Written by: Kim MacMillan
Jean Brinkman and Scott Hassler share the secrets of their success in the concluding episode of our series on first generation breeders in the United States.
Historically there have already been all-U.S. bred Olympic teams in the early days of equestrian sports in this country, when all of the team riders were military officers. The final all-military team from the U.S.A. competed in the 1948 Olympic Games in London. The early team horses were products of Thoroughbred race breeding and U.S. Army Cavalry re-mount programs. But, by the 2012 London Olympics our U.S. riders in all three disciplines were mounted on horses bred in other countries. The last two U.S.-bred dressage horses were Hilda Gurney’s Thoroughbred gelding Keen (Money Broker – Mabel Victory) who competed in the 1976 and 1984 Olympics and Gwen Stockebrand’s Bao, a Morgan-Tennessee Walker gelding who competed in the 1980 Alternate Olympics.
Valhalla Farm – Jean Brinkman
Valhalla Farm’s web site flashes a quote that has been their mantra for the last 38 years, “The better the breeding, the easier the training.” Jean Brinkman and husband Roy founded Valhalla Farm in Wellborn, Florida, in the early 1970’s with the goal of breeding horses with the gaits and quality for FEI-level dressage. Their herd consists mainly of Swedish Warmblood and Trakehner horses. Over the years they have purchased or leased five or six stallions bred by other farms, mostly from Europe, and have produced at least six home-bred stallions that were approved for breeding.
An accomplished rider having earned her USDF bronze, silver and gold medals, Jean, who is now 73, used her time in the saddle to refine their mare herd based on selecting mares who were rideable and who produced foals waith good rideability. She also campaigned their stallions Martini *Pg*E*(Coktail – Tannenberg) , Hailo *Pg*E* (Anduc – Thor) and Stiletto *Ps* (Martini *Pg*E* – Abdullah *Pg*E*) through the FEI-Levels. Martini was the top USDF stallion in the country from 1998 to 2001. Since the USEF started keeping statistics on dressage breeding, Valhalla Farm has been among the top 12 dressage producers in the country each year, taking the number one or two spot from 2005 to 2009.
“I started with a great desire to breed special horses that people could both love and do well with in competition. It meant learning the bloodlines that would work to develop my program. I started small and discarded lines as I went along until I found Martini and could build a program around him. I proved his worth through competition and then I added stallions to match his ability and work ethic,” explained Jean.
“Martini’s was my most exciting stallion inspection. After the first two stallions I presented in previous years failed, I was in agony with this one as I knew he was the stallion I needed to develop my breeding program.”
But Jean admits her crowning achievement as a breeder is the stallion, Stiletto, now ridden by trainer, Iris Eppinger. “He is a triathlete, so to speak, competing at level 5 and 6 jumpers, Intermediate eventing, and just this year at age 18, showing and winning at Grand Prix dressage. He is so sane and sound, with just the best work ethic possible. My daughter Erin has also had success with my horses and that is a joy to see,” said Jean. Two sport horses by Erin’s stallion Donaufürst *Ps*E*, recently won gold medals in dressage and eventing at the 2013 Adequan North American Junior Young Rider Championships. Lindsey Hollenger rode Friedensfurst to the Junior gold in dressage. Lindsey bought “Fenway” from Erin, his breeder, as “a” youngster, and Erin continues to train them as a duo. Mary Atkins Hunt, and the 12-year-old Nuance, a chestnut Trakehner gelding by Donaufurst (by Hailo*Pg*E*, bred by Jean) were on the Area III gold medal winning Junior eventing team and finished fourth individually.
Over the years Valhalla Farm has produced close to 300 foals, but they have recently downsized with two foals by Imminence born in 2013. They currently have 12 growing young horses (yearlings and two-year-olds) and about the same number of horses in training under saddle.
Her breeding goals have not really changed that much over the years. “I’ve never bred for ‘Olympic’ horses per se, as it is not something you can plan. Still, I’ve increased quality year by year and also gave more emphasis to jumping after that market opened up financially. The variables of breeding for the Olympics are too wide, but breeding for FEI horses is quite possible.”
Jean suggests developing a national strategic plan to breed and sell successful upper-level horses in this country. “For dressage, we need more FEI-trainers and a wider selection of horses to choose from. In Europe, many lovely young horses are sold through auctions, so riders get to select from a large group of talent at various times of the year as each breed stages their sales. For the most part, they are also knowledgeable on bloodlines that fit their riding style and know which lines are capable of achieving their goals.
The ‘pool’ of horses is quite different in the US. Our riders would have to travel the country looking at young horses and our country is so big in comparison to Holland or Germany.”
Jean suggested that the USEF and USDF could help American breeders and riders by providing more information on ‘lines’ that develop well for dressage and the other disciplines. She also said that riders, trainers and breeders should check the statistics that the USEF keeps on bloodlines that produce performance. “Maybe a pairing system that selects horses for talented young riders would be useful. However, most breeders need compensation for their horses, so there needs to be better sponsorship for these horses and riders. Clinics are a good idea already in use and the national championships are also helpful. A wider group of trainers who could help the younger riders develop correctly would be a key factor.”
