Can The Thoroughbred Still Jump?

The Contraversy:

A new industry narrative has arisen questioning the Thoroughbred as a viable sport horse for Olympic style sport and as a legitimate source of jump genetics. It goes like this: The Thoroughbred isn't a jumper breed, and it can't jump high, and while it may have had a jump at one time, that it no longer does, and therefore is useless for upper level competition or as an cross for sport horse breeding.

I ran into this version of the new dogma when I posted the running of the 2021 Virginia Gold Cup, a upper level steeplechase of 4 miles with 23 timber fences, in a few sport horse groups. The horses in the race are Thoroughbreds. Interesting discussions erupted in the comment section about the jump in the Thoroughbred, a trait that I have long contended is inherent in the breed. As a breeder, my understanding is that genes do not change ( a view shared by Dr. Bowling in Horse Genetics), that they travel down through the generations unchanged. Jumping is an inheritable trait, and proven jump bloodlines are easily identified. And the Thoroughbred is a pure-bred breed with a closed studbook, so its genetics have not become diluted by cross breeding with non-jumping stock. Not everyone agrees with me about the Thoroughbred being a jumper breed.

Two very experienced sport horse professionals disagreed with me, saying that the Thoroughbred used to have lots of good jumpers but now it does not. They said many can't jump at all and others don't jump well. I thought it odd this opinion was being floated when they were watching the proof that the Thoroughbred has a very big jump indeed (running of the Virginia Gold Cup). The jumps in the race were timber fences, not hurdle fences that a horse can brush through, but solid wood fences of 4' to 5' that require a horse to arch over like a show jumper's bascule in order to clear them without injury. I looked up the height of upper level show jumps (level 9) and saw that they are set at 4'9", and in Grand Prix, the highest level, they are set at 5'3", plus show jumpers are jumping on level groomed surfaces, not launching from uneven ground like the racers. So then, basically, a upper level jumper needs to be able to clear 5', and so does a upper level steeplechaser, so we can see the Thoroughbred does have a jump. 

The next point made against the Thoroughbred was that the percentage of Thoroughbreds that can really jump is very low compared to the warmblood jumper. But there was no percentage provided from either breed. One of the Thoroughbred critics said the horses in the steeplechase we were watching were the exception, not the norm. But that can be said in any upper level competition of any sport. And truly, how would they know when very few Thoroughbreds are ever given the chance to jump, most are used in racing alone. And what percentage of the warmbloods make it to Grand Prix? I contend that the number is very low for the warmblood as well. So, I feel that is an unfair and incorrect assessment, that it means nothing. Another critic said that you just can't find a good Thoroughbred to cross in anymore. The point being it is difficult to find a sire now-a-days like Ladykiller, Precipitation or Golden Beaker for examples.

These comments were accompanied by the recent industry buzz-word 'purpose-bred'. And now I feel we are getting to the real meat of the issue. I have run into this industry philosophy many times in the past as it is always used to dismiss the American pure-bred sport breeds, not just the Thoroughbred, but the Saddlebred, Morgan, Standardbred and others, from suitability for Olympic style sport. And it is proclaimed, like a trump card, to erase any other breed from the arena. Its a strange choice of phrase, because if you are breeder of horses, you 'purpose-breed', that is, you have a breeding goal, and you direct your stock choices and breeding designs to achieve that goal. But that is not what is meant when this phrase is thrown down as it was here, what they mean is the European Warmblood method of doing things, and the implication they are making is all other purpose-bred programs are invalid.

