instead seeing more European Warmbloods in the American Hunter ring today?  In the 1990's, imported horses started to become popular, and soon it was far more fashionable to be mounted on a big moving, big jumping Warmblood than on a (then) more traditional Thoroughbred.  Horse show organizers realized they could make more money by having additional rings, running more classes/divisions, and attracting more competitors at all different heights.  The wide open galloping fields nearly disappeared, replaced by smaller rings and six-to-eight stride cantering lines.  The modern show hunter became an equine metronome; perfectly consistent canter pace, perfect distances, zero disobedience became the gold standard.  The horse should be slow off the ground.  The show hunter became a highly stylized animal with few practical links to its foxhunting roots.

The modern hunter is not better or worse, it's just different.  A different ideal for an evolved set of judging standards and an evolving sport.

While I always loved the beauty and skill it required to put in an artful ride on a hunter these days, some people consider watching today's hunters like watching paint dry.  As the more brilliant Warmbloods dominated the new show scene, the Thoroughbred began to decline.  It wasn't one single factor that drove the Thoroughbred out of favor - it was a combination of a favorable new type of horse, along with the dramatic changes in the show hunter environment itself.  The Warmbloods tend to be more successful types in the modern show hunter ring.  The show jumping world went through a similar change, with big, wide open courses being replaced by shorter, more technical ones that better suited Warmblood types.  Hard to say which came first though - the horses changing for the course demands, or the course demands changing for the horses?  Probably a little of both.  There are Thoroughbreds competing in the top ranks of both the hunter and jumper disciplines, but they are rare these days compared to 25 years ago.

One poster on the COTH thread made an excellent point that from a business sense, it's easier and often cheaper to purchase an already made competitor from Europe.  Europeans keyed into our hunter needs long ago and can easily produce an animal that is at the very least reasonably competitive off the bat.  While purchase price and import costs are nothing to sneeze at, these horses come with a better guarantee of a sale (and commission), a better guarantee of a happy customer, and a better guarantee of success in the show ring with a shorter wait.  In short, they're a better bet from a money stand point.  Versus the Thoroughbred, which is harder to find with the qualities needed to be truly competitive in the open hunter divisions.  These horses often have to be made from scratch, which can take a lot of time and money (and patience!).  They come with a much bigger risk, and perhaps not as much reward.  It's a business perspective that while bleak for the Thoroughbred, makes sense.

To sum up, by the numbers, the Thoroughbred is not competitive in large numbers in today's modern show hunter world, and often is not super competitive in the upper level jumper ranks either.  Hence why we see a marketing push to get the Thoroughbred "out there."  We see magazine and internet articles about Thoroughbreds competing and winning against the top Warmbloods.  I don't see that as a bad thing.  They used to be king of the ring, but due to changes and evolution of the sport, as well as business factors and consumer preference, have fallen out of favor.  Many people yearn for "the good old days" where the galloping Thoroughbred ruled all three rings.

Now look at Eventing.   The Thoroughbred has long ruled the three-day Eventing world with its speed, agility, stamina, and versatility.  A few years ago the long format was taken out of the top ranks of competition (thus making them glorified horse trials), some believe to make the European Warmbloods more successful in a shorter, less demanding format.  The Thoroughbreds still are highly successful, including many horses taken off the racetrack and eventually finding themselves in the top ranked competitions in the world.  But we do see some of what happened in the hunter ring happening to the Eventers as well, which is one argument for the return of the long format.  The extra emphasis on stamina is what set the Thoroughbred apart.

Now just so you know where I'm coming from, I love Warmbloods, because they are fantastic.  In fact I went through a long stage in my teens/early 20's where all I wanted was a 17+ hand Hanoverian equitation horse.  In the last 12 years I've had some Hanoverians, Oldenburgs, Trakehners, Selle Francais, and Holsteiners (mostly those in the last couple of years), and spent four glorious years riding wonderful Irish Draught and Irish Sport Horses, almost exclusively.  I mostly showed locally and regionally, but had a few stints of USEF A rated shows and even some USEA recognized events just to broaden my horizons. Because it's fun to go around a recognized Training event for your first time out, giggling like an idiot because it's half super fun, half almost-pee-my-pants "WTF am I even doing out here!?" exhilaration.  Eventing kind of kicks every other sport's ass if you can get past the potential near death experience part.  Because you don't know if that white light is God saying "Hey it's the finish line, you're almost home Champ!," or the tunnel vision kicking in because you're not as fit as you think maybe you should have been.

2.  What is the purpose of the new Thoroughbred-only breed shows?
There was some misconception that the new Thoroughbred-only shows were to make the breed more popular at the upper levels of sport.  As was eventually clarified, no, that is not the point at all.  The Retired Racehorse Training Project comes to mind when I think of that effort, as well as all the Thoroughbred horse shows: to showcase the versatility of the breed to every segment of the horse industry.  The purpose isn't to market the Thoroughbred to a top hunter or jumper trainer looking for their next High Performance Hunter or Grand Prix horse (especially when most jumping classes top out at 3' or lower).  The purpose of these breed shows is to appeal to Susie Q, the decent amateur rider who never considered getting a Thoroughbred before.  Or to the teenage rider, whose family can't afford an expensive import.  To the hunter, jumper, event, western, or trail rider.  To anyone and everyone who's willing to come out and see how great the right Thoroughbred can be for them and their riding goals.

