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Raising the breeding bar

This article first appeared in a previous edition of Equestrian Life. To see what is in the current issue, click here.

Sir Donnerhall head

Sir Donnerhall
Image courtesy of IHB

The dramatic improvement in some of our home grown performance horses is more than a matter of breeding 'luck'. What began 25 years ago with the first pioneering importation of frozen equine Warmblood semen has opened up a world of choice and access to the breeding value estimation scores of Warmblood stallions in Europe. Glenis Dyason was at the forefront of this movement and explains how it works. 


The quality of some of our home grown performance horses is now arguably of the same international standard as some of those being bred in Europe. In order to achieve this, we have needed to have access to some of the best credentialed sires from the most prestigious European studs. But, to overcome the tyranny of distance and make this genetic material available to a wider market, meant the importation of frozen semen and establishing a reputation in the frozen artificial insemination industry.

To this end, International Horse Breeders Pty Ltd began in 1989 when they brought in the first ever shipment of frozen equine semen. Over the 25 years, 250 Warmblood stallions from Germany, Holland and Belgium - representing most of the important bloodlines available today for either Dressage or Show Jumping - have been added to the available list. This gene pool is enormous and means that breeders have the opportunity to choose the right stallion for their mare to improve in areas of her weaknesses in conformation, temperament or performance. It is this consistent ability to improve on the mares bred in this country that has enabled performance horse breeders to improve the quality of foals in each and every generation.

Since 1989, IHB has been the sole partner of the German State Hanoverian Stud in Celle, whose main aim is breeding sires for both Europe and the international market. The stallions, which are credited with being able to dramatically improve on the mares bred to them - as seen through the quality of the foals they uniformly produce - are known as the “Spitzenvererbers”. These are the really valuable sires. Their foals dominate at the foal inspections and go on to make good auction horses that sell for incredible amounts of money. They go on to place high in their stallion performance tests or at mare shows and inspections and go on to compete and perform at high levels. They are often the ones that produce the sires of the future, or the mares and mothers of the future generations. It is these stallions that influence the breed for three or four generations and become sought after names in the pedigrees of our most valuable horses. Stallion names like Donnerhall, Rubinstein and Weltmeyer in Dressage lines and Stakkato, Cor de la Bryere, Furioso 11, Contender and Voltaire in jumping bloodlines.


Some breeders like to do a little ‘line breeding’ from time to time. That is, breed back again to one of the stallions that has had a very positive influence in the breed. This is normally considered to be acceptable, with a good chance of success if you cross again as far back as the fourth generation from both sides. In-breeding is never considered advantageous and anything closer than 4th generation cross breeding runs a risk.

Breeding good horses is not just a matter of luck, although luck is always good to have on your side.  It usually begins with the mare, who really is the 'jewel' in the crown of a breeding programme. You will find that it’s the breeders who cast a critical eye over their mares and only use the ones whose conformation, temperament and performance are of such a standard that they are worth reproducing, who usually have the ‘luck’ with breeding good horses. But, it’s the stallions that are needed to continue to consistently improve on the mares with the improvement in their foals. Using the Spitzenvererbers in a breeding program gives more guarantee that this improvement role will be fulfilled, which is what every breeder breeds towards in every generation. The stronger the pedigree the more chance there is of breeding quality and consistency in type and performance.

So, how do you sort out the ‘Spitzenvererbers’? If we look at the Hanoverian breed for example, the Hanoverian Verband publishes the Hanoverian Stallion Yearbook every year, translated simply as Jahrbuch Hengste. This book gives a list of stallions that have been widely bred during the previous season/s and whose foals have been inspected and perhaps given pre-selection for the Verden auctions. Their daughters have been mare performance tested and colts have been performance tested. The overall emphasis is always on the percentage of improvement the particular sire is able to give to his progeny in conformation, movement, performance and rideability and whose offspring have also achieved high results in competition.


The Hanoverian Yearbook 2013 features the photo of Don Frederico because he was Hanoverian of the Year. This is due to his remarkable positive influence for Dressage potential in the many sons and daughters that he has sired and his consistency of achievement during his breeding career.

Each stallion entered into the Yearbook is given a ‘breed value’ based on the quality of the offspring produced.  This breed value is given in three parts depending on the category of progeny it’s based on. Breed values are standardised to a mean value of 100 points. So, for scores over 100, the stallion has positively influenced his progeny and under 100 points he has negatively influenced his progeny. Scores are given not only for Dressage and Jumping, but for riding type and conformation.

Let’s take De Niro for an example, who is typically a Dressage sire. First he is scored by his ‘integrated breeding value estimation’ (FN) for that year (2013), which is based on his own stallion performance test, mare (his daughters')  performance tests, ( judged on basic gaits, rideability and jumping) and on his progeny competing in classes for young horses and later in ongoing competition. De Niro is given 140 points for dressage and 70 points for jumping.  This score of 140 points indicates that De Niro improves in his progeny by 40 per cent in overall Dressage ability and influences negatively in his progeny by 30 per cent in Jumping ability. So generally speaking, you would not choose this stallion to breed Jumping horses.