Because the people I was discussing this issue with were very informed, I needed to double check my own stance, because maybe I was so far out of the loop that I had missed a great sea-change that had recently occurred in the Thoroughbred and it genetics. So I opened up this discussion in a Thoroughbred rehoming group, just to get the opinion of the owners and trainers of off the track Thoroughbreds (OTTBs) to see if they found that the jump has disappeared from the breed. These people have to evaluate the fresh off the track horses, then retrain them and place them into new disciplines, so surely they would have noticed this great change in type. On the whole they said no, that the Thoroughbreds are wonderful jumpers, not just having the athletic ability but the courage to take on the scary jumps, one of them pointing out you can jump a Thoroughbred through a ring of fire, and that they were also incredible cross-country jumpers. Several did mention that some people who try Thoroughbreds never realize that you cannot use the same heavy handed methods commonly employed in the warmblood training and riding to get them to perform, because the Thoroughbred is more sensitive and will resent that type of handling and not perform well.  A few other riders there brought up the 'purpose-bred' mantra as well. One summing it up with "the warmblood breeders select for jumping techniques (or dressage movement), in the Thoroughbred breeders are selecting for various types of racing abilities." Once again the unspoken idea is that because  the majority of breeders of Thoroughbred are not breeding for jumping specifically (of course some are, but the racing industry is huge in comparison) that the jump has disappeared or perhaps faded out. That line of thought, however, is impossible genetically in a pure-bred breed, you don't lose the jump genetics, but you sure can make other factors more dominant by selection, so maybe that is what some are experiencing. 

Coming from the historical and pedigree side of things I knew that the Thoroughbred was the greatest source of jump genetics in the modern sport horse, with the Trotter, a close relative, coming in second. As you can see above the horse has a jump so powerful he cleared 8'3", the true world record for high jump--that is 3 feet higher than the Grand Prix jumpers are asked to do. The horse pictured is Great Heart, a Hackney/Thoroughbred cross, the record was set at Fort Sheridan in 1923, he repeated it later that year. Another full Hackney, Confidence won the high jump with 8' 1 1/2", and most know of the Thoroughbred Huaso who jumped 8'1". So, I cannot give even a second to the notion that the Thoroughbred (or the Trotter) was never a good jumper. The challenge then is to address their position that the Thoroughbred is no longer a jumper breed.

Their strong argument put forth was a horse must be bred in a system like the European Union instituted, what they now call 'purpose-bred', in order to be considered a real sport horse. This stance of course invalidates our pure-bred sport horse breeds in America because according to their decrees our breeds cannot be considered sport breeds because they don't set up a government run stud system like Europe does. The unfortunate side of this attempt in market domination, is that when the young equestrians hear this enough it makes sense to them. They never question those experts, nor do they consider why would our sport breeds, that historically were always sport horses, bred for excellence in hunt, racing, jumping, saddle and carriage for hundreds of years need to be purpose-bred for something that they already are? And being pure-bred the genetics that produce performance have not gone away or changed--it is a genetic impossibility. They fail to see that the European horses needed to be purpose-bred in order to elevate them into sport horses from a draft horse base. We have no such need here. Few of the modern day equestrians comprehend that the pressure behind this whole narrative is marketing, to continue to sell their horses worldwide, and to suppress other legitimate sport horse suppliers from hurting their market. Instead they accept the story that horses have to bred in this system to be good sport horses.

As I mentioned above the idea that the jump genetics evaporated from the Thoroughbred is impossible genetically, they have a closed studbook. Now within that closed population there is variation in what each horse expresses, indicating the various traits that the breed carries and could have been made dominant in a individual horse by selective breeding. If you breed a sprinter to a sprinter, the odds are you will get a sprinter, and if you keep that focus on for future generations, then you will get a sprinter typesetter. Does that mean the jump trait was eliminated? No, first many sprinters can jump well, but it means the sprint phenotype may become the dominant expressed characteristic. Let's look at what happens today when a Thoroughbred stallion that is dominant in jump genetics is bred to a warmblood population

The Living Proof the Jump is Still in the Thoroughbred

Meet Volfonic, an OTTB stallion, and a modern day jumping sire. When he raced he won 2 out of his 3 starts, including the Dutch Derby, and so the racing traits were strong in him. He is owned by Conny van Heeckheren van Kell, and has stood in The Netherlands for ?? years. He is approved in the KWPN, AES, Oldenburg, NDR & AES breed societies, and several of his jumpers have entered the Zangershiede stud. See Volfonic's website for more information.

So, how is this full Thoroughbred stallion, purpose-bred for racing,  able to consistently transmit excellent non-racing sport abilities to his offspring? A top rate typesetter or improvement sire must be potent in the genetics required in order to pass on his abilities to his young, especially in a cross-breeding situation like this. And Volfonic is extremely potent in proven Thoroughbred sport and jump sources.

