Pick, Promote a Top Stallion

Success in today's sporthorse breeding market requires careful planning, thorough execution and no shortcuts. By Belinda Nairn-Wertman for Practical Horseman magazine.

Standing a sporthorse stallion in the U.S. is exciting, but it’s a real economic challenge. Unless you draw up a well thought-out plan and execute its every step, you’ll end up losing money. A good sire is a big up-front investment: $25,000 or more for an untried two- or three-year-old who hasn’t yet competed or been approved by a breed registry; $100,000 and up for an approved horse who’s passed his stallion testing. Once you have him, effective advertising is expensive. And intense competition–there are lots of stallions for mare owners and breeders to choose from–effectively puts a ceiling (about $1,250-$1,500, in our experience) on his stud fee, whatever his quality. All of these factors make it important to…

Know your market

  • Select a stallion whose strengths match the market’s needs
  • Make sure that he can do more than one job–that’s capable of succeeding as a performance horse if his stallion career doesn’t work out
  • Promote him effectively.

To explain what I mean, I’ll show you how the process of establishing a breeding stallion happens at Inspo (International Sport Horse Center, Inc.), where my husband and I currently stand two successful but very different Dutch Warmblood sires: Legend, owned by John and Audrey Shoemaker; and Gambol, owned by George and Diane Fellows.

Knowing the Mare Market
The majority of the mares whose owners want to breed to sporthorse stallions are Thoroughbreds or TB crosses. They have the Thoroughbred’s hot, sensitive temperament, and their conformation is designed for flat racing rather than hunter/jumper or dressage competition.

This huge Thoroughbred influence in our mare base has three implications for a would-be stallion owner choosing a sire:

  1. The ultimate buyer for the stallion’s offspring will, in 70 to 80 percent of cases, be an amateur rider (and probably a woman). This rider will need a horse who is above all ridable, with a good and willing temperament. Because most horsepeople believe the mare is the more influential part of the breeding equation, a successful stallion needs to be very solid in his temperament to prevail over mare temperament that may be more difficult.
  2. To improve on a TB mare’s less-than-ideal conformation for equestrian sports, the stallion needs to be exceptionally strong in the conformation and balance that contribute to performance.
  3. What Europeans call the “modern” type of warmblood stallion–a lighter, more elegant horse resulting from infusions of Thoroughbred blood into European bloodlines–is a good cross on the warmblood mares that make up the base in Europe. But he’s probably too light to make the best cross with our Thoroughbred mares. A better cross on the U.S. mare base is a stallion of the traditional warmblood type: bigger-boned and more substantial.

Be Savvy in Stallion-Shopping
Before I go into detail about this point, let me share a rule of thumb that’s brought some great stallions to my barn and also saved my clients money: Be prepared to spot a good stallion prospect even when you’re not actively looking for one. I found the two Dutch Warmblood stallions we currently stand while on buying trips that weren’t targeted to stallion-shopping. Because I was looking for young performance prospects, the horses I was shown were less expensive than if my announced purpose had been to find a breeding stallion.

To sharpen my awareness for performance horses that might also have breeding potential…

  • I keep my eyes and ears open at shows. A two-day show in Europe may have more than 650 starts, and the announcer gives the name of each horse’s sire as the horse comes into the ring. I notice features that I like recurring in some bloodlines–and characteristics that I don’t like in others. Or I may see a young horse from a less familiar line do something wonderful while warming up–for instance, respond to a correction by trying harder, instead of overreacting. That tells me his temperament is perfect for an amateur, so I want to learn more about his breeding.
  • I try to see as many of a stallion prospect’s siblings as I can. I particularly like to see other horses who have the same dam: If, bred to different sires, she has consistently produced horses that do well in their sport, I find that’s even more significant (in terms of this stallion’s potential to reproduce his strengths in his foals) than the performance of his sire’s other offspring out of different mares.
  • I become a student of pedigree. Some lines of sporthorses have a reputation for particular flaws–such as a weak back, or a tendency toward a difficult temperament–that I want to avoid.

Promoting the Stallion
When I’ve found and imported a stallion I think will be a good fit for the U.S. breeding market, I use several avenues to make breeders here aware of his quality.

