Friday, August 30, 2013

Witness the Opening of Pandora's Box

The American Quarter Horse Association recently lost itscourt case over cloning, which means that eventually, cloned Quarter Horses may be able to obtain registration papers.  While AQHA makes it’s appeal, most of the membership share a common standpoint of disappointment and disgust on this turn of events.  Only a very small group of people want clones included in the registry, and despite years and years of consistent opposition, they have used vast amounts of money to force cloning upon us.  I can’t help but feel that in the trajectory of history, this decision could mean ruin for our breed.  

I have written previously about all the reasons I believe allowing clones in the registry is wrong; if you’d like to read that, clickhere.
If no one wants clones, then how did we get here?  Money!  It costs an incredible amount to get a cloned foal on the ground, and only in a case where a person stands to make a ton of money is an individual cloned.  Dr. Veneklasen, who has set up an equine reproductive clinic in Texas to do clones, is at the center of the lawsuit – I can bet that his biggest motivator is NOT that he is trying to further the breed, but is instead thinking about how much money he will make once registration legitimizes his practices.  It is, after all, a breach of anti-trust lawsuit.  But what impact will this have on the breed?  What will the 20, 30, 50 year affect be of breeding the same individual horse (or small group of horses), over and over and over?  How will we be able to track those clones when line breeding starts to occur? How will this affect genetic disorders, both the ones that we know of now, and those that have yet to emerge?  Once we go down this road, we will not be able to turn back.  What might seem like a small rule change will have lasting detrimental effects that we can't even begin to understand right now.

I am horrified at the thought of going to a competition, and witnessing clones competing against each other.  How about many multiples of clones competing against each other?  Now, wouldn’t that be fun? We already see the same bloodlines endlessly crossed on each other in the show pen – next, it will be literally the same horse over and over.  Raise your hand if you think this would be a HUGE turn off, for members and for people outside the business that we might want to draw in.  Cloning will remove the glorious ART of breeding, the ability of the studious breeder to blend bloodlines, assess strengths and conformation, taking chances on outcrosses that might produce the next Great One.  Cloning reduces it to creating widgets.  The next widget is just like the one before it.  "'Cause that widget made us lots of money!"

I have seen people write that cloning is like a bloodline that you don’t like; if you don’t like it, you don’t buy it or breed it.  So, if we just ignore it, it will go away?  Oh my, how I wish this were true!  While I do agree that we all should make a conscious decision NOT to feed the cloning beasts in any way, I must disagree that by simply not buying those horses, or breeding to them, that we are doing our best to safeguard the integrity of the breed.   It is the conscientious breeder's responsibility to protect the breed's integrity.  In the same way that it is a knowledgeable observer's duty to step up and do something when they see someone beating their horse behind a barn at a show, it is the astute breeder's duty to step up for the breed in the case of clones, and do what they can to block their being legitimized.  There will always be people who aspire to be a big shot, there will always be people who are only in horses to make a buck, there will always be people who want the newest, latest toy but don’t think twice about discarding it later.   We cannot allow those people to make decisions that will severely impact those of us that breed for a better horse tomorrow (instead of horses that are long dead) and want to be here for the long haul. We have too much to lose. Excellent horse breeding requires a long view, and the long view of clones is one of suspended animation and a shrinking gene pool.  
I am against giving clones papers of any kind.  I know there are people with the theory that by giving clones papers, even in some sort of appendix, we will be able to somehow control the clone producers, and keep them honest.   If a person is of a mind to be dishonest, and, say, switch a clone’s semen for semen from an animal that is the ‘real thing,’ a piece of paper isn’t going to stop them.   Won’t the real thing always be more valuable, and therefore, more profitable than that from a clone, even a clone with papers?  I’d love to think that people would do the honorable thing, but the problem is, I have met too many people in the horse business that would sell their granny up the river if it made them some money! The point is, once cloning starts happening on a larger scale, and is given more legitimacy by allowing registration, we are going to see the cost of producing clones drop, we are going to see more people doing it, and we are going to see more people doing shady things around it.  From what I have heard, it has already started to happen!  This genie is already out of the lamp!

 This at a time when AQHA , NRHA and NCHA are already facing incredible challenges.  AQHA is under scrutiny in their push to keep slaughter as a national option for keeping horse prices higher, even though over 70% of slaughtered horses are Quarter Horses, and polls show that most Americans don’t want slaughter.  Over-breeding is a shameful but commonplace practice within our industry, but AQHA won’t address it because they make money off those registrations, even if the horse is slaughtered before it reaches its three year old year.  NRHA and NCHA have been embroiled in scandal after scandal, many turning into lawsuits and embarrassing spectacles that have shed light on the greed many ‘elite’ members of these associations possess.   Since most of the clones produced so far are performance horses, and not halter or pleasure horses, I can only conclude that this decision will affect reiners and cutters the most.  Which makes sense, since reining and cutting has been the only segment of the entire horse industry that has consistently grown, in both members and prize money available, in the past ten years.   Yes, NRHA and NCHA are performance associations, so they don’t have the responsibility of registration, but the breeding practices of their members are driving the greed behind cloning.  There is so much money at stake, and so much pressure to rise within the ranks, that it is inevitable that some will be willing to do anything to gain status.  
I am of the opinion that allowing the registration of clones will hurt our industry at a time when participation is already starting to wane. Many people are leaving reining and cutting because it seems that an elite few in high places pull the strings, and the cloning case only furthers that perception. We are sacrificing the long term goals and success of everyone involved for the short term gain of a few well-connected individuals. Allowing clones in any capacity is shooting ourselves in the foot.
But don’t think that cloning is just an AQHA problem.  If those who stand to gain from producing clones can force their way in to a member-driven association like AQHA, they surely can do it to other registries.  I am hoping that AQHA continues to fight and that the case is heard by a judge that is familiar with breeding animals.   This is a precedent that affects all horsemen.  May we all thank Judge Mary Lou Robinson for her ability, with the stroke of a pen, to put the horses of the world, and the traditions the make up horse breeding, at risk for a downfall.

 In a recent conversation with another breeder, a metaphor came to me…..that of the difference between mass-produced plastic spoons, and heirloom silver, hand-engraved, spoons.   Which would you rather eat off of?  Which would you rather keep for your kids to use?   Horses that we have bred up to this point, that are a unique combination of sire and dam, whose bloodlines have been carefully developed and crossed , that may be from the only time a mare and stallion were crossed because soon thereafter, one of them died – those horses are the heirloom silver spoons.  The unique, wonderful gift that we can offer future generations of horsemen which will always be useful, and whose value rests on integrity of lineage.  The clones are the plastic spoons; sure, you might be able to eat off one, but it looks like every other spoon, it isn’t as good as the original, and because there are so many just like it, it isn’t worth that much to the next generation.  The only person happy about the plastic spoon is the guy who owns the plastic spoon factory.  The rest of us are just witnesses to the end of an era.