The Thoroughbred (or other racehorse) genetic contribution is essential for our sport horse success. There is no true sport horse without the athleticism, speed and stamina that only come with racehorse genetics. Our sport horses are usually not pure-bred, but instead are a combination of several different breeds brought together in the effort to produce an exceptional equine athlete that can succeed at Olympic style sport of Jumping, Dressage or Eventing. See Sport Horse Recipe for the most commonly found ingredients.
[Aqua Tom and Helen Hayn, a team with several National titles, then moved up, seen here at preliminary level, soon moved up to Intermediate level, and from there to advanced. Tom is 5/8 Tb and 3/8 Holstein.]
It is time for some plain talk. I may lose a portion of my readers at this point, but if you press on you will discover some interesting and relevant facts about the Thoroughbred and its value to our sport horse goals. We cannot afford to be misled any longer; thirty years after the 'warmblood' invasion into America we still find it is our original sport horse- the Hunter Horse that is winning (racehorse based sport horse). We may not call those horses Hunters anymore, but that is what our modern 'warmblood' and 'sport horse' are, and it is a sport horse we have selectively bred in this country for 300 years (since 1700).
Today, the horses at the top of the sport horse leader boards whether they have a warmblood brand on their hip or not, are consistent for containing Thoroughbred blood with varying amounts of other breeds (a Hunter) - it is the Thoroughbred that is the constant in Olympic style sport horse success, not the warmblood.
What is the Thoroughbred? First and foremost it is a racehorse of the highest excellence--a galloper--its speed at the gallop is unmatched by any other breed. The Thoroughbred is also a magnificent polo horse, a steeplechaser and Hunter Horse, full or part-bred, and it also now excels at the more modern Olympic style sports. Further, it is an 'improver' for just about any other equine breed that needs an injection of athleticism, style or speed, and the proof of this is most other breed studbooks--even if closed studbooks (pure-breds) will allow Thoroughbreds also.
This makes it all the more confusing when we find the continuing resistance and truly an anti-Thoroughbred culture in the warmblood circles. Having been a participant in the warmblood fad in this country I can say from personal experience that the inclusion of the Thoroughbred in the breeding inspections was grudging and they were looked upon as a lesser animal. I heard comments as 'not more than 20%', or 'it is better if they are 2 or 3 generations back' - and the American Thoroughbred was barely tolerated: 'sprint only', 'built downhill', 'not proper saddle-horse conformation' were comments I heard continually in the 1990s, the Thoroughbred especially the American Thoroughbred was treated like something that smelled bad.
Yet the facts don't support these prejudices. If the European warmblood had not added copious amounts of both Thoroughbred and Trotter it would still be pulling a plow--the racehorse gave it sport ability, it had no sport talent until the racehorse genes were crossed in, and even then it required multiple doses over decades to lighten up and correct the movement and conformation of it's farm horse base. Don't believe me? Extend the pedigrees of your favorite sport warmblood, and it will lead back to the racehorse every time, and you will also discover the 'centuries' of European bred horses are absent, after the mid-1800s those spaces in the pedigrees are blank--nothing there, and the only lines that are recorded are the Anglo breeds: Norfolk Trotter, Yorkshire Coach, Thoroughbred, and even some American Running Horse and American Trotter.
The Thoroughbred, full or part-bred, has been a top Olympic style competitor since the 1912 Olympics when 'team equestrian' was begun. And even in modern times, the Thoroughbred still dominates the standings of top equine athletes. But don't look for the Thoroughbred breed in the 'world rankings' because as a breed it is not even tabulated--those world rankings are only for European Union approved breeds (WBFSH), contrary to the title, they do not represent the true world rankings, just their closed club. But you are not supposed to notice that, the intention is you believe those listed breeds are the true leaders in sport (see While You Were Sleeping for how this slick promotional trick was implemented).
I have been criticized for writing about the intentions of the WBFSH and the European Union owned breeds, some saying I am seeing a conspiracy where there is none (see Market Share). So perhaps you feel this way also--read the well presented opinion of a breeder who is a part of the WBFSH breeds on these practices and intentions. Dr. Tom Reed of Morningstar Stud (WBFSH accepted stock) wrote a fine article entitled "The inaccuracy of the WBFSH rankings" especially his #2 point where he outlines the unfair handling and sidelining of the Thoroughbred as a legitimate sport horse breed.
