Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Being positive...or Why do I breed horses?

I've been thinking a lot about breeding and specifically of course, about breeding Akhal-Tekes.  I thought I'd expound a little here about my experiences and lessons learned, in a positive way.

Me and Astrachan when he was 4 at one of his first public outings, in 1994

My qualifications to address this:  27 years owning, training and competing Akhal-Tekes and Akhal-Teke crosses.  18 years of breeding with the first foal I bred (for a client) born in 1995. 

Breeding horses (or most likely any animal) is a labor of love.  Very few people make money at it and that old saw about "How to make a small fortune with horses?  Start with a large one" has an awful lot of merit.  I breed Tekes because I love them, their essence, their devotion and intelligence and their wonderful athletic ability.  It's certainly not because I'm making money, ha!  I had this conversation with some foreign guests a few years back:

Guest (as we're passing a casino) "Do you go to the casinos and gamble?"

Me: "I don't need to, I breed horses."
Salam and me in 2009

Kind of flippant I know, but it really is true.  Most of the breeders I know buy the best mares possible, breed to the best stallion for that mare (in their opinion and price range) and take excellent care of the mare and the ensuing foal.  You feed the mare well, take care of her feet and veterinary needs, take care of the foal, handle it so it's happy around people and then hopefully sell it as a foal to an excellent home that will take great care of it, train and compete it to the best of it's ability and keep it forever.  In a perfect world, this is what happens.  Of course, there are often snags such as:

You do all the above and no one buys the foal until it's 6 or 7, well broke and then they want to pay $1500.  As I figure it costs ME around $3500 to get a foal on the ground to weaning, this is obviously a losing proposition.  Add in 5 or so years of upkeep, vet work, farrier visits, any assorted oopsies and you're well in the hole.  It would be less if one has lots of land that is paid for or a nice relative in the hay business.

You breed your nice mare to a nice stallion and the resulting foal has some sort of problem.  IF you can get it fixed (money), you might have a saleable horse or you might have a pasture pal.  Doesn't matter if you've done this exact breeding with great results 10 times, the 11th can make you scratch your head and wonder what happened.  If you're breeding, it will happen sooner or later.

You do everything right and the mare has problems and you end up with a huge vet bill and if you're lucky, a healthy mare and foal.  If you're not lucky, you lose one or both and end up with a huge vet bill.

So, why do people breed at all?  Aren't there a million free horses out there?  Aren't there unwanted horses by the dozen.  Yep, there are.  A responsible breeder breeds an animal only if they are willing to keep it forever (see foal with a problem).  In our breed, there is a slowly growing population, but they are still very endangered.  If one believes that the Akhal-Teke (or insert the breed of your choosing) is worth continuing on, we need breeders.   I think it's a great thing that we can now say about a specific horse "That horse shouldn't be bred".  20 years ago that really wasn't an option here.  I'm thrilled when I see lovely geldings these days that 20 years ago would be breeding stallions.  There are mares too that haven't had a foal and never will.  This is ok. 

I also see people lamenting that our breed has so many problems, the people in charge are corrupt, etc etc.  Yeah, so what?  If you look at EVERY OTHER breed out there (at least in horses, although I hear the dog world is worse), they all go through exactly the same process.  We aren't special (just the horses!).  I remember talking to one of the first Friesian breeders in the Pacific NW many, many years ago.  She moaned about how the mother studbook didn't listen, how hard it was to communicate with them, how hard it was to get people to want to even look at the funny, black horses.  I hear some of the same comments nowadays about Tekes.  Yes, there are problems.  When you have more than a few people involved in just about anything, there will be problems.  Yes, things could be better in some ways, but we're a lot further than we were 20 some years ago, at least in the States.

I remember talking to a lovely lady about 20ish years ago who was working at the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (it was named something else back then) and  I whined and moaned about all the problems we had with our breed.  She told me we should consider ourselves lucky in many ways and then gave examples of things that have gone on in other breeds.  We're doing pretty ok overall.  Her final comment was "Have you had to have the police come to any of your national conferences?".  I told her no and she gave me several examples of that exact thing happening.  We're really doing pretty good overall.

