When horses hit the headlines, perhaps because they’ve won a prestigious race or competition, everyone praises their riders. That’s as it should be: Uthopia and Valegro couldn’t have won gold medals at the 2012 Olympics on their own and chances are that if they’d been ridden by others than Carl Hester and Charlotte Dujardin respectively, they might not have made it into the record books.
But without wanting to minimise their achievement, there are others without whom such inspiring performances would never have happened. These are the horses’ breeders, who have the patience to plan and wait so that others can achieve their dreams.
The breeders of Valegro are a Dutch farming couple who have two mares. They began with Valegro’s great-granddam and hoped that the colt would be a future stallion; however, the stallion graders didn’t agree with them and Carl, who saw his potential as a two-year-old, was able to buy him.
The ironic thing about breeding horses is that in most cases, people have to sell their best animals to fund the not so good ones. No matter how well you research bloodlines and plan which mare and stallion should produce the perfect offspring, there is always a certain amount of luck. The racing world is already asking what the combination of Frankel and Black Caviar would produce: in theory, you could get the fastest thing on four legs. In practice, you might not.
Some UK breeders have a better track record than others at breeding top performers. Lynne Crowden of Woodlander Stud is one; the jewel in her crown is Woodlander Farouche, the double World Young Horse champion. Brendon Stud, owned and run by the Light family, has a similar track record in the show jumping world.
But however good your breeding stock and however well your youngsters are brought up, you can’t strike gold every time. For every superstar, there are inevitably ones who twinkle rather than succeed in a blaze of glory – and the bottom line is that it costs as much to breed a nice average horse as it does a world beater.
Most breeders do it for love as much for money. As the old joke goes: if you want to make a small fortune from breeding horses, start with a bigger one.
Some breeders are prepared to be more commercial than others. One of the biggest international breeders, John Byrialsen, moved part of his operation from Denmark to Poland to cut costs. This has led to alleged neglect and it’s just been announced that police and welfare authorities have been called in to investigate.
It isn’t an unfamiliar story, though it’s unusual to hear of allegations on such a large scale. World Horse Welfare and other charities fight a constant battle against indiscriminate breeding and there have been many cases in the news of foals being dumped – particularly colt foals, as castration costs money.
So if you want to buy a young horse, support a breeder with good standards. Most have nice youngsters who won’t win Olympic medals but will give the right rider fun and success and most will price them realistically to the right buyers.
And if you’re tempted to breed from your mare, think and think again. You might think she’s lovely and plan to keep her foal forever, but life doesn’t always work out that way.