Thursday, April 4, 2013

How Horse Breeding SHOULD Be Done: Oldenburg Horses

Howdy folks!  A few brief updates before we head on into our main story today.

I just glanced at this blog's stats, and as of the beginning of April, total views on this blog have passed the 70,000 mark! Wow. Obviously, this is chicken feed compared to lots of other blogs, but it makes me pretty happy. In the last week, there were 437 hits from Android phones alone, about a quarter of all views. How do you even read anything on those little things?! Finally, what makes me happiest is a small number... but an important one. In the last month, there were 71 hits on my Wisconsin Horse Rescues page. Yes! Go donate, adopt, link, share, spread the word! There are a ton of great horses out there that need your help, and most rescues are at capacity. At MWHF right now, there are several high-quality horses ready for adoption. One is Dublin, a calm, young, tall, healthy gelding with dressage, jumping, trail riding and show experience... for only $500!! He's been just sitting there for months waiting for a home!

Photo credit: Equine Expressions blog
Secondly: Governor Dodge State Park. This beautiful place in southwestern Wisconsin has horse trails and camping facilities. However, lots of improvements need to be made. The DNR has been talking about fixing things up for years, but now rumor has it improvements may be pushed back to the 2017-2019 biennium. Ouch. Sandy Rogers of Milton, WI wants to organize a letter-writing campaign-- you can contact her on her Facebook page. Send her your email address to get a sample letter and a list of talking points. I'm not sure letters will do any good without some cold, hard cash though, so feel free to make donations to the Friends of Governor Dodge State Park. Tell 'em the money is for horse stuff.

Third, my writings on why breed DNA testing doesn't work turned out to be so lengthy, I'm going make a separate permanent page for it. Not quite yet though, because I'd like to add a lot more information on horse genetics in general.

On a final note, this will be my last post before Monday or even Tuesday. The good news is, when I come back, I'll have a report for you on the Tim Nolan Auction, the second-largest horse auction in Wisconsin. I may also cover a trail cleanup I'm volunteering at, but that will probably be fairly non-newsworthy.

Okay, let's get to those Oldenburgers!

Once upon a time, there were no horse breeds. Horses had adapted to local conditions, but were mostly "short and tough." Then humans created breeds by bringing the best horses together and breeding them over several generations, eventually creating horses of certain types. These breeds weren't just for fun-- horses were needed to work hard and stay sound for years in specific jobs, helping humans with practically every aspect of their lives.

Eventually, humanity stopped needing horses. Horse breeders became misled (although buyers were/are at fault too). Instead of breeding horses towards being good at jobs, people began breeding horses towards fame and fashion. Instead of conformation, soundness, ability and temperament, breeders sought illustrious ancestors, lengthy pedigrees, pretty coat colors and certain looks, like very dished faces. I like to call this stuff "mystique."

A bit of mystique in a breed is okay. It attracts new people into the horse world, and gives people a little pride. Mystique helps fund stuff. It's also just plain fun. However, when mystique takes over, bad things happen. Such as:
  • The Idea That Having Papers Automatically = Well-Bred
  • A Lack of Genetic Diversity
  • Horses Bred Only for Looks
  • The Creation of "Breeds" Based on Myth
  • The Perpetuation of Genetic Disease 
  • Horses with Poor Conformation that Suffer
However, I've already gotten into that crap. Today, I want to highlight at least one breed doing it right. Let's talk about the Oldenburg Horse Breeders' Society. This is the North American counterpart to the European Oldenburg organization. Both are excellent groups.

"The slogan of the German Oldenburg Verband is that 'Quality is the only standard that counts.'"

Just try to find a picture of a crappy Oldenburg horse. It's next to impossible. Why? Because the breeders have standards and enforce them. Foals can't become registered as Oldenburgs until they're inspected and approved. Stallions must score well in several competitions, including dressage and eventing, in order to be allowed to breed. Mares have strict requirements too. Sometimes, when yet another asshole is advertising his unbroke, crappy-hipped, pigeon-toed, straight-shouldered nag as "great foundation breeding stock," I go and read the Oldenburg Registration Rules (warning: pdf). It's like a cool drink of water in a burning desert.

Now, you might think they're being a little snobby, what with all the rules. But they're not at all breed snobs. Over the years, the Oldenburg folks regularly brought in a few carefully selected Throughbreds, Anglo-Arabians, Hanoverians, Holsteiners, Westphalians, and Trakehners to improve their breed-- basically, any horse of the same type. This is still done on a limited basis today, to ensure genetic diversity and to capture the best traits of horses of the same type.

Oldenburg horses aren't my favorite. I'm a western fan. Tall elegance is great and all, but give me short-and-stocky any time. However, this breed organization is doing it right. The Oldenburg is not a populous breed, but you will note that they are not allowing crappy horses into their studbooks just to "preserve/promote the breed" or rake in more membership fees. Oldenburgs have a cool past-- but the breeders are not using it as a justification for the horses' existences. The breeders of Oldenburgs ensure quality by breeding only "papered" horses, but they aren't obsessed with "purity" and are flexible enough to introduce non-Oldenburg bloodlines when it's necessary. They have an ideal horse type in mind, and are constantly striving to get there. They are, above all, effectively improving their breed. And I say effective because the improvement is directly linked to measurable things: conformation, athletic performance, health, competition scores, etc. No horse breed/registry/organization is perfect, but these guys seem to be the Gold Standard in the horse world.

For a close-up look at some great Oldenburgs here in the north, let's journey a bit west to Wayzata, Minnesota. It's quite close to Minneapolis, and it's home to the Thomas Farm. The Thomas family are the proud owners of Patriot, pictured above, who was second alternate for the 2000 Olympics. Patriot  is getting up there in years, but wow, check out his 2011 winning performance at the Germany Grand Prix at Wintermuhle! Video here. I love the funky music towards the end, and I love that Patriot seems so into his performance. His ears are attentive but relaxed and happy. His tail is mobile, almost beating in time with the music, not wringing in frustration like some dressage horses. He's springy, full of joie de vivre. Awesome. Germany loved Patriot so much he's standing at stud there, and has a Lifetime Breeding License based on his performance in dressage.

You can read more about Oldenburg horses here and at the Oldenburg Registry North America. News about newly licensed or denied Oldenburger stallions frequently appears on Eurodressage, where there is also currently an interesting article about a new pact of cooperation between the Oldenburger folks and the Westfalian folks. Holy shit, horse breed societies working together to ensure the welfare of horses and the horse world! I wish that happened in the USA more often.


  1. Ooh, auction report? I have been itching to go ever since I sold my project Max, but I'm not allowed until I also sell my other project Kota. So I'm going to live vicariously through others until then.
    Also, that horse was such a lovely mover!

  2. Yes, wouldn't it be nice if all breeders bred for the full package?

  3. Aww, that's SO COOL that you mention the Oldenburgs, specifically Thomas Farm. I actually had the pleasure of being the "official" photographer from the 2012 inspections at Thomas Farm. What a neat experience. I forget the judge's name, but he was so informative and a truly nice individual.

    If you want to see some gorgeous babies, here's a link to my album from last summer. Definitely could stand some improvement, as far as my photography goes, but it was hard when the stuck me in the middle of the "triangle" and I had to pivot around in a circle. Lots of fun though. And the foals were just a riot!

  4. WOW, gorgeous horses indeed-- and GREAT photos! Thank you so much for sharing!