In praise of the small breeder

You may have heard that small breeding operations contribute to the problem of unwanted horses, but I say we’re an important part of the industry.


You don’t have to be a horseperson to enjoy watching a foal frolicking in a pasture. A sampling of the videos circulating on YouTube and Facebook attest to that. And it’s easy to understand why a horse owner might want to bring one into the world, especially from a beloved mare.
But the reality is that there are many unwanted, often neglected, horses in the world. The many sad faces that fill our rescues and pour through auctions headed toward uncertain fates tug at the heartstrings.
Over the years, I’ve read numerous articles that connect these two phenomena. Backyard breeding by inexperienced owners, they say, produces too many poor-quality horses with limited prospects and contributes to our problem of overpopulation. Most of these articles discourage amateur breeding entirely, suggesting that our next generation of horses should come only from large, professional breeders.
I tend to agree that an average owner breeding a grade mare for strictly sentimental reasons is not a good idea---unless, of course, that owner is prepared to take on the care of that foal for life. However, this type of breeding must not be confused with small breeding operations.
In fact, I would suggest that improving a breed, or producing horses that excel in specific disciplines, ought to be the goal for anyone planning to bring another foal into this world---no matter how large or small their broodmare band. And I believe the future of the performance horse---of any breed or discipline---lies with the small breeders.

FOCUS ON QUALITY

My family has operated Duff Quarter Horses, a small but selective horse-breeding operation in Smithville, Missouri, for four generations. By necessity, we take a personal, hands-on approach to every foal we breed, and we focus a tremendous amount of care and attention on the individual needs of each horse in our care. 

Like many in the horse world, we believe that a great breeding program comes from great mares. Currently, we have only two broodmares---Emma Luke and Im Invited---but they are both proven, top-performance, well-bred Quarter Horses.

But no horse is perfect, and our mares are no exception. So when I plan a breeding, I look at the strengths and weaknesses of each mare based on what I hope to produce. For Emma Luke, for example, I want well-rounded English class winners, whether hunter under saddle, hunt seat equitation or over fences. I know my mare could use straighter legs, a calmer disposition and maybe even a shorter back. I also know, through trial and error, that Emma throws smaller babies. So I try to compensate for that and her other weaknesses with my stallion choice, and I also pay attention to the quality of the stud’s dam.
I want a stallion with a good pedigree, sound conformation and strengths in the areas where Emma is weaker. I also look for a good performance record, but, more important, I want to know that the stallion throws winners. I have not yet bred back to the same stallion because I have not yet found the ideal cross---if that even exists.
Raising and showing a world champion has always been our dream. So, we breed selectively and hope. Because we have only two mares, we plan carefully not only to maximize the potential of the foals but also to keep our costs in check. With stud, shipping, collection and breeding fees and the required veterinary support, we are heavily invested both emotionally and financially. But this is just the beginning: If we raise the foal, train it and then show it---all with the expectation of a successful show career----we put in many more hours of work and dollars.
Much to my regret, however, we can’t keep all of our foals. As a breeder, we have to balance our obligations to our current horses with the temptation to find out what the next breeding will bring. The thought of selling our foals is difficult, but I know I have to let them go so other people can continue with their show careers. That way, I can give the same time and devotion to the next baby, and I enjoy the memories each special horse has given me. 

HORSES FOR A CHANGING WORLD

With the economic downturn of 2008, the horse market plummeted. Many small breeders were forced to go out of business, and large breeders, too, downsized their operations. This is reflected in the breed registries. The American Quarter Horse Association recorded 166,000 new registrations in 2006; in 2014, there were only 68,240. Other breeds have seen similar drops. The Jockey Club reported the registration of an estimated 20,300 Thoroughbreds in the United States in 2014-a 25-year low. The American Paint Horse Association registered 11,572 new horses worldwide in 2014, compared to 40,000 in 2006.
Breeding fewer foals, for sure, is one way to solve the problem of unwanted horses. And having fewer high-quality horses in the marketplace increases demand for the ones we are producing. But there’s a downside, too: Some bloodlines will not be represented in future generations of horses. And if these trends continue, we eventually will have the opposite problem---we won’t have enough quality horses available to meet riders’ needs.
As the large breeders continue to downsize, or get out of the business entirely, we will have less genetic diversity across all of our breeds, and it will become increasingly hard to keep improving subsequent generations of our horses.
At some point, I hope, the horse industry will find the best balance between flooding the market with too many horses versus not having enough quality ones that can perform the roles equestrians require. For now, taken as a whole, small breeders contribute to the number of bloodlines available in each breed. And, I believe, the small, responsible breeder with a specific job in mind for the horses he or she is raising is going to become more and more critical to keeping the industry alive. It’s not just up to the big breeders to continue bringing quality, sound and sane horses into the marketplace.

It’s rewarding to show a horse I’ve raised myself. I consider my mare Emma Luke to be my equine soulmate, but my love for her babies is something different. There’s an intensity about it, and a fervent hope that I can make each one into something great to continue Emma’s legacy. I don’t breed just because I love my mare. I breed her because she is a great Quarter Horse and has the potential to bring improved genetics into the competitive world. I want to see her best qualities come out in her babies and see her weaknesses overcome by the stallion match. It’s a touching moment to have success with babies I’ve watched grow up and thrive with qualities that I recognize from my mare and some all their own.
As our two special lifetime mares continue to age, time will tell whether it makes sense to continue breeding or just enjoy the showing. One thing I know for sure--my family’s deep love of horses will continue to live on in me, and hopefully in my children someday as well.

About the author: Rachel Robinson grew up on a small Quarter Horse breeding farm north of Kansas City, Missouri, and was in a saddle before she was walking. She started showing her Quarter Horses in 4-H and at open shows when she was 6 before moving to Quarter Horse breed shows at 8, and she continues to show today. Rachel served as a national director for two years before becoming president of the American Quarter Horse Youth Association, a 30,000-member organization. She still serves the youth on the American Quarter Horse Youth Activities committee and is vice president of the Missouri Quarter Horse Association. She holds a degree in agricultural journalism with a minor in equestrian studies from the University of Missouri.

This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #460, January 2016.