Learning from the Past: The Importance of PedigreesFebruary 1, 2022
There’s an old saying that still echoes on, particularly in the racehorse breeding world: “Breed the best to the best and hope for the best.” It’s still relevant today because, at least partially, it’s true. There’s always some uncertainty involved when breeding horses, but thanks to breed registries and their detailed books, we don’t have to entirely rely on luck, either. Pedigrees can help to take some of the uncertainty out of breeding, and they help breeders to make well-informed and strategic decisions daily.
For many breeders, the past holds essential hints about what to expect from future generations. Jill Malone, Ph.D., owner of Cielo Azure Lusitanos in Madison, Va., relies heavily on the Lusitano database to select her breeding stock. “I’m very lucky in that I breed a horse in which there’s extensive documentation, including an inspection process,” she says. “I use pedigrees to get a snapshot of what the parents were like, so I can breed strength to strength.”
Malone also seeks out specific bloodlines that she wants to see reflected in her horses. She particularly looks for horses who are succeeding at FEI-level dressage. “We have some tried and true lineages for dressage in Lusitanos. I want to see them represented on the sire’s side,” she explains. Similarly, Malone tries to stay away from some of the bullfighting lineages that tend to produce horses who are on the smaller side and who have sharper temperaments. “They’re good for bullfighting, but not for amateur dressage,” she says.
Ryan Pedigo, owner of Pedigo Farms, Inc.; Ryan Pedigo Sport Horses, Inc.; and Pedigo Farms Riding School in Riverside, Calif., also emphasizes the use of pedigree to breed a horse to a specific goal or purpose. “Bloodlines are so important, and they’ve worked well for me. I’ve had the privilege of building my program around horse families,” he explains. “I’m pretty conservative with sticking with what works for me, and knowing what I’m wanting to produce. You’ll see me branch off and bring in some different stallion lines, but my mare lines are super consistent.”
Pedigo is also quick to note the importance that mares play in pedigrees. “Many people quickly pass judgment on stallions, bloodlines, and pedigrees,” he explains. “But the mare’s portion of the pedigree is one of the most important parts.” Pedigo notes that when considering a stallion’s pedigree, it’s important to pay close attention to the mares present and to study the pedigree as a whole.
While pedigree is important in making breeding decisions, breeders need to also consider other factors, and many weigh not only pedigree, but also factors like temperament, conformation, performance success, and rideability. David Brown of Last Laugh Farm in Grantville, Pa. weighs multiple factors in choosing the horses that he wants to breed. “I think there’s a significant difference between a horse’s success in the show ring and his success in the breeding barn,” he says. “I don’t stay away from looking at a horse’s performance, but I don’t give it the same weight as I do pedigree, conformation, temperament, and gaits.”
How Pedigrees Help with Matchmaking
One of the greatest challenges breeders face is finding the right mare and stallion pairing. By reviewing pedigrees, breeders can get a sense of the traits that a horse is likely to pass down, and can work to find the best pairing possible. “You don’t want to breed two horses that are good looking just because they’re good looking,” explains Malone. “I like to breed strength to strength and stay away from weaknesses. You never want to breed weak to weak.”
To find those strengths, Malone reviews pedigrees, often looking closely at the first and second generations but sometimes going back to the third and fourth. “If the grandparents or great-grandparents are doubled up, that has some weight to me in terms of what traits the horse is going to pass,” she says. Malone also reviews photos of the parents and grandparents to understand the physical build and traits that each parent would bring to a foal.
When evaluating a breeding stallion, Brown also tends to review pedigrees about four generations back. “Gathering that information is getting easier, and most of the websites that you’ll use to do your research have pedigrees that go three, four, or five generations back.”
Brown often breeds stallions to Thoroughbred mares, and he looks specifically for horses within the pedigree that have the qualities he wants in the foals. “More recent generations of Thoroughbreds have been raised for early development and early speed, as opposed to 25 years ago when the breed was hardier, with good bone and muscle. I try to go back to those older, hardier horses and look for them in a pedigree. Then I look to see which of the historical sires ended up impacting three-day eventers and jumpers.” To accomplish this, Brown reviews many generations in the pedigrees, which he’s able to accomplish because of the amount of information that the Jockey Club and other sources store. “There’s a terrific amount of data available,” he says.
