Breeding out the usefulness?

23 05 2006

In the wake of Barbaro’s injury in Saturday’s Preakness, this article asks whether modern breeding and training practices have so weakened Thoroughbreds that we may not see another Triple Crown winner anytime soon. If so, this is only the most high-profile example of something which has been going on for a long time, and not just in TBs. Horse races in the 18th and 19th centuries were much longer, i.e. heats of 3 to five miles. A 3 y.o. horse is actually quite young, comparable to a person in their early teens; a horse isn’t fully mature until it’s about six–older if it’s a particularly large one. The growth plates harden into bone from the ground up, as it were; the ones in the spine and pelvis mature last. It isn’t just TBs either; quarter horses are ridden in futurities (horse shows, not racing) as young as two, which means they’re started under saddle as long yearlings. They break down early too. Why? $$$$$  The big TB stakes races are for 3 y.o.s; if they do well, they can be retired to the breeding shed early and also their sires (rarely their dams) see their value go up as producers. They’re raced and shown young to maximize the investment as fast as possible. You’re looking at 11 months gestation, then a year or two of training; there’s a lot of money at stake and you want to see results early. The punters aren’t going to sit still through heats of three and four miles either; where those races are still run, they are the province of stronger, mature animals. It isn’t cruel to run a fit horse that distance either (note the adjective); endurance horses can cover 100+ miles in 24 hours and still be hard to slow down at the end of it. They sure aren’t thoroughbreds though.

Taking a broader view, it’s not uncommon for the function to be bred out of the horse for the sake of form. Take the QH halter industry, where the fashion is for huge, muscly horses with tiny feet, which are prone to navicular disease, laminitis, and other forms of unsoundness; the babies are fed a lot of grain early to bulk up, almost like prize steers. More insidiously, you can get this overmuscled look quite easily–with HYPP, aka Hyperkalemic periodic paralysis:

Hyperkalemic periodic paralysis (HYPP), also known as Impressive Syndrome, is an inherited autosomal dominant disorder which affects sodium channels in muscle cells and the ability to regulate potassium levels in the blood of horses. This inherited disease is characterized by uncontrollable muscle twitching and substantial muscle weakness or paralysis among affected horses. HYPP is a dominant disorder; therefore heterozygotes bred to genotypically normal horses will still likely produce clinically affected offspring 50% of the time.

The disease is most common in the bloodline of the famous Appendix American Quarter Horse stallion Impressive, who has over 55,000 living descendants as of 2003. Although the disease is primarily limited to the American Quarter Horse breed and closely related breeds such as American Paint Horses and Appaloosas at this time, cross-breeding has begun to extend it to grade horses and ponies. The spread of the disease is perpetuated by the favorable judgings given to diseased horses in showing, due in part to involuntary muscle twitching which helps to build large, bulky muscles that judges favor.
Impressive (god that's an ugly horse)

Why are HYPP carriers still being rewarded in the show ring, then, encouraging their owners to breed them on and perpetuate the syndrome? There are many QH owners, breeders and trainers who would like to see N/H horses (carrying one HYPP gene nd thus can pass it on to 50% of offspring) made ineligible for registration; currently horses which are H/H (homozygous for HYPP) will be ineligible for registration as of January 2007. While this will help, it still won’t eliminate the disease from the gene pool completely, and if these horses have an edge in the show ring, is there really any incentive to breed it out?! What people won’t do for a damned ribbon.

(QHs, especially those in certain cutting lines, can also inherit a skin malady called HERDA, but compared to HYPP it is quite rare)

