Monday, March 16, 2015

Prophet's Thumb Farm: On Draft Cross Sporthorses.

   European warmbloods have become the darlings of many American horse-folk in recent decades.  And for good reason.  Check out the various flavors of warmblood competing at top international events.  These are indeed impressive animals, worthy of a bit of envy.

   Problem is that there aren't that many of them, and they're way over yonder in the Old Countries.  So your chances of swinging by the local auction and picking one up are pretty slim.

   Yes, there are some European warmbloods in America.  But rather few of them resemble the horses we see on the international scene.  After all, the various European state breeding programs don't have a lot of incentive to sell their highest quality animals to Americans.  International horse-traders, like their domestic counterparts, want to get horses as cheaply as possible, then sell them at as great a mark-up as they can.  With so many Americans crazy for anything that can be called a Hanoverian, Trakehner, etc., they know that the European programs' lowliest culls will bring big money back in the colonies. 

   But not all Americans are willing to spend a fortune on what looks like an over-sized track washout thoroughbred just because it (or maybe one of its parents or grandparents) has a tenuous claim on being the product of a European breeding program.  It has occurred to many of them that, in America, we have a wide array of quality hotblooded horses and draft coldbloods.  Surely we could cross them and get our own American warmbloods!

   Well, if you want to see a European warmblood owner have a conniption fit, let them hear you call an American draft-cross a "warmblood".

   You can't really blame them.  Draft-cross horses have become more common in recent years thanks to the horse market absorbing so much PMU "rescue" stock.  (Feel free to tell me the story of how a PMU refugee you know went on to become a great horse for someone.  I believe you!  But that's an exception, not the rule.  When an animal's greatest value was the ability to produce urine, you can't expect a whole lot.)  These PMU and other low-grade draft horses weren't likely to get bred to any sort of quality light horse stock.  So now we've got plenty of draft plugs crossed with Joe-Bob's  "rackin' hoss" floating around on the horse market.  And, naturally, some folks try to get a few dollars more for them by calling them "warmbloods"...  Which is about like painting an '85 Chevette red and calling it a "muscle car".

Really not the best place to find great Eventers.

   But we do have quality, refined draft horses in America.  And awesome performance-type light horses.  Crossing the two can indeed produce sport horses that are closer to the international competition level warmbloods than many of the European breed horses available on the American market.

   European warmblood enthusiasts in America will quickly assert that the Hanoverian (or whichever flavor they prefer) wasn't made by crossing a hotbloods with drafts.  It was the result of many generations of breeding to achieve and refine a desired type.

   Of course, the modern American sport horse breeder isn't likely to start out by crossing Arabians fresh from the desert with ice-cold Brabants.  American horse stock is already the result of many generations of crossing and refining for type.  You could pretty much consider our performance light horse breeds (Quarter Horses, old school Morgans, Thoroughbreds, etc.) to be "hottish warmbloods", while our better, show-grade draft horses are essentially "cooler warmbloods"...  Selective crossing of the two is refinement, not starting from scratch.

   American breeders just need to remember that sport horse breeding is aiming for a specific target, not just mixing in a bit of draft blood... 

   To do it right, we need to give careful consideration to the breeding stock we cross.

   Drafts are used primarily to to add stature.  So there's no point in breeding to little draft horses!  You'll just be adding coarseness and subtracting grace from your foals.  Fortunately, the taller, high-quality (fancy carriage type) draft horses tend to be more energetic and elegant movers than the shorter, plow-type draft horses.  This will help prevent the foals from being overly thick, dull, and plodding.

   The light horses are used to add athleticism, endurance, and grace.  So a performance type horse is called-for.  Not show-hog halter horses, trick-gaited stock, any of the "Saddlebred-ized" bastardizations of historically fine breeds. (Yeah, I'm looking at you Arabians, Morgans!)

   Colors and patterns are a big thing in many American markets lately.  But you'll note that the European warmbloods tend to be solids.  I rather admire that they rely on quality of horseflesh and performance to distinguish their horses rather than fancy paint jobs.  (A Mercedes-Benz doesn't need flame decals.)  Still, its a matter of preference. I wouldn't say that spots and chrome disqualify a specimen from being considered a fine sport horse.

   Direction of the cross...

   Since any breeding program needs more mares than studs, and good light horses are far more plentiful than quality draft horses these days, the inclination may be to breed draft stallions to performance broodmares.  But doing it the other way around gives the foals the considerable advantage of gestating in the draft mare's industrial grade womb.  Normally (and fortunately!) a mare won't grow a foal too large for her to give birth to, regardless of the baby's genetic potential.  This means that a crossbred foal from a light mare is likely to be considerably smaller than one from a draft mare at birth, which runs contrary to the whole point of draft cross breeding.

The future...

   One of the most common posts on draft cross sport horse themed Internet forums is someone lamenting that thoroughbred and warmblood riders don't show them respect...  And everyone is too polite to point out the irony when the next most common posts are about draft cross owners doing DNA testing to try and get a vague inkling of their horse's heritage, or someone lumbering through a pony jump course on a plow horse.

Just because an animal can do something doesn't mean it will be competitive at it!

   It will always be hard to get the horse world to take draft cross sport horses seriously while "pedigreed crosses carefully selected to achieve the warmblood sport horse type" are lumped-together with "random grade horses who look like they might have some draft in them".

   Which isn't to say part-draft grades can't be good mounts at their own levels.  But it's just not the same thing as a purpose-bred draft cross sport horse.


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