Volfonic's greatest potency is in the celebrated sport line of Nasrullah, he is at critical mass level (6x6x5x5) which makes him a Nasrullah typesetting stallion. He also has critical mass in Bold Ruler (5x4), the best son of Nasrullah, sire of Secretariat, and a source of jump (his full brother Independence was a steeplechase racer). Now, Nasrullah was a conundrum for the common warmblood narrative of the 1990s that a sprinting sire will not be a good choice for sport horse breeding. Because he isn't just a sprinter, he is chef-de-race for sprinting, and nothing else, he is sprint through and through. When Peter Birdsall evaluated the bloodliines of Hunters and Jumpers, Eventers and Dressage horses, he came away with four distinct mega-sires. Nasrullah was #1.

"When all four disciplines are grouped together, the frequency of occurrence of the leading sire lines are as follows: Nasrullah, Man O' War, Princequillo, Native Dancer." (Birdsall 1981)

If you look at the duplications in Volfonic's pedigree you will notice several other strong bloodlines, Native Dancer 5x6, Princequillo 6x6, Tom Fool 6x4...the first two being know jump sources. So Volfonic, a potent jump transmitter is extremely potent  in known jump bloodlines. Perhaps the breeders using Thoroughbred who don't see jump improvement, may not be using Thoroughbreds who have a genetic dominance in jump transmitters? It is not enough to have a known line or two in a lineage; it has to be in dominance, especially in cross breeding, in order for the talent to reach the foals. 

Jump Typesetters of the Past

We see similar patterns of potency in the great typesetters of the past. Ladykiller was renown as a jump producer, and that only, he didn't produce dressage horses, so his lineage should show us strong sources of the jump.

Ladykiller was most definitely a powerful jump transmitter; his genetics transformed the modern Holstein breed. Can you see any potency in him that would explain his genetic reach? It is obvious his most powerful bloodline is Chaucer 5x5x5x5 and secondly, The Tetrarch 5x5. He also has tremendous Cyllene and Galopin strengths, both jump sources. Chaucer (and his half brother Swynford) are out of Canterbury Pilgrim, who is a mare of extraordinary potency in the root jump source of Birdcatcher. Chaucer's sire is St. Simon, a son of Galopin, a jump line, and he is reinforced by a line of his full sister Angelica.  And The Tetrarch is inbred to full siblings by a Galopin line sire, out of a Newminster dam. Newminster, sire of Clemence and Hermit, is a powerful root jump source. (Ladykiller pictured below).

Here are a few other acknowledged jump typesetters: Golden Beaker, sire of the great Clover Hill, was a strong jump line in the Irish horse, he passed on strength in Barcaldine, Newminster and Birdcatcher via  lines of Hurry On and Canterbury Pilgrim. Precipitation, a son of Hurry On was also a celebrated jump sire, and he carried 10 lines of Newminister in 7 generations (critical mass) and had a secondary Birdcatcher strength. The great American jump line of Fair Play (sire of Man O' War) was a genetic warehouse of Newminster 4x7x5 and Birdcatcher 7x5x6x7. You can discover more jump bloodlines on Hall of Fame Show Jumpers.

Conclusion:

The Thoroughbred never lost its jump. It is a genetic impossibility for genes present in a breed with a closed studbook, especially such dominant jumping genes, to be bred out. Cross-breeding, however, can and does change genetic dominance for better or worse. A great typesetter for jump ability--no matter the breed, must be dominant in the jump genetics.  The jump setters of yesteryear illustrate this principle plainly. The examples of today we witnessed of the jumpers in the upper level steeplechase, and the example above of a successful improvement sire for the warmbloods demonstrate that the Thoroughbred of today does indeed have the jump, it is not lost, and there is no real evidence that the upper level jumpers in warmbloods exceed the percentage of those in Thoroughbreds. The promotion of the idea that only 'purpose-bred' warmbloods are real sport horses is nothing more than the consistent marketing propaganda the WBFSH has poured out since the 1990s. 

Hall of Fame Show Jumpers

Senior Senator--champion steeplechaser

"Great Horse, High Jumper at Fort Sheridan"

Volfonic website