These Thoroughbred breed shows, Thoroughbred makeovers and symposiums, clinics, etc are there to get the word out to the entire horse industry that the Thoroughbred has something to offer to everyone.  That there is the right Thoroughbred out there for any type of rider.  The goal is to market the horse and not only give more horses more opportunities for careers/homes now, but to also eventually increase the market value of these animals, thus helping to secure them more in the future.

The Thoroughbred breed shows also serve another purpose.  Not everyone can afford an A-circuit (top tier, nationally rated competitions) budget.  These breed shows offer more accessible competitions at a lower price point.  Owners can still get their horses some valuable showing experience for less money, and enjoy doing so in the company of other Thoroughbred owners and riders.  As someone who can't spend tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars on showing, I personally look at these Thoroughbred shows with interest, in hopes I can attend some with Soonie.  They sound like fun, friendly, affordable alternatives!  Especially since most seem to offer a broad spectrum of classes, everything from typical hunter/jumper classes to dressage, combined tests, even western and trail competitions.  If these Thoroughbred shows could offers some bigger jumping classes (3-foot ), along with some more traditional hunter classes with hunt courses (space permitting) and galloping like the heyday of the Thoroughbred hunter, I think they would see even greater participation, and Thoroughbred enthusiasts would finally have a truly suitable place for their Thoroughbred hunters, who many not be highly competitive in today's modern show hunter ring.  Seems like a win-win to me!   I would love to try that with Soon one day.  I'd also love to do a hunter derby just for the hell of it, as those seem to be the closest thing to more traditional hunters that we offer today.

3.  Should we be purpose breeding Thoroughbreds to be more competitive in the hunter and jumper ranks at the upper levels?
Triple won the Junior Hunters and state
Medal classes in the snow!  Heart!
Probably, if we want to see them at the top of the sport.  Top European lines typically are bred for certain specialties (dressage, hunters, jumpers), much like in the racing lines of Thoroughbreds have turf specialists, distance or speed, etc.  The problem is the American Thoroughbred itself has changed in the last 20-30 years.  People often note the lack of substance in modern Thoroughbreds.  That the horses we rode so often to victory at home and abroad had more size and bone, more uphill build, and that today's horses seem much more slight.  They seem narrower, lighter boned, more delicate.  That I mostly agree with, as I've seen some pretty dainty Thoroughbreds, but also some Thoroughbreds with great bone and plenty of substance, that could easily be taken for a heavier Warmblood sort.  My 1987 mare, Triple, had very good bone for her 16hh height.  Soon, too, sports good bone for his size, though he is somewhat narrow through the chest.  Even so, he's just not a very big horse, and is incredibly well proportioned and solid.  Hence why he made it through 52 starts with clean legs.

My personal feelings tie everything together.  If we can continue to market and push for Thoroughbreds at all level of competition and all disciplines, and continue to find the odd Thoroughbred (off the track or performance bred) at the top of their discipline, it serves to help the breed.  Many Thoroughbred only shows and symposiums are supported/sponsored by racing industry professionals as a way of promoting their ex-racehorses, and helping them find new careers post racing.  The more the Thoroughbreds get out there and show their potential after racing (or in other discipline in the case of the Thoroughbreds who never raced), the more valuable the breed can be.  Thoroughbred breeders, both racing and performance, need to recognize this.  The general horse public needs to recognize this.  I hope that if race breeders in particular can see that their horses have use and purpose beyond the race track, that the focus will once again return to breeding substance and quality over quantity and speed.  If there can be a fundamental change in the Thoroughbred breeding as a whole, perhaps the breed has a chance at returning to some part of its former glory.  At the very least, we should focus on more substance and quality for the welfare of the horse and the sustainment of the breed itself, whether it becomes the most popular show horse again or not.

There is nothing better in this world than a good Thoroughbred.  I learned to ride and compete on Thoroughbreds.  I learned to love to ride on Thoroughbreds.  I look back on my time riding these more affordable horses, and as an adult realize how incredibly valuable they were not just to my riding career, but to my life.  I wouldn't be the same person without my Thoroughbred horses.  I thought I was lucky to have a horse of a lifetime with Triple, but it looks as if Soon is going to be a horse of a lifetime as well.  I wish every horseman could have that same experience, just once in their lives.  I'm truly blessed to have had it twice, and all thanks to the Thoroughbred.

"The blood runs hot in the Thoroughbred and the courage runs deep. In the best of them, pride is limitless. This is their heritage and they carry it like a banner. What they have, they use."
- C.W. Anderson

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