Breeding a successful dressage horse from scratch involves art, science and a little luck. Each parent must contribute positive traits, which in combination produce exceptional offspring. To achieve this goal, the Northwest Hanoverian Club invited Dr. Ludwig Christmann to share his expertise in broodmare selection, Hanoverian bloodlines and the use of his statistical system of breeding values. Dr. Christmann has been assistant breeding director of the German Hanoverian Verband for many years. He is a specialist in equine genetics and lectures on Hanoverian horse breeding all over the world.
On a crisp fall day at North Star Farms in northern Washington, warmblood breeders from all over the Northwest, including myself, gathered in eager anticipation. Dr. Christman's goal was to help us develop skills in identifying mares that have a high probability of passing on superior performance traits--to "produce a noble, correctly built warm-blooded horse capable of superior performance."
Evaluating a Mare's Strengths
The results of Hanoverian Mare Inspection and Mare Performance Tests (see "Mare Performance Testing," DT Jan. '03) have been formulated (and reformulated each year) to find mares that best pass on the traits that produce future performance success. Mares are inspected and graded for conformation and movement by experts before being entered into one of the three Hanoverian Studbooks:
The Main Studbook is for Elite mare-those with top-scoring at their inspections that also have passed the Mare Performance Test and had a foal.
The Studbook is for the majority of mares.
The Pre Studbook is for non-Hanoverian mares that have specific characteristics deemed important to the breed. Thoroughbred, Arabian and non-Hanoverian German warmblood mares can be accepted into the PreStudbook based on their superior inspection scores.
Dr. Christmann emphasized that we should begin by judging the mare on her overall impression. "Look for an athletic, balanced looking horse with an alert, yet calm, demeanor," he said. "All parts of the body should fit together seamlessly to create a picture of harmonious flow." He then focused on what we should be looking for in an individual's conformation.
Overall: Look for a noble, large-framed horse that looks capable of the energy, soundness and saneness for performance; the neck, mid-section and hindquarters should be approximately equal in length; the withers should be higher than the croup (uphill), so the mare can lift her front end easily
Breed and sex type: A mare should have her breed's characteristic "look." She should be feminine with a well-defined outline and clean, well-muscled legs.
The head: An attractive head is expressive and suited to the mare's body with a large, kind eye.
The neck: Look for a neck that rises above the point of the shoulder with a good angle, clean throatlatch and a slight crest.
Saddle position: Look for a long, sloping shoulder with clearly pronounced withers that extend well into the back.
Frame: The goal is to be able to draw a rectangular frame around the torso and legs. She also needs a smooth topline; a long, powerful, sloping and well-muscled croup; and a strong loin connection.
Forelegs: Legs should be clean and well muscled with well-defined strong joints. They need to be straight and stand parallel to each other. A line dropped from the point of the shoulder should bisect the leg evenly.
Hind legs: Look for well-muscled and clean hind legs with large, well-defined joints and a strong hock.
Then Dr. Christmann directed our attention to movement. When mares are inspected or tested, movements are scored for correctness, impulsion and elasticity. When the mare moves toward you, her legs should move straight ahead without swinging in or winging out. From the side, the mare should move forward with power, bringing up her back and flexing all the joints to create an energetic, forward and fluid impression. Dr. Christmann said, "The mare should move through the entire body, incorporating use of the back and all parts of the body in a supple, energetic and elastic way."
The walk should be rhythmical with four, even beats. Her stride should be ground covering, energetic and elastic with the hind hoof print overstepping the fore print.
The trot should have a clear two-beat rhythm and a high level of impulsion, elasticity and balance. A trot with active, well-bending hind legs moving with thrust under the center of gravity is ideal, enabling the shoulder and forequarters to lift and move freely.
Several breeders kindly consented to let us use their mares to practice our evaluations. The first mare presented was a gray yearling Hanoverian filly by First Gotthard and out of an Empire mare. She has the strong jumping bloodlines of Gotthard, Furioso, Diskant and Don Carlos. "This filly is a nice type, correct with a strong back and hindquarters and a wide hock that reaches well into her cannon bone. Her head fits her well," said Dr. Christmann. "Stallion choice: I would choose a stallion with uphill movement even with Holsteiner blood to improve her movement and enhance her jumping ability."
Next, a large-framed, powerful looking chestnut yearling Hanoverian filly by Contucci and out of a Calypso II mare entered the ring. Dr. Christmann said the filly would be good for either dressage or jumping and commented about her strong, correct legs and her wonderful neck. He suggested a compact, refining stallion to further improve the head and topline.
Then, Wiegenlied, a tall chestnut Oldenburg mare by Werther and out of a Thoroughbred mare entered the arena with her 2-month-old colt by the Trakehner, Caprimond. "I really like this mare," said Dr. Christmann. "You can see how she uses her entire body when she moves." He also admired her strong back, well-proportioned hindquarters, shoulder, loin, forelegs and pretty head. As Dr. Christmann pointed out, we could see that the mare not only moved her legs but also her back, shoulders and hips. The picture was energetic, fluid and purposeful.