Performance: At Inspo, our primary focus is performance horses. Breeding is secondary; we aren’t interested in having a stallion who just stands in his stall and is bred to as many mares as possible every year. Any stallion we import needs to be capable of excelling in his sport. (The temperament–the trainability and work ethic–he needs to show will enhance his value as a breeding stallion, too.) Additionally, in the show ring, as he comes up through the levels in his sport, he attracts attention and interest from mare owners and promotes himself for breedings to high-quality performance mares.

Balancing performance and breeding careers isn’t difficult. Many good-minded stallions can go to the breeding shed in the morning and load on the trailer for a show in the afternoon–though I might not want to do that with a horse who’s performing at his peak or competing in, say, USET selection trials (in part because of the slight risk he might pull a muscle in the breeding shed). Frozen semen technology eliminates some of those potential conflicts, enabling us to collect a stallion when he’s not competing heavily and store the semen until it’s needed. (Our stallions are collected for freezing at Hilltop Farm, in nearby Maryland, which has a state-of-the-art breeding laboratory.)

Registry approval: This step is key to promoting a stallion. Breeders are, understandably, very paper-oriented. They want a chance to produce a good stallion or mare, and they want to be able to get breed-registry papers for that horse–which means the sire must have papers indicating he’s been tested and approved by a breed association. We bought and imported both Gambol (now eight) and Legend (now nine) as unapproved three-year-olds; they were subsequently approved and tested in this country by a Dutch association, the NRPS. (Deciding when to have a stallion tested for approval is part of the strategy for promoting him. If he’s relatively immature as a three-year-old, for instance, it can be to his advantage–and yours–to wait until he grows up and has some good competition results before seeking approval.)

Good advice to mare owners: In the long run, word of mouth from mare owners pleased with their foals is one of the most effective promotions for a stallion.

The economic realities of standing a stallion make it unlikely we’ll refuse to breed a mare unless (as happened in one instance) we think her temperament is so difficult it’s dangerous, and likely to be reproduced in her foal. But we’re lucky in having two good but very different stallions, enabling us to steer owners to the choice with the better chance of improving on the mare as they describe her to us.

Legend is very tall, with long legs and a long neck. He’s very uphill with a beautiful topline and gives you the feeling when you ride him that he’s 100 percent through from his back end to his mouth all the time. He’s a good choice for someone with a smaller mare who wants to add size and improve her topline. Gambol is a full 5 inches smaller (16.1 hands) and more close-coupled, with a shorter back and a nicely balanced self-carriage that’s been part of him since a very young age. Intelligent, easygoing, and willing, he’s the best choice for the owner of a big mare who wants to breed a quality horse that may not be too big. We give mare owners our opinion and suggest they look at the promotional video (see below) before deciding. A good sign to me is that we’ve been getting a lot of return breedings–from owners coming back because they’re so happy with their first foal.

Quality advertising and videos: Although print advertising may be among the first stallion-promotion tools you think of, I’ve listed it last because an advertisement can only be as effective as what you have to promote–and for us, that means performance. We may include a conformation pose, but I want ad photos that show our stallions moving and performing. If a stallion is still quite young and hasn’t established a performance record, then the ad emphasizes his bloodlines and his parents’ other offspring–especially if some of them are already famous! But if he’s competed enough to produce some good results of his own, that takes precedence. The ad also needs to get across his temperament, his work ethic, and how willing and easy to ride he is. As a stallion matures and his early foals grow old enough to compete, their best achievements become part of the ad as well.

The video for each of our stallions begins with a side view of him standing, then walking (so you see his overstep–the amount his hind leg reaches up under him), then trotting and cantering at liberty in both directions, then working under saddle. Gambol’s video includes recent footage of him free-jumping and performing part of an Intermediaire I test. Legend has been laid up recently with a suspensory injury; his video’s under-saddle footage shows him being ridden on the flat and jumped at his stallion testing.

Named as an alternate (with Alegria) to the U.S. Olympic dressage squad for the 1984 Games, Belinda Nairn-Wertman competed in the 1988 Games in Seoul with Christopher, a Dutch Warmblood she bought in 1983 as a young horse.

These days, horse-shopping for clients of Inspo occupies much of her time. Belinda also continues to train and compete. As well as ten-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding Kirby (imported by Inspo as a four-year-old and owned by A.J. Stapleton), who started Grand Prix in 2001, she’s campaigning Inspo’s Lorenzo.

This article originally appeared in the January 2003 issue of Practical Horseman.

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