Ideal Morgan mare and stallion, as per the AMHA

Other breeds have had their problems; the Foundation Morgan Horse movement was founded in an effort to save rare, pure bloodlines without the popular “show lines”, which have been found to contain legal and illegal crosses to Saddlebreds and Hackneys in an effort to produce high-stepping gaits and “hooky” Loch Ness monster necks for the show ring. Over 2/3 of Morgans now trace back to Upwey Ben Don and Upwey King Peavine. These Saddlebred crosses were legal at the time under the registry rules, but many, many breeders concentrate that blood until the original type is all but lost. The Chantilly Lace fiasco arose when it was discovered that false papers were used to cover up the use of Saddlebred mares. FCF Rhythm Nation was actually crowned Grand Champion Morgan Stallion (one of the judges was his breeder!) and it was later discovered that he was out of a Saddlebred mare! Now, I have nothing against Saddlebreds, or saddleseat, but saddleseat is, for most riders, very “fringey”; the average horse owner shows in Western classes, or hunter/jumper, dressage, competitive trail, etc.; a “saddley” horse isn’t going to appeal to a broad range of buyers, nor will it attract many new people to the breed. High action, flat croups and Nessie necks are not part of the Morgan standard, and the breed did not need this sort of “improvement”. Sadly, this has really split the Morgan breed into “show people” and “traditionalists”, with the former sticking with their version of glamour and the latter scrambling to preserve the old lines while they can.

A German shepherd with floppy ears, short face and a curly coat may be a fine pet but it isn’t much of a German shepherd any more; a horse which is deliberately bred to be unsound or a betrayal of its genetic heritage may be profitable in the short run, but it isn’t doing the animal any favours, and the damage done to the gene pool in the long run can be irrevocable. Let us hope that Barbaro recovers and can go on to a fine career in the breeding shed; let us also hope that he was injured as the result of an unfortunate accident and not a congenitally weak leg, lest the gene pool again be the loser in the long run.

NB: definitely see Dr. Deb Bennett’s excellent article on conformation, growth, and the history of horse racing.

Update: check out this article from The Sporting News, Barbaro’s Injury Forces Racing To Examine Itself as well as my followup post on this topic.




24 responses

2 06 2006
Horse Blog

Breeding Out The Usefulness?…

From a good post on breeding horses and the American Saddleback…….

16 08 2006
Bridlepath » Blog Archive » Breeding back to the future–while you still can

[…] In an earlier post, Breeding out the usefulness?, I mentioned the formation of the Foundation Morgan Horse Society as an attempt to save the breed from legal and illegal infusions of Saddlebred and Hackney blood. Here’s the kicker: the same man who was involved in the Rhythm Nation fiasco has now moved on to…Hackneys and Shetlands. (So much for that USEF ban, eh?) […]

10 09 2006
Top 15 posts « Bridlepath

[…] Breeding out the usefulness? […]

26 09 2006

I am wondering if there are any circumstances arising like this in the 3-day world or Dressage? It seems to me that 3-day is more so on performance and not so much on breeding a “perfect” horse and thus introducing some negative traits along with some positive. I would love to be informed if you hear any controversies like this or similar in 3-day. Very interesting stuff. And I LOVE your blog!! It’s all so interesting and from such a level perspective. Consider being a news reporter!? Thanks for helping promote my site as well 🙂

28 09 2006

Wow, thanks for the kind words! Glad to see someone appreciates what I’m doing. 🙂
As for 3DE or dressage, I haven’t really heard of any such malarkey going on. It seems to be something which happens within breeds, rather than in disciplines across breeds, if that makes any sense. The exception *might* be the western pleasure scene, where there have been reports of abusive practices, as opposed to, say, just with QHs or just with Appys. (Does that make any sense? I’m not saying all WP people do that, obviously!) I really hate to see any breed of animal overbred to the point of uselessness, and I’ve never been all that fond of cats or dogs with flat faces or deformed-looking heads. Now, having said that, we do have a Himmy/Siamese cross cat at home, but at least his head is round rather than lemon-shaped.
I do wonder about the mania for having HUGE dressage horses. I don’t see any structural or performance-based advantage to it. I can see having a taller horse (all things being equal) in jumpers, or a smaller one in cutting (more maneuverable). I’m not short (5’8″) but even I would balk at the thought of climbing up on some ginormous 17-18h horse. When I see some five-foot-tall woman perched up there it makes me think of a bird on an elephant’s back. It seems to me that they’d be less graceful and nimble, if anything; I’d love to see the smaller, more baroque breeds start to take centre stage at big dressage shows, and frankly a nice Morgan or Andalusian would be much nicer to watch. 😉
Sometimes there’s this weird machismo around size. I remember being at a show and talking to someone my friend knew from a nearby riding school; she introduced the horse she was riding by saying snottily “This is Smoke; he’s from [name] Farm and he’s 17 hands.” Wow, good for you Buffy. *eyeroll* Also, despite my height, I’m actually more comfortable on a smaller horse, say 14.3 or 15h, which is another reason why I’m so interested in Morgans; you get a lot of horse for your money. 😉 I’ve ridden bigger horses, of course, but they made me sort of uneasy, even if they were the most mellow old schoolies. Also, I’m not a terribly bold or brave rider, so that doesn’t help…