Pedigo also tends to look three to four generations back in a pedigree, and he notes the influence that line breeding can have on offspring. “When a horse is line bred, the breeders have brought the same sire in on both sides of the pedigree, which intensifies all of that stallion’s qualities in that pedigree,” he says. “Linebreeding is a very important tool.”
Pedigo uses pedigrees to help create the specific type of foal that he wants to produce. He’s carefully created families of mares with desirable types, conformations, temperaments, sizes, looks, and rideability. “The mares are the whole package,” he says. “But from there, I can create a horse with a little more refinement, or a little more bone and substance, depending on the stallion I choose.”
When it comes to making a final decision on which horses to breed, Brown uses pedigrees in a slightly different way: He looks for the stories they tell. Since Brown sells most of his horses very young, before they’ve had a chance to establish a performance record, he relies on their physical characteristics, personalities, and the stories he can tell potential buyers based on the horse’s pedigree. “I look for interesting stories I can highlight in discussing the young horses,” says Brown.
Helping to Reduce Uncertainty
Pedigree research gives breeders another tool they can use to better predict the outcome of a mare and stallion match. As a result, it can help to reduce some of that unpredictability that’s inherent with breeding.
Brown has found that doubling down on genetics can increase the chance of a foal inheriting the physical traits that you wanted him to have. “I’ll try to find a sire that has those desirable genetics on top and on the bottom, so there’s some concentration of the bloodline in the sire line,” he says.
Brown finds that a foal’s physical appearance tends to be pretty predictable. Personality, performance, and trainability? Those aren’t as predictable. Sometimes you get a horse that is just born to be what you want it to be, and other times you get a horse that doesn’t have interest in becoming what you’d planned for him.”
While strategic breeding decisions based on pedigrees can result in more consistency in the offspring, breeders still encounter plenty of surprises. Malone often uses embryo transfer, but the resulting foals can vary significantly. Even when three full siblings are born within a month or two of each other, Malone says she’s surprised by how different they can be. “I discourage buyers from doing an in utero contract for this reason,” she explains. “There’s such a difference, and I don’t think an in utero contract is in the buyer’s best interest.”
Malone explains that while line breeding can result in less variation among offspring, there can still be huge differences between siblings. Factors like diet, environment, age of the mare, and health of the mare can all impact the foal.
Pedigo also finds that many people tend to pass judgment on bloodlines based on one experience with a related horse, which doesn’t necessarily represent the traits that the stallion typically passes to foals. “That judgment can be inaccurate and unfair,” he explains. “So much plays into the horse, including its upbringing.”
Rather than assessing a stallion based on an interaction with one of its offspring, Pedigo encourages a more research-based approach. “I would encourage people to step back and put the time in and reach out to the breeder. Ask to see a foal, a yearling, and a two-, three-, six-, and nine-year old by that stallion. When you see that many offspring, you’re going to have a really accurate base for the type of horse that stallion tends to produce.”
It’s also important to understand that buyers have a direct influence on a horse’s future. “So much of your program’s outcome is really dependent on the people you’re lucky enough to sell your horse to,” explains Brown. “I’ve produced some horses that I knew would have been fabulous quality horses, and they’ve had nice lives with their owners, but they really haven’t done anything.” In situations where the owners don’t have the patience, ambition, or financial backing needed to pursue the career they’d planned on when they bought the horse, the result can mean that the horse never truly gets the chance to demonstrate its talent. “It’s much harder to find the right buyer than it is to breed the right horse,” says Brown.
Learning About Pedigrees
When it comes to buying a young prospect, understanding and reviewing pedigrees can help riders and trainers to choose the right horse. The ability to assess pedigree is also essential for any owner who might be considering breeding their own horse. But Malone has found that owners tend to overlook flaws in their own horses. “People don’t look at pedigrees closely enough. They rely on what their own eye tells them about their own horse, but they don’t evaluate the horse as critically as they should for conformation and gaits,” she says.
“If you are a serious rider, in particular, evaluating pedigrees and evaluating the temperament of the parents (which doesn’t always come out in the pedigrees) is critical. It also helps to speak with the owners of the sire and dam about temperament,” says Malone. She recommends that owners visit their breed’s website and review the pedigrees available online. Contacting breeders and researching the pedigrees of the horses that you like can also be helpful.
Brown also notes that the internet has made huge amounts of pedigree information easily accessible. “In terms of the history of some of these bloodlines, registries have wonderful historians who write articles for magazines or books about strong pedigrees. The information is just everywhere.”
By Paige Cerulli