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Tuesday, 17 August 2010 11:31

“Doc – Give me some advice on how to raise the best draft foal for the modern market.”

Written by  A.J. Neumann, D.V.M.
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That is quite an order, especially when you set out to try and tell someone how to handle his or her draft horse breeding program. Why should anyone listen to me? There are many very successful draft horse breeders that I know of here in the States and Canada. If you as an individual were to talk with them about their horse breeding business you would soon find that each individual has certain “points” in their program that they adhere to and abide by to make their program successful. You will also discover that these points may vary from breeder to breeder, but they will be pivotal areas always found in every successful program. With all of these factors in mind I will give you some “points” from my breeding program as well as some from other successful draft horse breeders.

The first point I want to make is that it is not an accident to raise a superior horse for the modern market. The best marketable young animal exhibits good type, excellent growthiness, fine health, very good condition, an easy going disposition and, above all, soundness.

As you might expect, to produce these features in a marketable animal demands much of your time and expertise. Money alone cannot make this happen.

There are always three factors at work here to produce this animal. In order of their importance, they are: genetics or breeding; nutrition; and a satisfactory health program. If any one of these three factors is not present in your breeding program, you will always miss the mark of excellence.

In any breeding program, genetics is the most important factor of all. Genetics as applied to the draft horse is becoming increasingly important today and with that in mind I am going to discuss its application to any breeding program for horses.

In this article I will not discuss the nutritional factors and the health program, which I know are also very essential to a successful breeding program. I will just cover the genetic part of the program.

If you wish to become a breeder of draft horses, you first should select the type of horse that you wish to work with. In our common draft breeds we generally have three types. The first being the so-called “utility type.” This generally is a drafter standing about 16 to 17 hh. These horses are more compactly built than the wagon horse. They, among other traits, are well muscled, deep in the chest and flank and an excellent disposition is mandatory. They must have the will to work as their days in the timber, or in the fields of the great plains or on the hillside cultivating croplands, are often long. Their jobs are performed in inclement weather and working under adverse conditions is often required of them.

The second type I like to label the “pulling type.” These are the horses we see at the pulling contests. Again, these horses have to be built physically and mentally for the job at hand. The heavyweight teams are usually massive in muscle and structure. These “pulling horses” are not “put together” like our hitch or wagon-type horse.

That brings us to the third type of draft horse, namely the “hitch or wagon-type” animal. These are the horses which are in the big 6 or 8-horse show teams, team hitches, 4-horse hitches, unicorn and cart horses. From foals to aged animals, they make up the bulk of our halter classes or line classes seen at a great many of our draft horse shows and extravaganzas. These horses are performance animals and among other traits, are also bred for height, color and action. Some may be used for a little work, but most of these horses lead a “life of Riley” in the hitch or so-called “show business.” The individuals of this type have grown tremendously in height since I was a barefoot kid. A tall horse in those days around the farm would have been a 17 ”hander.” Today, some of these horses are approaching 19 hh in height.

So, roughly, those are the three types of draft horses which are found in most of our common draft breeds of North America today. There is money to be made in raising any of these three types since each animal represented fills a certain need.

Of course, these types will intermingle. There are hitch or wagon-type horses which do a lot of work on their home grounds as well as some utility type horses which make respectable parade teams and are good enough to enter line and hitch classes in many of our fairs and draft horse shows. Likewise, I also know that some pulling horses work routinely in the timber as well as performing many jobs around the farm.

Now that you have picked a type of drafter to raise, you must learn about the unsoundness of the horse and be able to pick a sound one. If you do not know about the unsoundnesses of the draft horse and you are starting a breeding program, you probably will be a sitting duck ready for the plucking. Unless you can recognize a sound or unsound horse, you are doomed to the failure of your efforts to establish breeding stock. You will be like the individual sitting on a large pile of money in the front lawn, happily smoking a pipe filled with pot and dreaming away in a state of bliss while the cash you’re sitting on is slowly slipping away into the bottom of the “two-holer” in the back of the yard. When it’s all over and you’re on the bottom looking up, you are going to blame everybody but yourself!

