Selecting for the Best
By Carla Huston, BES
January usually brings an influx of articles and advertisements for the breeding season, trying to entice mare owners and future buyers to look at their stock. Evaluating this onslaught of information from handsome stallions to frolicking foals, can be intimidating, but it is essential to realistically judge the strengths and weaknesses of each individual. As horse owners, and particularly as breeders our responsibility is to maintain the quality of each breed by selecting for those traits that bring the horse closest to the breed "ideal."
Mare owners first and foremost need to objectively appraise their horse. This includes assessing her physical characteristics, temperament and any singular talents. First, her physical attributes must be as close to correct as possible for her breed and discipline. Start at the ears and move through to toes and tail. Note every aspect that does not meet the highest standards; they need to be weighed against the good traits, which faults are acceptable and which eliminate her from the breeding barn. This in no way diminishes the mare's quality as an individual, it simply means her breeding potential is not of the highest caliber. Next evaluate her disposition; in this area there is no room for anything but the finest. The mare should be exemplary in her temperament and attitude. The dam contributes a majority of the inherited traits for disposition and is also the source of most early learned behavior. Therefore, it is critical to the foal's development and future handling that he have the very best genes and teacher in a quiet, well-mannered, good-natured mother. Finally, explore the mare's talents and athletic potential. There are many differences between all breeds and within each breed in body type and ability. Knowing where a certain mare fits will help the breeder select a stallion that will complement her, or help to predispose the foal toward a chosen activity. If the mare is truly outstanding the stud should be carefully chosen so he emphasizes the qualities that contribute to her talent and not dilute them.
If the mare has met these criteria and the breeder has the knowledge and finances, the next step is to select a stallion. With a physical evaluation you can determine his good and bad qualities, just as was done with the mare. Hopefully, the positives heavily outweigh the negatives. Balance the mare's weaknesses with the stallions strengths. For example, if the mare has longer than ideal pasterns compensate with a stud whose attributes include short strong pasterns. Or if she has a superior, long and elegant neck, some may forgive a short thick one on the stud if he shows other characteristics that are important to the mare owner. Once the choices have narrowed through appraisal of the individual, gather information on his siblings and progeny. His siblings will indicate whether he is the norm for his bloodlines or an exception. They will also show if the family excels in a particular or range of activities. Viewing the offspring will help determine if his qualities are passed on (remember that the assorted mares will contribute 50% of the genes). If certain attributes or weaknesses show up repeatedly in foals out of different mares there is a good indication that the stud is providing those genes. Judge how they will combine with your mare. At least assemble pictures and videos of as many family members as possible if it is impossible to view them personally.
Stallion owners presumably have already gone through the critical, objective judging of their animal since he is still intact. But their responsibility does not end there. It is necessary that they exercise the same care when selecting which mares to book as the mare owners used to choose the stallion. Each foal on the ground is a walking advertisement for the stud - good and bad. Therefore, choosing only the highest quality mares will help tip the balance toward a superior foal. If the mare does not meet the set-forward criteria do not hesitate to eliminate her from the book. The stallion owner has the final say on what is acceptable and should take that responsibility very seriously.
Deciding to become a breeder, small or large, as mare owner, stallion owner or both should be exciting, educational and enjoyable. But it is also a huge undertaking. By keeping eyes open, and reviewing all information intelligently and objectively, producing quality foals is quite possible. Most of all the standards of the breed will be maintained, without being corrupted by momentary trends and injudicious pairings.
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Updated: October 2005.