6 02 2007

I don’t think there is much of this going on in eventing/3DE. The Thoroughbred and 7/8 TB has historically been the breed of choice, although there has been much discussion recently about whether Warmboods will do better with the recent trend towards a less lengthy format at the international level. So far, the TB and 7/8 TB are still holding their own. The French are doing very well with their breeding program too, which is based on the Selle-Francais breed.

However, it seems to me that Eventers have historically not been as concerned with a breed type -“correct” conformation and “heart” are more important. Having said that, I am about to start a series of posts about “unconventional” eventers, the first of which will be about a sassy little 14h mare (of apparently QH origin) who is competing one star!

I did some analysis on eventer breeding – if anyone is interested, you can read more here…..–mysterious-results-of-analysis-of-fei-wbfsh-eventing-breed-leaderboardwhat-is-going-on-here.aspx

There is a spreadsheet of analysis of the FEI top eventing horses by breed that you can download at the end of the post, if you are as geeky as me 🙂


6 02 2007
6 02 2007

Hmm – I’m sorry, I have no idea why, but the link works when I paste it into my message, but doesn’t when I click on it. I’m sorry to waste your blog bandwidth!

One other way to reach it would be to go to and search for a post titled: Hmmm – Eventing Blog’s Analysis .

Sorry again!

6 02 2007

How’s this? 🙂

Great article, btw!

6 02 2007
Kristina Meyer Web Design » Blog Archive » Barbaro, 2003-2007 (rest in peace, champ)

[…] Breeding Out the Usefulness? from Bridlepath. […]

7 02 2007

Facinating article. While I am not familiar with a similar problem in my own breed, I am familiar with the problem of deafness in dalmatians. It has been only through good breeders, improvements in technology and the position of the Dalmatian Club of America that has started to turn around this long standing problem. Only through practice, education and regulation did they start to see an improvment in the standard of the breed. Perhaps other breeds of dogs and horses can learn from this.

As for 2 year olds being shown and ridden. TRAGEDY. It should be illegal. In Paso Finos they cannot be shown under saddle until they are 30 months old (and that is by birthdate not Jan 1 rule). Period. And I even think that is too young.

7 02 2007

With the Arabians, they can’t be shown until they’re 3 and the futurities are all for 3 year old. But the horse can be in the junior horse divison through age 5. Arabians mature later than other breeds and even 5 is pushing it with some of them. I have horsess that I haven’t until started riding until six because they still looked like gawky teenagers. I think all breeds are guilty of this starting them too young.

The endurance riders may ride their horses 100 miles in a day but they don’t start them young. Typically when I see an endurance rider looking for a horse they want it to be 5 or 6 and started under saddle. They condition them for years to build up the bone required to safely ride those distances. Also, they have required vet checks within the ride. The horse must be fit and meet required recovery standards or it is pulled from the race.

1 03 2007

Horse Lovers Blog Carnival II

At The Very Heart Of Where The Action Is, originally uploaded by drp.
Welcome to the February 7, 2007 edition of horse lovers blog carnival.

Damian McNicholl presents Barbaro posted at Damian McNicholl’s Blog, saying, “Hello,
I th…

11 04 2007

I had a QH of Skip a Lad and Impressive and that sumbitch was the craziest thing I ever rode. He would ride nic 20 times then the 21, buck like the devil was ridin him. He chased and killed rabbits, ate em too. Was nasty as all hell. Made a damn good cow horse eventually but his attitude was just like his mama’s: Impressive. Or should I say Un? I rode his cousin, a Skip horse, and damned if his attitide wasn’t just the same. Both were HYPP positive and it gave me no ends of trouble. Damn boy tore his own leg off in his stall door a month ago. Miss him but things are a little less stressful.