What is an unsoundness of the horse? An unsoundness is a condition found in the horse either caused by an accident to the animal, a result of a disease, or inherited and this condition interferes with the horses’ ability to work.

Let’s go a step further. What is a blemish? A blemish on a horse is a condition we see on the animal which was caused by a disease, an accident or was inherited, and it merely detracts from the animals appearance. A blemish never interferes with the animal’s ability to work.

Many unsoundnesses are blemishes as well. Certain unsoundnesses are referred to as hereditary on account of their marked tendency to reappear in succeeding generations. It is interesting to note that of 19 common unsoundnesses of the horse, 15 of them are known or thought to be hereditary.

Now let’s take a good long look at what we have here. In judging a line or halter class, the worst unsoundness found would be an inherited one! After all, the halter classes are made up of breeder’s breeding stock or animals representing various breeding programs. Therefore, any unsoundness of inherited origin should be considered the worst of the lot.

The importance of understanding unsoundness can not be emphasized enough. As a breeder of the draft animal, especially one breaking into this new enterprise, you become fair game for “sharpies.” They will try and unload their unsound stock on you. You had better secure competent trustworthy help and learn about this unsoundness business before you lay out large sums of money for your breeding stock. As a breeder, you will also probably show your animals in some events of one kind or another and you should be able to evaluate your stock so that when a judge places them, you can understand why they placed where they did.

In addition to evaluating an animal for unsoundness, there are two other traits one should look for in selecting breeding stock. They are the conformation and disposition of the filly, mare or stallion.

Remember, conformation is a genetic thing. Good and poor conformation in the human form is passed on from father to son, mother to daughter, mother to son, and father to daughter. The same deal with the horse. Conformation can be changed over the years by selective breeding.

Good disposition was a factor I wanted in my breeding stock. A good, bad or ugly disposition is very much a hereditary factor. A mean, ill-tempered mare will pass it right on down the line. Have this trait present in a stallion and it will spread through his offspring like gasoline thrown on a fire. If there was a mare in my barn with the slightest quirk in her disposition, she had wheels under her before too long. When purchasing a stallion, the disposition of the animal should always be a key factor in the evaluation of the animal.

A really good band of mares takes a lifetime of breeding to accumulate. I only bought 5 or 7 mares to put into my herd in the 29 years I produced foals. Each year, I selected and kept back my two best filly foals. The others were sold as yearlings. No one with any amount of money could buy my replacement fillies. They were my replacements and filled in the vacancies as the older mares were sold off or they simply were kept to enlarge the breeding herd.

At this point, a lot of breeders, in my estimation, make a mistake. They sell off their best mares as well as replacement fillies. I strongly recommend that you do not do this. You may say, “yeah, but I can buy back a replacement.”

Stop and think! If you have been an intelligent breeder, selected your initial stock correctly and paid attention to all of the genetic inheritable unsoundnesses in your breeding stock, why would you risk buying an unknown genetic factor for these things in a replacement mare or filly? One can never build up a really good herd of top breeding mares by selling off his best stock. Remember, just because you may spend thousands of dollars for a mare or filly to add to your herd does not mean they are sound and will even benefit your breeding program. Too many people believe this is the course to take in establishing their band of mares but you will find there are too many genetic defects often hidden in these animals, which will plague you down the line for many years to come.

Now comes the selection of the stallion. I have always viewed the importance of a stallion differently than most horsemen. My dad taught me this philosophy. My old friend, Pete Bonthuis, was also a firm believer in the same deal. A stallion is 85% of your foal crop. Many draft horse breeders laugh at that fact.

Okay, let’s look at it. You have ten mares to breed and foal. The stallion services all and they are in foal and deliver in due time. The stallion has ten chances to improve your herd. The outstanding real exceptional mare has one chance. I am not downgrading the good old foundation mare, but if you have one or two; what are you going to do with the other eight or nine?

