Blue Hors – the stud farm based in Denmark – has taken the lead in Europe in terms of DNA testing their stallions, followed by their transparent announcement that three out of 10 stallions are, in fact, carriers of WFFS and will, therefore, be temporarily removed from their breeding roster. Indeed, Blue Hors manager Esben Møller expressed his shock at the result, and was quoted as saying “Three out of 10 stallions is a lot. This can be an indication that the gene defect occurs more often than previously thought.” The carriers were named as:

Blue Hors Veneziano (2010/DWB: Vivaldi - Dorina x Blue Hors Don Schufro) – in breeding since 2015 with four foal crops

Blue Hors Emilio (2014/Westf: Escolar - La Fraviata x Lauries Crusador xx) – one foal crop

Blue Hors Londoner (2015/Hann: Londontime - Duffy x Danone I) – 2018 has been his first covering season

Naturally, Blue Hors’s initiative – as well as that of Hilltop Farm in the United States who first reported a WFFS carrier stallion in April – is being applauded by breeders everywhere, and we are aware of other major stud farms who are also being proactive in voluntarily testing their sires. (Announcements and updates will be reported on the BN website as they happen.)

Breeding News for Sport Horsesis a publication that has for 21 years devoted itself exclusively to the sport horse breeding industry – including publishing the BN Worldwide Sport Horse Stallion Directoryannually (2018 is our 14thedition) –specifically focusing on the Olympic disciplines: showjumping, dressage and eventing. Our primary concern and interest in WFFS is how it will impact breeders – studbooks, stud farms, stallion and mare owners alike – and how we can best inform and educate our readers, and provide up-to-the-minute news.

For this reason, over the past few months, BNhas connected with a great many people with regard to WFFS: including various studbooks, breeders who have themselves experienced the birth of WFFS foals, veterinarians, geneticists…. The more we learn, the more we discover the shocking complexities of this issue that is now at the forefront of many breeders’ minds. BN’s managing editor, Jean Llewellyn, has also joined the WFFS Awareness Group Facebook page, in order to identify and understand the key concerns from the various discussions that are taking place on a daily basis.

As one of the debates has centered around concerns for genetic diversity within the sport horse stallion population, the paper referenced by Kareen Heineking-Schütte regarding ‘Neutral Theory’ in terms of breeding populations especially caught our attention. While the mathematical models used to illustrate the Neutral Theory of evolutionary genetics were extremely complex, the second paragraph talks about an ‘ideal population’ with a constant population size and random mating.

Genetic diversity

Of course, historically, the randomness of equine breeding witnessed an exponential decline with the advent of mechanization. Farmers sought to find new roles for their redundant farm-bred, working horses, and started to selectively refine their bloodlines as their eyes focused on the prospect of alternative careers in sport. However, for some decades it was still necessary for mare owners to coordinate with a stallion owner in terms of organizing a live covering service – limited by a stallion’s physical capabilities – and it wasn’t unknown for the latter to turn away a mare that lacked the qualities to enhance a stallion’s reputation with her resulting offspring.

While the various debates about genetic diversity continue to rage, specifically targeting the issues of WFFS – it is perhaps a good to remember that breeders themselves are limiting genetic diversity, and have done so for decades, by the choices they make.

The gene pool has been further compromised by the increased use of AI, since copious quantities of semen from the most popular stallions can be shipped throughout the world, satisfying demands from breeders on every continent. Social media, glossy advertising, tasty websites and flashy YouTube videos are capable of rocketing a stallion to super-stardom, thereby increasing his popularity without necessarily leaving his stable – performance results notwithstanding. Likewise, reproductive technology can now extend a stallion’s life well beyond his natural years, thereby delaying the succession of a new generation.

If we can presume to define every breeder’s dream, it would be to see one (or more) of their offspring grow into a five-star performer in sport on an international stage. It’s the ultimate accolade and recognition of a decision-making process to selectively and successfully breed for a specific discipline: i.e. showjumping, dressage or eventing, especially given the exclusivity of an Olympic medal or a world championship title.

For this reason, and because every breeder doesn’t have a superstar mare who is worth the high price-tag of a well-known stallion, the rise in embryo auctions is another cause for concern, as breeding decisions are being taken by a few savvy marketeers whose primary interest is financial gain rather than genetic diversity.

Breeding for success

Today, looking at the world’s most revered sires in showjumping and dressage in terms of their volume of approved/licensed sons and the performance results of their offspring, the top 10 (non-discipline specific) are Diamant de Semilly, Quidam de Revel, Sandro Hit, Contender, Cornet Obolensky, Baloubet du Rouet, Kannan, Darco, Cassini I and Heartbreaker. More dressage sires appear in the 11-20 group, including Sir Donnerhall, Donnerhall and De Niro.

In their heyday, the most popular stallions might service upwards of 300 mares each breeding season – so breeders’ choices and demands are already impacting the genetic diversity of the sport horse population. For this reason, talking to breeders and interviewing them for Breeding News, a great many have had strong and very favourable opinions about using younger and less fashionable stallions – not only for the cost savings in covering fees, but for the increased rewards should their offspring achieve five-star performance status at a later date.

Coincidentally, looking at the majority of top-ranked breeders awarded by the WBFSH since 2004, based on the results of their product(s) in FEI competitions, there is no numbers game involved, because the winners have often represented the family of small-scale or virtual-backyard breeders. Dedicated people for whom sport horse breeding is a passion, a hobby.

Their success can be attributed to the great care they’ve taken to analyze pedigrees and performance results. They have likely attended a great many events to study conformation, performance traits and rideability. Maybe even researched the marketability of certain bloodlines by assessing sales results and auction prices. And, at the end of the day, they also benefitted from a huge amount of luck!

A good horse is a good horse!

Interestingly, when BN recalls some of the superstar sport horses from 30 years ago, their bloodlines were often unremarkable and, at that time, few people were sufficiently knowledgeable about pedigrees to draw any useful conclusions – assuming that anyone would show sufficient interest to enquire about a sire or dam. Riders and owners seemed to live more by the old adage that ‘a good horse is a good horse!’

On this occasion, we won’t even touch upon the topic of in-breeding, which someone also mentioned on the WFFS Awareness Group Facebook page, as this has resulted in some extremely successful performance horses in recent years – despite the apparent risks.

However, before we conclude, BN deeply regrets the emotional and economic impact that WFFS will cause to many breeders, wherever you are in the world. While some major stud farms will be well able to absorb the additional costs or losses of WFFS, small-scale owners of perhaps one stallion who is discovered to be a carrier will perhaps suffer the most distress. Similarly, mare owners will especially suffer the heartache of foals born with WFFS, or 11 months of anxiety awaiting the arrival of a foal whose prognosis is unknown until the time of its birth.

One way or another, and we appreciate that there is no quick fix or easy answer, this is a problem that the breeding industry as a whole must manage, and hopefully resolve, rather than isolated owners and a limited number of stud farms taking the initiative to voluntarily DNA test their stock. Given the need for absolute transparency, the proactivity of the few should be loudly applauded.

Finally, we would simply like to acknowledge that breeders’ concerns are both wide-ranging, relevant and valid, but the immediate issue –  based on ‘information = education’– is how we control WFFS to the point where Warmblood breeders’ confidence is restored and the industry’s integrity remains intact. Painful and interminable though it might be.

Jean Llewellyn - Managing Editor Breeding News for Sport Horses