I discovered that in this country 80% of the Show Jumping Hall of Fame Inductees are full Thoroughbred. Even in the Dressage stars of the USDF Hall of Fame, of which there are only six Inductees, however 25% of the bloodlines are Thoroughbred. Eventing of course is dominated by Thoroughbred bloodlines: 45% full Thoroughbred, 50% Thoroughbred/Irish, 5% Thoroughbred/Standardbred. So, once again, the facts do not support the attitude.
Recently I began extending selected warmblood typesetters including two icons of dressage: Duellant HA and Donnerhall OL to see what exactly they were made of. Warmbloodl pedigrees can be confusing because they incorporate several breeds into their stock and then put their own breed label on the progeny and so after a generation of two you have no idea what sport breeds contributed to the ability they display. When I was figuring out the percentages of Thoroughbred in the Hall of Fame stars, I did not consider the percentages of Thoroughbred in the warmblood breeds unless it was a cross. I was in for a big surprise when I began extending their lineages. It turns out that after several generations the Thoroughbred lines are massive, with most of the 'warmblood' ancestors being 50 to 90% Thoroughbred.
The Hall of Fame horses I looked at are American standings, what about Europe? The recent DNA evaluation of the Hanoverian Horse, which is the most popular of the Warmblood breeds worldwide, is 35% Thoroughbred in the general population and 39% Thoroughbred in the stallions. That is a huge amount of another breed, and it did not get there by accident--the warmblood, a breed derived from coach and heavy agricultural stock, will revert back to 'type' without periodic infusions of more athletic breeds. (The percentage is actually higher than stated above--just like I found in the Hall of Fame inductees, if you follow the other bloodlines back--most go back to the Mecklenburg Stud, which imported not just pure Thoroughbred but the English warmbloods of Norfolk Trotter, Yorkshire Coach and Irish Hunter and all of those have considerable Thoroughbred in them already.)
So there appears to be a requirement for hypocrisy residing in the psyche of the sport horse producers, as there is a strong love-hate relationship with the Thoroughbred horse and a communal denial of what actually makes up those breeds.
The Thoroughbred is needed for the athleticism, elegance, speed, stamina and style it delivers, but often a competitor is wary for the temperament issues it may bring along for the ride. Anyone who has ridden Thoroughbreds can attest that some of them can be high-strung. We find with some Thoroughbreds that if there is excitement in the sport that it plays upon their sensitive and high tuned systems, and sometimes that translates into a animal that may be to hard to control. And that is something that comes along the genetic trail with the speed and stamina, some of them have a cranked up disposition, although many do not. This is not something new- the sport horse breeders of the early 1800s in this country were complaining about this same element. However some Thoroughbreds are bombproof and forgiving and they always deliver courage and brilliance. And like most traits in the gene pool, intelligent selective breeding should provide the remedy for this. It is we, the breeders, which need to take this concentrated sport resource and make the most of it.
Now, let me touch on some of the other criticism, such as the "American Thoroughbred is built downhill because it is a sprinter". This is one that I have heard in the past repeated like rote, and still do today, but that is just it, people are just repeating what they were told without proper evaluation, so this assessment may be just one more example of our collective lack of knowledge.
There is a trait for massive high hindquarters that is strong in the Thoroughbred. But it was the powerful early distance racing typesetter -the Godolphin Arabian who has been identified as the source of this distinctive trait. (The Godolphin Arabian is not an Arabian, he is believed to be a Turcoman Horse). Usually however the high withers of the Thoroughbred, which is an equally present attribute, not only sets saddle position but produces a more uphill frame.
The Thoroughbred is a saddle racehorse--not harness, and is renowned for imparting a good wither and saddle position on the heavy coach stock of Europe.
[The German Coach Horse--precursor to the sport type warmblood @1910--this what came out of the Mecklenburg Stud project: a coarse coach horse. Not quite ready for cross-country riding or show jumping is it?]