So, my advice to breeders and wanna be breeders:

1.  Don't expect to get rich.  Make sure that you can afford the occasional problem with your horses.  After all, they are horses and horses can and will have problems now and again. 

2.  Be prepared for the 'buyers' that call and ask for that 16 hand, golden, international-caliber gelding....for $1500.  Yep, I've had tons of those.  I've had people tell me "I can just go to the auction and pick up a slaughter Arab for $200, why should I pay your price?".  Nowadays, you can pick up free Arabs, TBs, etc left and right.  So why SHOULD you pay my price? 

A: it's a Teke and I've carefully picked the sire and dam to (hopefully) produce a better horse than either sire or dam.  This ancient breed has many qualities that you don't find in your average horse.  If you only want a horse, please, go rescue some poor creature.  Sometimes that works out well, sometimes it doesn't.  A Teke is a whole 'nother animal - intelligent, sensible, athletic, smooth to ride and a partner.  If you only want a piece of sports equipment, there really isn't any reason to buy a Teke.

B:  I've fed the mare and foal very well during pregnancy and after.  The foal has the best chance possible to be all it can be. 

C:  I've handled said foal from birth, daily.  It might only be 5 or so minutes a day, but that is all you need.  The foal has had it's feet trimmed, been deworming, gotten any vaccinations necessary.  Once again, everything for it to reach it's full potential.

Nothing better than a brand new baby- Miras a few minutes after birth, Monica Bretherton photo

I have people come to the farm to visit and/or look at horses and many are amazed at how friendly my horses are.  Why wouldn't they be?  I take the time necessary to handle my  horses correctly, instill excellent ground manners and I am ALWAYS consistent.  If you don't have time to handle foals or can't hire someone, don't breed.  Showing off a frightened, wild 4 or 5 month old foal that hasn't had it's hooves trimmed or ever had a halter on doesn't do anyone any good.

D:  If the horse is here long enough (sigh), it then gets to be a riding horse and we try to get them out to shows, on the trails etc.  Every little bit helps.

3 Cascade Gold 'babies' at Home on the Range a few years back.  Craig Mayfield photo

If I haven't scared you off yet, then welcome to the club.  I started with one mare back in 1986.  She was so special, so wonderful and so great to ride that I felt I needed to let other people share in her fabulousness.  So, I bought a young stallion, another mare and a stallion prospect (who ended up being gelded and was my riding horse for years).  I've never looked back.  There was ONE Akhal-Teke in the Pacific Northwest in 1986.  Now there are at least a hundred purebreds and many, many more partbreds.  Are they all utilized to the best of their ability?  Probably many are not, but the majority do something - either as a favored trail horse, a member of the family, or something athletic.  It would be great if we could get horses to top competitors to promote the breed's athleticism, but that is a whole 'nother blog. 

What about the horses that keep going from home to home?  Be prepared to take that horse back.  As a breeder, we have an obligation to our horses.  The best possible thing is to sell them to someone who will love and care for them as we do (and pay us enough to keep going with our breeding program).  Sometimes, that doesn't happen.  I sold a weanling to a lovely woman years back.  She had him for about 2 years and then turned 50 and went a little nuts.  She left her husband, her job, and moved to a far state with a new boyfriend.  The horses were to go too, except that the truck broke down in Oregon.  So, she paid a farmer to board them until she could come and get them...except, she never could come and get them.  I got a call from the farmer (bless him) that she hadn't paid board for 4 or 5 months and he didn't know what to do.  He'd heard through the grapevine that I had bred one of her horses.  Road trip!  We brought the sad, little guy home (he'd never been starved, just bottom of the heap and ignored) and another horse and gave him a few years to grow up and regain trust.  He's now a valued member of a family.  I also have 3 (sigh) retirees.  Khano, (Astrachan, my #1 in the nation once in a lifetime stallion) is a retired gelding, now rather round, but totally happy.  Anastasia, also a fantastic mare has given me many fine foals and when that started to be hard for her, she became  'Auntie Annie', giving younger mares plenty of advice and support.  And Mazzie, my 16.2 hand, golden boy, who carried me through many shows, expos, and my first endurance ride, then arthritis and hoof problems demoted him to school horse and then husband horse.  His arthritis is bad enough now that he's retired, but he's still bright and happy and if he's a bit stiff, well, that sure doesn't stop the playing with his buds.