Hassler Dressage at Riveredge, Scott and Susanne Hassler
Scott Hassler grew up riding on the family farm. His mother Jill was also a rider, instructor and author. He developed an early passion for eventing, competing through Preliminary level.
His first equine breeding industry job was working for the American Association of Breeders of the Holsteiner Horse, managing their facility in Millwood, Virginia, where they had a stallion station and sport horse auctions. “They housed about twenty-five stallions there and maintained a very large broodmare herd producing a large foal crop each year. I rode the stallions and young horses and helped with the auctions there as part of my job. It was a little piece of Europe here in the US,” recalled Scott.
When one of the Holsteiner Association’s stallions sustained an injury that kept him from eventing further, Scott competed the stallion in dressage. “I really fell in love with dressage at that point, although I sometimes miss the adrenaline rush of the eventing start box.”
Subsequently, Scott went to work at Hilltop Farm, in Colora, Maryland, where he was Director of Training for more than a decade until 2006, when he and his wife Susanne struck out on their own. Hilltop produced about 10 – 15 foals per year. Scott’s job there was to handle and ride the stallions and to determine which stallion would be bred to each mare.
The Hasslers now manage between six and ten stallions in residence (the number varies from year to year) at their new set-up at Riveredge, near Chesapeake City, Maryland, including their flagship stallion, the Dutch Warmblood Rousseau (by Ferro) and one of his approved champion sons Wamberto. They also stand the Hanoverians Locksley (by Londonderry) and Baroncelli (by Bergamon) and the Oldenburg Davidoff Hit (by Don Davidoff). Additionally, they are agents handling frozen semen for a number of other stallions including Rousseau’s son Fiorano, Lingh (by Flemmingh) and Hexagon’s Louisville (by Burggraaf ).
While Scott mostly focuses on training and education, he and Susanne own a few broodmares in partnership with other people – though mostly for sentimental reasons rather than for financial interests.
Susanne, who is Director of Breeding and Marketing, says the stallions in their line-up have produced over 500 foals since the inception of Hassler Dressage. On average they service 150 mares per season. Currently, Rousseau is their “most in-demand” stallion.
US-bred offspring include the mare Allure S (Rousseau – Farrington, bred by Sonnenberg Farm), which was a finalist as a five and a six-year-old in the USEF/Markel Young Horse Championships and was the 2012 USDF Horse of the Year at Fourth Level. Allure is now going Intermediaire I. Rousseau also sired Rhiannon (bred and owned by Carinn Wiosinksi) which was the 2012 USDF AA Training Level Horse of the Year; and Emile (bred and owner by Richard and Susan Howard) which was the 2012 USDF National Champion Three-year-old Colt/Gelding Sport Horse Prospect. Landmark VT (by Lingh – Odet II, bred by Virginia Tech University ) was Champion Colt/Gelding of the USDF Breeders’ Championships Series Finals and Wambertina MRF (by Wamberto – El Bundy), bred by Doug Langer and owned by Natalie Hamilton, was 2012 Champion Filly of the West Central USDF Breeders Championship Series Finals.
“If you don’t have hopes and dreams, then you are flat lined,” says Scott with regard to breeding all-American teams. “But, breeding a whole team of American-bred Olympic horses is an extremely tall order at this point. Let’s start with the goal of one U.S.-bred team horse.”
So far, Paragon comes closest to that ambition. Bred by Richard Freeman’s Oak Hill Ranch, in Folsum, Louisiana, the son of Don Schufro (out of Pari Lord by Loran) is owned and ridden by Heather Blitz, 2011 Pan American Games individual silver and team gold medalist.
Scott notes that the more US breeders strive to elevate their standards with high level training and a high caliber of breeding, the closer they get to being on par with Europe. He believes ambitious breeders should educate themselves by going to the continental breeding inspections or championships, like the Bundeschampionat or World Breeding Championships for Young Horses, the PAVO Cup in the Netherlands, or the USEF/Markel Young Horse Championships in the United States. The internet can offer some great exposure too, he says, but in general, seeing the ‘market’ first hand, is invaluable.
Active on many United States Equestrian Federation and United States Dressage Federation committees, Scott is a big proponent of Young Dressage Horse and Developing Rider programs in this country. He is the acting USEF Young Dressage Horse coach and regularly conducts trainers’ symposiums. He pointed to the World Breeding Championships for dressage held in August in Verden, Germany, each year as a testament to the validity of Young Horse Championships, “According to the FEI’s web site, 80 percent of the horses who competed in the World Breeding Championships went on to Prix St. Georges Level or higher. Three of the four horses on our 2011 Pan American Games dressage team were graduates of our national Young Horse program: Big Tyme, Grandioso and Weltino’s Magic. So it is not a valid argument that Young Horse programs do not work.”
“I think if we put in a consistent, coordinated breeding effort in this country using the best mares and top stallions and make good use of young horse classes, then it is not inconceivable in 15 to 20 years we could produce many top international horses. But, we also need to put the right horses together with the right trainers and present our horses in a professional way. In Europe they do a great job of presenting their horses – they are well trained, fit and well muscled, and well groomed. The USEF and USDF can help with education and providing competitions and recognition for performance. We need to stop dreaming and start doing…the only thing that really stands out is quality,” he concluded.