11 04 2007

Don’t ever buy into the “popular lines” b.s. I happened to inherit that Impressive jerk, but it was not worth it. Not only is the usefullness bred out, so is the health and temperment. I just lucked out. The little fella bein stunted (spoiled for halter n western pleasure), it was good that he liked to chase things, else he wouldn’t have been good for anything.

16 08 2007
Oh man, I am in LOVE « Bridlepath

[…] Breeding out the usefulness? […]

3 05 2008
Eight Belles « Bridlepath

[…] Breeding out the usefulness? […]

18 07 2008
average gestation period of horses

average gestation period of horses…

Sorry, don’t agree 100% with you on this!…

16 09 2008

The Blood Horse recently did a research study and round table discussion on thoroughbreds. It was entitled Losing the Iron Horse . It was an interesting report based on a lot of compiled information. The industry is aware of the problem and they are aware of the repercussions to itself. What they really do about it remains to be seen.

26 11 2008

I agree that diseases and genetic defects should be more heavily penalized. I think the reason why like in the quarter horses case that such a severe genetic illness would go unchecked because selling horses are so hard in its small market of buyers. So if you make the horse flasheir or just in general overbreed a breeds characteristics maybe someone will buy. In general this should be followed that an animal of a breed must have healthy characteristics. Bull dogs I hear have a considerably hard time in birthing as they have large heads and small hips. I understand why they would have large heads so that they have more powerful jaws but small hips?

26 01 2009
Jodi Chapman

I think the QH industry is addressing the HYPP issue – the registry will be closed to N/H horses as well. However, I cannot sit here and allow the “Impressive” bashing on your blog to go unanswered. I own two Impressive horses – wonderful temperaments, great confirmation, absolutely the envy of everyone I ride with. HYPP negative. There are alot of Impressive horses that have wonderful muscling and conformation without HYPP. Also, Impressive was originally registered in the Appendix Registry of AQHA, but because his confirmation was deemed to be “desirable stock type”, he was granted full registry, although he was 75% Thoroughbred. Herda, was relatively unknown, and wasn’t discovered until recently to be an inherited trait, like HYPP. However, HERDA genes are widespread throughout the industry – tracing thru Poco Bueno to King P-234. HERDA is recessive, so you must breed two carriers to have a HERDA baby. My buckskin QH is the granddaughter of a known HERDA carrier. So before I breed, I will have her tested for the gene. As far as Breed Registries go – the AQHA has done a wonderful job and spent millions of dollars to find the origins of known illnesses in the American Quarter Horse.
I also have English Bulldogs – the English bulldog does not have abnormally small hips – however the puppies do have monstrously big heads, and it is difficult, not impossible for English Bulldogs to bear their young naturally. The English Bulldog is a breed that was saved from extinction, and is on the upswing in popularity. There are already unscrupulous people breeding inferior stock to cash in on the Bulldog craze. I feel we must be vigilant in everything we do to ensure that all animals are cared for – and that includes not perpetuating the proliferation of inferior breeding animals.

3 03 2009
Pet Doctor’s Blog » Blog Archive » Eight Belles

[…] Breeding out the usefulness? […]

22 03 2009
Defrost Indoors

Jodi, I’m not bashing Impressive; I’m bashing the AQHA and the unscrupulous breeders who would *knowingly* breed non-HYPP-negative animals because they think it will bring them short-term gain. The AQHA deserves approbation for allowing it! You sound like a responsible breeder, and I’m glad your horses are healthy.

2 09 2009
equine laminitis

Great article! It’s definitely a concern to think about. It is sad that in breeding the only true intent is to win, whether it be a race, an event or a show. This is why its important for the organizations to step in and regulate for the safety of the horse. Without the regulating body taking control there will always be this kind of problem.

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