Really, it's a numbers game.  If you have enough horses out there, there is a bell curve - some will be fantastic, some middle of the road and then the bottom of the curve for whatever reason.  Endurance people are always saying "why aren't there a bunch of Tekes in very high level competition?", which in endurance means 100 milers.  Numbers, folks.  If you have 50 horses total competing in a sport, you don't have a lot of room for the top of the bell curve.  Maybe 3 or 4 horses are up to that top level (FEI), but they need owners that are also at that top level.  In the Arab world there are a million (probably not an exaggeration) competing.  That leaves a whole heck of a lot for the top of the bell curve.  It also leaves a whole lot on the bottom (see free Arabs).  Tekes have actually done quite well if you look at percentages (and no, I don't have those numbers, but I do remember that the first breeder in the States once did a percentage thing on his horses and it was amazing!  He also had big bucks, which certainly helps).  Most of the Teke owners today are 30-60 something women, who also have families, husbands, children, jobs, who love their horses but don't have the deep pockets to promote their horses to the absolute best of their ability.  Is this a bad thing?  No, not in my book.  My main riding horse, Galen, has been competing with me for 9 years now (although this year looks like a wash) and I'm always grateful to get 2 or 3 rides in before the kids are out of school, hay season, etc etc.  Could he have been a huge star with someone else?  Maybe.  He has the athletic ability.  Would I let him go to someone that could do 100s....very doubtful.  Not only is he 'my guy', but I want to enjoy him for many more years.
People that can campaign their horses to high levels of their sport leave me in awe.  I know the time, energy, commitment, talent and amount of money that would take.

Galen and I at the Mt. Adams limited distance endurance ride a few years back.  We're having a blast even if we're not setting the endurance world on fire.  I'm afraid I'm not that athletic anymore!

OK, so this is a long winded discourse.  So, say I haven't scared you off from breeding - what can YOU do to make the breed of your choice better and better the chances you don't end up with every animal you've ever bred in your backyard?

Simple:  Be positive.

Simple, but not always easy.  Positive in your dealings with the public, positive in your dealings with other breeders.  Remember the old saying "If you can't say something nice..don't say anything at all?"  Well, try to apply that.  Yes, there are problems.  So, being an adult, see what you can do to help those problems.  If you don't like the national organization (or there isn't one), start one or help out by volunteering.  I started the first Akhal-Teke newsletter in North America (that went more than one issue) in 1995.  I did that newsletter for 8 years and it ended up going to around 20 countries around the world.  I helped start the ATAA (Akhal-Teke Association of America) and I'm still very involved (and doing the ATAA newsletter).

Don't trash talk other people's farms and horses.  Let me tell you, it's a small, small world.  Your comments to a friend in some distant state WILL get back to the person you trashed.  I have tons of 'small world' anecdotes.

Help out other breeders and owners, even if they don't have one of your horses.  Someone is having trouble with a horse?  Don't say "Well, it's because you bought it from x",   Say, "How can I help?"

We have more and more people that are trading mares and stallions around - right now I have 2 lease mares, both much nicer than I can afford to buy.  They will (hopefully) produce fillies for me and then will go home to their owners.  So far, that whole lease mare = filly hasn't been working so well, but I'm sure producing some nice colts! 

Join your association, even if you don't agree with everything they do.  Everything won't be to your absolute satisfaction - remember the old proverb "Please all, please none".  If you get involved, perhaps you can help nudge people in the direction YOU think they should go.   Over the years, many new Teke owners have been turned off from the breed, not by the horses, but by the people involved.  Remember the whole 'small world' thing?  Yep.  Word does get around.

Do your best, in breeding the best you have to the best you can find.  Do the best you can for the mare while pregnant, take fabulous care of the foal and handle them correctly.

Keep in touch with the people that have bought your horses and provide support and mentoring.  I have many good friends that own a horse (or two) that I bred.    

In other words:  Be positive.