Saturday, February 1, 2014

If The Horseshoe Fits

When you hear the term ‘backyard breeder,’ what comes to mind?  Does this term call up negative connotations, complete with images of unwanted horses that are unmarketable? Or is it a term that you associate with the small breeder – a person who is simply doing things on a smaller scale than the ‘big boys?’ I have read a lot of articles lately that name the backyard breeder as the scourge of the industry, and deride those whom they see as backyard breeders as ruining everything for the rest of us.  Personally, I dislike the term backyard breeder because it is a misnomer and its meaning has been twisted to mean a person who doesn’t know anything about breeding horses.   But aren’t there plenty of people who are proud to say they produce horses that are of good quality on an individual (rather than mass produced) basis?  Some prefer the term ‘homebred,’ but again, I don’t think that term helps anyone make a distinction within the industry. 

I, for one, produce horses at my house, literally in my backyard/pastures, one at a time, with love and care, and with a substantial, lifelong knowledge of conformation, bloodlines, proper feed and care.  My farm is beautiful and safe, but modest and small (just 20 acres). My mares are good-looking, well-put together and have great dispositions; even if they themselves don’t have a show record, I am very critical in my decision to breed them.  I only produce a baby or two every few years, so my total numbers are really low. All of my babies are handled DAILY (which cannot be said for many of the big name farms), and receive excellent training when they come of age.  I breed/raise them to keep them because if something goes wrong (which is a real possibility), I will not, WILL NOT throw an animal away, selling them at the local auction where they are likely to end up with either someone who won’t or can’t treat them well, or being shipped on a long, tortuous journey toward a bolt to the head.  If we do sell one, I do my best to place them well, and am tenacious in following their progress.  Any horse I produce is always welcome back here. 

YET – I am not independently wealthy, nor do I have family money to prop up my horse endeavors.  I do not have a lavish facility.  I don’t advertise in industry magazines.  I don’t show (though plenty of others are showing my horses). I don’t schmooze with the current trainer-du-jour and prefer to keep a low profile.  I don’t follow breeding trends.  Again, I only produce a few horses compared to others within the industry. In other words, I am not a Big Name Breeder.  It would be easy for those with more money than me to look down their nose and throw around the negative connotation of ‘backyard breeder’ in describing what my husband and I do, but wouldn’t our absence from the industry be a bad thing?  We have recently seen many of the BNBs fold under the enormous financial pressure of breeding hundreds of mares per year, promoting stallions and sending tons of young horses to the show pen.  The costs for maintaining their gorgeous facilities are astronomical and the pressure to keep their brand visible at shows and in publications is crushing. 

The era of the BNB is steadily coming to an end.  Things I won’t miss:  Production sales where the culls are sold cheap or sent to slaughter.  Stallions that are over bred because they are owned by so-and so.  The cult of personality that goes along with believing that a famous name equals a great horse, and all the sucking up that attends to that belief.  A shrinking gene pool because one farm can produce hundreds of animals whose pedigrees are incredibly similar.  The list goes on….

Those of us who are conscientious small breeders are the industry equivalent of the middle class, and we are the base, the bedrock, on which the rest of the industry is built.  Most of us will still be here when the BNB are overspent, exhaust their trust funds or grow frustrated by a change in breeding trends that renders their stallion unfashionable.   Breeding out of your ‘backyard’ often means that you try to keep costs in balance with potential gains, you are frugal, have staying power because you don’t have to put on airs, and you are breeding for an animal that YOU like (with well-thought out reasons for being proud of it), not what you think will sell big at the NRHA/NCHA or whatever sales.   I am not trying to demonize the wealthy; it is just that I have been around long enough to have seen big spenders come and go, and watched too many folks get caught up in the aftermath of a breeding program based only on superficial accoutrements. 

I do believe that there are plenty of people out there who should not be breeding horses.  There always has been!  How do we address that element of our industry?  How about using the terms ‘substandard breeder’, and conversely, an ‘industry standard breeder’ to separate the classes of breeders?   While wordier, these terms are certainly more accurate and descriptive of the distinctions we’d like to make. 

A substandard breeder would be a person who breeds without regard to the future of the foal produced.  They can’t afford to feed/care for the animals they already own, and lack the knowledge, capability and/or means to train their animals.  They see Craiglist or similar internet sites as legitimate outlets for their horses – dump them cheaply and without care as to where they end up.  They routinely sell horses for less than $1,000. Their horses’ pedigrees have no recognizable names for several generations back.  They breed solely for color or some other singular trait.  They don’t see the danger in breeding horses ‘so their kids can experience having a baby horse’ or because ‘my horses are my fur babies’ or even because ‘my mare is so sweet.’  They see no need to prove any of the horses they produce, even at local competitions.  They lack even the most basic understanding of conformation, and cannot evaluate their animals objectively.  They won’t accept that some of their stock just isn’t good enough to be bred.  They throw away their horses when they get too old to breed or get injured, and are unmarketable.  And perhaps the worst thing, they don’t see their personal contribution to the over-abundance of unwanted horses on the market by their decision to breed horses that aren’t in demand (and this could also be said for those who breed dogs as well).

An industry standard breeder is, of course, the opposite of all those things, but also, one who embraces a long-term vision for the horse they’d like to produce which is based on study and experience.  I might also say that it requires an incredible amount of character; to take legitimate criticisms of their stock, to be flexible when the market changes and operations must be downsized, to see way down the road and anticipate, realistically, where they are headed, seek the advice of others who are higher in the industry pecking order than themselves, and to stick with it even when things get difficult.  Being a conscientious breeder, of any size, is not a whim or a hobby, and it isn’t for the faint of heart.  It’s OK to be a small breeder, as long as you are doing it with integrity.

So which are you?  No one wants to admit they are substandard.  No one wants to cop to any of the traits of being a bad breeder.  But if you read through the paragraph above that describes a substandard breeder, and can see yourself in even one of those traits, maybe, just maybe, you should ask yourself if you might be one, and are impacting our industry in a negative way. It isn’t an easy thing to admit, but if the horseshoe fits…..The good news is that even if you suspect that you might be doing the wrong things, YOU CAN CHANGE.  You can stop breeding the horses that aren’t good enough.  You can get educated.  You can do right by the animals you have now, as well as the horses you want to have in the future. Be honest with yourself, and remember, if you aren’t prepared to do something right, you shouldn’t do it.  Don’t our horses deserve that?