Pete put it to me in a different way. He said that back in the draft horse days, our northwest Iowa farmers would form co-ops to purchase a stallion to service the members’ mares. He told me some co-ops would collect and spend large sums of money to buy real good sound stallions to use on their members’ mares. Others would be more conservative and buy what he labeled “dink studs.”

He and his brother made a business of going through the countryside buying good geldings for eastern buyers from Maine, New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, etc. He told me it became very obvious where they could go and purchase the good stock they were looking for. You can bet it was not on the farms where they were using the so-called “dink” studs.

When I began using a new stallion I started looking for the next one. I did it a little differently than a lot of horse breeders do. I went over each mare in the herd as well as the replacement fillies and I listed collectively all of their good points. I then began looking for a stallion that had all of these good points or features plus an additional one or two which I could use to improve my stock.

By listing the good features of my breeding stock, I made sure in my selection of a stallion that I did not lose any of these points. I tried to find a stud that had all of these qualifications. Remember, they are all based on genetic factors.

By adopting this system you will certainly breed your foal crop up, never down. If you purchase and use a stallion which does not have some of the good factors of your mares, you will breed the quality of your horses down. It will not take many years of this type of breeding to reduce your mare herd to a group of ordinary individuals. Every cattleman, swine, sheep, and dog breeder; to mention a few; will always breed his herd or flock up rather than down. It works in horses the same way, and it worked for me.

When selecting a stallion, always check his dam if you can. Usually the stud you buy will be young, either a two-year-old or sometimes, a long yearling. These animals will be clean in the heel at that age but may have sidebones later as a three to six-year-old. It has been my experience and that of other horsemen, if the dam is clean in the heel, her stallion foal will also be clean. If the dam is rough in the heel, there is a very good chance her offspring, the stallion prospect, will develop sidebones later on in life.

Now if you haven’t figured it out already, what are you going to do if you wish to use artificial insemination on your mare or mares? The answer is easy. Make the trip and go over the prospective stud yourself. I know your answer already...“I can’t do that!”

Then you are a so-so draft horse breeder. Everything I just told you is down the drain. Just because you have a $20,000 mare and the A.I. stud you wish to use was sold for $40,000, you are not guaranteed a halter-busting foal!

I have never ceased to learn lessons on a daily or weekly basis. At one point in time I greatly admired a certain Belgian stallion. I went to the Iowa State Fair in part because this stallion was being shown there. I sat on the bleachers with an old friend of mine who is a Clydesdale breeder and a judge with a good reputation. We watched the halter classes and to the dismay of many on-lookers and the owner of the stallion, this stud was put down in the class. My friend said, “It’s about time. I put him down two years ago.” I asked what was wrong and he said, “You go into his stall and check him yourself. This afternoon I’ll be here to watch the hitches. I’ll write on a piece of paper the reasons I had two years ago and you write what you find today. We’ll compare notes.”

Fair enough. Over the noon hour I slipped into the stud’s tie stall and gave him a very quick physical. Upon meeting my friend in the afternoon we exchanged papers and lo and behold, it was the same on each: “sidebones and overshot a half inch.” He had called them two years before and both are unsoundnesses which are inherited. I would not have bred him to a nanny goat if I owned one, and furthermore, in that two year span and all the years before, no judge had the guts to render a correct verdict on the stallion. The lesson to be learned here is to look for yourself. You should be the one to check out the soundness, conformation and disposition of the animal. Always remember this–you cannot judge a horse with any degree of accuracy by looking at a picture. You must see the animal in action as well as put your hands on it. Again, always look for yourself.

I’ve tried to give you a few pointers on establishing a breeding herd of draft horses. You might not agree with all or any of what I’ve recommended, but it worked for me and more importantly, it has worked for many of my students who have attended my schools in the past.

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