The next mare for us to evaluate was a rangy, chestnut Canadian sporthorse mare by the Hanoverian stallion Empire and out of a Trakehner mare. This 11-year old had competed as a jumper. Dr. Christmann commented on her good head and shoulder. She demonstrated a good uphill long-striding canter with good activity behind. For this mare Dr. Christmann suggested a "G" line stallion. These are from the famous performance line of Grande to pass on a strong supple back and good neck. Over half of the top medal winners in both dressage and jumping in the 1996 Olympics traced back to Grande.
A dark bay Canadian Thoroughbred was the next mare to be evaluated. Although recently shipped in from Canada, she entered the arena calmly with an interested expression. Dr. Christmann told us that this mare was a useful type for sporthorses. The Thoroughbred type sought by the Hanoverian breed has the classic appearance with long lines, big strong joints with good angulation and, above all, elasticity in movement.
We could see that this mare was a good type because of her presence. She had the big bones and good joints Dr. Christmann told us to look for. She showed an energetic, forward trot with good freedom of the shoulder. He suggested mating her to a stallion with a strong topline and correct hind leg to compliment her Thoroughbred lineage.
Celebrating the Distaff Side of Breeding
In Germany, excellence in mares is honored at mare shows. The best mares are invited to compete in larger shows such as the Ratje-Neibuhr Hanoverian Mare Show. Mares are shown in age classes and as family groups--a mare with three daughters or a mare with her daughter and granddaughter. Family group champions are especially revered in Germany.
To our delight, Dr. Christmann had brought a video to show us of winners of the 2002 Ratje-Niebuhr Hanoverian Mare Show. Almost 19,000 mares are registered with the German Hanoverian Verband (compared with about 3,500 Hanoverian mares in the American Hanoverian Society), so the competition in Germany is fierce. The winner of the Young Mare Group (2 and 3 year olds) was an elegant black mare by Rotspon out of a mare by Lauries Crusador xx (xx denotes a Thoroughbred). This mare received the top score of 10 for her type and also a 10 for her trot. She had the strength, balance and suspension of a prima ballerina.
One trait we all noticed was that every mare moved with great energy and impulsion. Reserve Champion was the Weltmeyer daughter, Waitaki, also out of a Lauries Crusador xx mare.
The Middle Group--4 to 6 years old--Champion was SPS Fenjala by Fabriano and out of a Prince Orac mare. This graceful dark bay mare had an outstanding trot and came from a well-known motherline. The Older Group--7 year olds and up--Championship was won by another Weltmeyer mare, SPS Wiami out of a Bolero mare. The supple chestnut impressed us with the way she used her back, creating cadence and brilliance in her gaits. The prestigious Mare Family Champion was SPS Bodenfarsten, a regal chestnut mare with her Weltmeyer daughter, SPS Weltina, and her Rosentau granddaughter, Rose Dream.
We could plainly see how the Germans created such an incredible horse--they know how important their best mares are to producing world champion quality dressage and jumping horses, and they celebrate and reward those mares. We saw close to ideal mares, and now we have a better idea of what direction to go to achieve our own breeding goals.
The Breeding-Value System
A new and important tool for evaluating Hanoverian stallions utilizes the results of their daughters' Mare Inspections and Mare Performance Tests. Dr. Christmann developed this numerical-value system as part of his PhD thesis.
The first set of breeding values for Hanoverian stallions was published in 1997. Each year the values for each stallion are updated with the newest results from inspections and performance tests and published in the Hannoveraner Jahrbuch Hengste (Hanoverian Stallion Yearbook). Every stallion that has had at least 15 daughters complete the Mare Performance Test is included (15 is the number required for statistical significance). The book also includes information on the number of the stallion's offspring competing in dressage, jumping and eventing and at what level. Competition-based breeding values come from horses competing in dressage, jumping or eventing that have been selected for talent in that discipline.
All this information indicates important traits that a stallion tends to pass on to his daughters. I have found it invaluable in finding stallions that will improve my mare with traits such as a good walk or a strong hind leg. Breeding values can also be an early indicator of a stallion's prepotency, since mares are inspected and performance tested at 3 years old. Results from competition horses aren't usually available until they are at least 6 to 8 years old.
Grande's legendary contribution, for example, was only discovered late in his breeding career, when his offspring had proven themselves in the competition arena. If this system had been used when he was a young stallion, breeders might have noticed that his daughters scored higher than did those of other stallions in dressage qualities, jumping and rideability.
Gotthard, another Hanoverian legend, would have demonstrated that his daughters surpassed other mares in jumping, leading breeders with jumping programs to use the stallion and riders to seek out his offspring for jumping competition.
In every breed, great mares are coveted and celebrated. Desert dwellers zealously guarded their best mares. The Roman charioteer Ben-Hur drove a quartet of these white Arabian mares to win the legendary race. Thoroughbred breeders will not part with their "blue hen" mares--the mothers of their most successful racehorses and the basis of their breeding programs. The Northwest Hanoverian Club hopes, one day, to develop an equally successful program in America's Pacific Northwest.
This article appeared in the March 2003issue of Dressage Today.