Speed horses often have a slightly straighter shoulder than a stamina racer, but so do most of the top show jumpers. Perhaps the myth of high massive hindquarters and a downhill frame got placed on the American strains, not by observation but by its association with its cousin the Quarter Horse, a breed that often has lower withers along with the high power hindend- a trait produced by Printer RH 1795, and part of the famous 'bull dog' frame in strains. (Note- not all QHs are conformed this way, for instance the roping and reining strains have perfect riding horse conformation).
It is horses that have been bred for harness (coach and carriage horses) that usually are the breeds that have a lower wither than a saddle horse (as seen in German Coach horse picture above), it is just selection, the harness works better this way. I guess we need to be reminded then that the majority of the warmblood breeds we reverance so much were in fact from coach horse stock, and before that farm horse stock. The low wither is part and parcel of those breeds, and was only improved with vast importations of the Thoroughbred, Trotter and Hunter stock starting in the 1800s and continuing to this day.
The critics of the Thoroughbred as breeding stock, especially the American Thoroughbred, are in my experience intent on promoting the heavier breeds of European Warmblood as superior Olympic style sport horse material. But the facts do not support this judgement. When I first wrote this article I was willing to concede that in dressage the warmblood had proven its casae. It as only recently I got the bigger picture, when I discovered the bloodlines that prove best even in dressage have a high proportion of Thoroughbred--see Dressage Hall of Fame and Donnerhall OL for examples.
In 'modern' warmblood breeding the breeders discovered that they needed more Thoroughbred to compete successfully at the highest levels in show jumping and of course eventing--and even then they heavily and successfully campaigned to revise the cross country test in eventing to more suit their slower and less athletic breeds (steeplechase portion removed).
All that aside, the modern warmblood of today is a vastly different type than what first appeared in the 1980s, back then we called them 'thudmonsters', and they were more like a coach horse then a sport horse. Today we see the modern warmblood is a Hunter-type horse, a far lighter and more athletic type, and it was the continual infusion of racehorse lines that brought about than change. Sport ability originated with the true sporting breeds of the British Isles, not some central European farm horse.
Let's consider the universal Thoroughbred improver line: Nearco. This horse is the masterpiece of a master breeder: Tesio. Originally Tesio was strictly breeding to stayer lines, but over time came to the realization that he needed some speed lines in his mix. When he used the French-bred sprinter Havresac II with his staying mare Catnip he produced Nogara, a fantastic racer and then a legendary broodmare. When he used the Phalaris son Pharos, a sire of speed horses, as Nogara's mate the result was Nearco.
There is more to the mystery of Nearco, and rarely do we hear Catnip, the head of his most successful damline (dam of Nera di Bicci as well as Nogara) was out of an American bred dam, Sibola, who traveled to England and won the prestigious One Thousand Guineas. Sibola was entered into the GSB right before the Jersey Act was enacted, and so her offspring could be entered as well. But she still carried American lines; her fourth dam Maiden RH is a daughter of the great four-mile heat racer and legendary sire Lexington RH, and her dam, Miss Obstinate carries the pacing racehorse Blackburns Whip RH, a sure provider of speed and beautiful movement. You can read all about the dynasty of Catnip and the real sources of sport, stamina and soundness in Legacy of Lexington.
The Nearco son Nasrullah is rated the #1 sport horse sireline in North America by Peter Birdsall, not just has a hunter/jumper sire, but also in eventing and most surprisingly in dressage, and Nasrullah is considered a sprinter sireline in racing. Nasrullah's dam returned more lines of Lexington RH (through Americus the dam-sire of Lady Josephine).
As breeders that aspire to produce excellence in sport performance we must do our research and apply our learning to achieving our sport goals. If we want a quiet amateur mount that can do the lower levels in our sports, than truly a nice saddle horse from just about any breed will do. However, if we have aspirations of success at a higher level of competition than the mix we create in our foals can make the difference, and one thing we can depend on is that we will need some high class Thoroughbred to succeed.
Resources and References
Sport Horse Recipe
Bloodlines of Hall of Fame Show Jumpers
USDF Hall of Fame Inductees
USCTA Hall of Fame Inductees
the American Thoroughbred and the Sprinting Issue
Stamina Lines in the American Thoroughbred
Real Stayers-- Four Mile Racers of Yesteryear