There is also another breed value score given estimated on studbook inspections, mare performance tests and pre-selections for riding horses for the Verden auctions, which include both males and females. With this second breed value score there is also a score for riding type or typeyness, head, neck, saddle position, frame,  sex type for the breed, and for conformation in fore and hind limbs and overall correctness. This score similarly indicates the percentage of positive improvement or negative influence. For De Niro again, for an example, he improves in overall riding type by 16 per cent (score of 116) and in conformation by 27 per cent  (score of 127). There is also given a range of breakdown of scores given for head 6 per cent (106); neck 28 per cent (128); saddle position negative 7 per cent (93); frame 22 per cent (122); sex type 19 per cent (119) and; in conformation, forelegs 28 per cent (128); hind legs 24 per cent (124) and correctness  17 per cent (117).  Giving heed to these specific breakdowns enables a breeder to choose a stallion that is going to hopefully be a positive influence in the areas of weakness in the mare.

Stakkato_Donaueschingen_Maximilian Schreiner

Stakkato Donaueschingen Maximilian Schreiner
Image courtesy of IHB

The third part of the stallion breed value estimation is based on mare performance tests and auction selections focusing on improvement or otherwise on Dressage movement and Jumping ability. De Niro is given a score of 120 for Dressage and 71 in Jumping. Again, he improves by 20 per cent in movement and has a negative impact in Jumping to quite a degree.

So, for all Hanoverian accepted stallions bred in any particular year, that have at least 10 progeny on the ground which have been evaluated, a breeding value or breeding index is given. Other breeds have similar statistics compiled in various ways to determine which stallions have done well in their breeding careers and in what ways they have influenced their progeny. The breeding values are up-dated every year as the current year's foals are added to the calculations. 

All of this means of course that there are many people involved in collating all the results of progeny from a lot of inspections, shows, performance tests and competitions. Only in Europe, where they have significant numbers of breeders and foals born every year and the horse industry to support such statistical work is it possible.

De Niro - Photo credit Klosterhof-Medingen

De Niro
© Klosterhof Medingen

The Hanoverian Year Book is set out in such a way that every stallion has his scores presented by on an easy to read graph. The level of improvement or lack of it across all categories already mentioned stands out to the eye immediately. Usually there is a clear indication as to whether a stallion is clearly a Jumping or Dressage sire, or whether he is a greater improver in Jumping talent or type and/or conformation. Occasionally there appears a stallion with scores that indicate he is a dual disciplined stallion. That is, he can improve on the mares bred to him by stamping his genes on the foals for both Dressage and Jumping ability in a very positive way. These stallions are comparatively rare, but names like Le Primeur, Valentino and Conteur come to mind. These can be very useful sires for breeders wishing to breed Eventers or wanting to maintain the bloodlines for both Dressage and Jumping in their breeding program and to keep a certain athleticism and versatility in the progeny.

Every year, when the new statistics are made available, it is always interesting to see what the Year Book has to say about the new stallions entered for the first time. Promising young stallions are often given a larger number of mares in the first breeding season to make sure that there are a significant number of foals on the ground to be evaluated to ensure a more reliable breeding value score. Some stallions remain for many years in the top 5 or 10 per cent of breeding sires and enjoy much international acclaim. They are the spitzenvererbers , like Weltmeyer, who has a current breeding value of 146 (Dressage) even after 26 years of breeding, and although he is now sadly deceased,  is still available through frozen semen. Stakkato, a well known Jumping sire, has a breeding value of 170 (Jumping) and hence is another stallion that has been so sought after by breeders over many years. Dancier too, with a score of 155 (Dressage).

Obviously, not all stallions will have positive improvement in all categories given. This does not mean that they are not useful stallions to breeders, especially when breeding is a long-term programme for most and many generations need to be considered. If your mare is strong in certain traits she may cross well with a stallion that is weaker in these areas, as long as he has positive influences where you really want them. For example, a lot of Jumping sires have not been historically strong in riding type or even in some aspects of conformation, but jump like a stag and are known to pass on this jumping ability successfully and produce good competition horses. If your mare is basically sound in conformation and a good type, this particular stallion might cross well with her when requiring an increase in jumping ability and it’s the bloodline you wish to have.

Using proven breeding stallions does not always ensure our foals will always turn out the way we want them to, but researching all the data made available to us as breeders - and studying the types of foals a certain stallion throws - is a crucial start in choosing the right stallion.

For more information, click here.


This article first appeared in a previous edition of Equestrian Life. To see what is in the current issue, click here.

Related articles:

Mare Power: Mum’s the word when it comes to breeding

The modern show jumper is a leap ahead

Dressage breeding has come a long way

Stallion Instincts



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West Kington Stud

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