Written by: Susan Stafford-Pooley

Exploring the world of information available to breeders

Thumbnail for European Breed Databases: Miles Ahead of the Field

You aspire to breed your good mare to a nice stallion with the aim of producing a talented dressage horse. Imagine being able to select a suitable sire for that union by examining his stallion test dressage index, plus the performance records of his offspring, and base your decision on statistics that prove he “throws” dressage performers.

Michael Boyd, chair of the Canadian Hanoverian Society, says this access to information was “one of the reasons I decided to breed Hanoverians.” He explains, “We have inspections every year, and are members of the German club, which is neck-and-neck with the Dutch Warmblood club in terms of the largest warmblood registry. The Germans are great with statistics and being organized. Our club has been at the forefront of producing stats, so I knew that I had access to this information and wasn’t guessing about breeding decisions.”

He admits it’s tough in North America to try and breed a top horse for dressage or jumping. “The Hanoverian state stud has some of the very best jumper and dressage sires. That goes back to 1735 (the studbook was established in 1888). There are about 120 stallions on their list for export, and our club has been doing an import (of frozen semen) for over ten years now as a benefit for members. There are only 15-20 sires who are approved Hanoverians in Canada, and that’s just not enough (for a deep genetic pool).”

Most of the European sport horse registries – Dutch Warmblood, Belgian Warmblood, Oldenburg, to name a few – keep painstakingly detailed databases, each of which contain similar information. To keep our review manageable, this article will take a closer look at the sirebook published annually by the Hannoveraner Verband E.V. This detailed 700-page volume includes all current approved stallions, their breeding value estimation based on the assessment of their daughters, and their progeny’s show records. It also introduces the newly-approved stallions from the previous year. There are “top lists” for the leading sire by breeding value in each sport – all with a goal of making developments in the breed transparent while providing the ultimate amount of information to their breeder.

How is this wealth of information compiled, and who maintains the database? “That’s where having a life number for the horse comes in,” says Boyd (for more information, see “Equine Life Numbers” in the Feb. 2013 issue). “In Germany the life numbers are entrenched, and all the competitions have a method to send the results in. Our passports are given when the foal is registered; my horses have life numbers right from the get-go. If you don’t have life numbers, you can’t collect the data.”

Dr. Ludwig Christmann of the Hannoverian Verband developed the club’s breeding value index and is now responsible for the development of Hanoverian breeding outside Germany. “Our database is outsourced,” he says. “We are in the lucky position that there is a database specialised in animal production just across the street from our office called VIT.” VIT is a software developer and information service which provides database management for the animal breeding industry, tabulating everything from auction results, to scores from elite and state premium mares, to estimation of breeding values. Other associations who use VIT’s services include the Westphalian Studbook, Landgestüt Celle and the Baden-Württemberg Breed Registry.

Deciphering the data

Using De Niro from the Hanoverian studbook as a model (see English translations in red), Boyd explains some of the more interesting and useful information presented. Club members are actively encouraged to breed to the “new boys,” who need need to have 10 mares doing their Mare Performance Test and inspected as a minimum baseline to get into the book. “If you don’t have at least 10, the results won’t be statistically significant. The fewer horses you get, the less reliable the statistics are. The more horses that a sire gets into the database, the more reliable the statistics are.”

• Number at the top right is the Universal Equine Life Number.

• In the pedigree line “you have 87.5% of his bloodlines right there.”

• The number beside the Stutenstamm represents the dam line. “On the website now they have traced all the mare lines to breeding regions, and they are numbered. It tells you the original mare line, where it comes from, other related horses from that line, results, etc.” (Accessing it on the website requires paying a modest fee, but a free demo is also available at www.hannoveraner.com/3125.html)

• Deckeinsatz is the breeding station history, “where he has stood, so you know where he’s been.”

• Eigenleistung: This is the stallion’s own performance stats; in this case, he was licensed in ‘96 as a three-year-old, did the 100-day test, and his total score was 141.93 – he was second out of 50 stallions. His dressage score was 145.41 – first out of 50. His jumping score was not nearly as good – 117.75 for 11th place.

• The next box is his show record, all dressage placings in this case. Below that is how much money he won in competition and the fact that he was Stallion of the Year in 2008.

• Next is his progeny’s show record and the winnings of his top athletes. “This gives you the stats as to how many of their offspring have done well, because over time some sires have trouble getting horses into the top level, even though they themselves may have been superstars.”

• The progeny’s breeding information: “This is where it starts to get really interesting.” It lists the number of registered Hanoverian offspring, broodmares that have been inspected, and how many made State Premium (elite) status. Auction stats: “That’s good marketing information; an indication of the number that have been sold.” A visit to the website shows upcoming auctions, with “video clips of every one, pedigree information, even x-rays. That’s how organized that club is.”

• Licensed sons with their life numbers: “You can get a feel for how good they are,” by researching them in the sire book.

• Breeding value estimation: This section provides an estimate of the ability of a stallion to produce superior offspring in a particular discipline, as measured by his performance, and the performance, conformation and gaits of his progeny. “In statistics, there’s a notion of how much of a normal population you get within one standard deviation of the average, or mean (100 equals the the average of the population in these charts). One standard deviation is 20 points on either side of the average, and represents 68%; two standard deviations is 93%; three equals 99.9973%. So a horse that scores 120 is better in that trait than 68% of the population.” In De Niro’s case all values of his daughter’s studbook inspections, except saddle position (literally, where the saddle sits in regards to the withers) are above average. “A really correctly-built horse doesn’t always mean it’s the best dressage horse or jumper, though. If you flip through (the sire book) you can see guys who have been unbelievable producers, but their scores aren’t especially high.”

Getting in the Game

So what can breeders on this side of the Atlantic take away from all this? Boyd suggests that it’s never too late to start.“Even in Germany, given their history, this (database) has all happened within my time in the sport. The first stallion book came out in ‘98 or ‘99. This mare line (info) is only two or three years old now. They’ve had the same problems we’ve had here; they’ve just had them earlier.

“For instance, people didn’t trust auctions, so they had veterinarian exams for all of them, and they did x-rays. Auctions became accepted and now it’s an important part of marketing their horses. The turnover at our auctions last year was 32 million Euros. Take seven per cent of that, plus membership dues, plus we pay to register and for each service, and we have the manpower (55 employees) to do all these things.”

Boyd understands that the relatively small population of horse people and the large geographic distances in Canada are also a handicap. “We’re a small country, really. In Europe, riders can do a lot of horse shows within a short drive every weekend. It’s in their culture – we just don’t appreciate that. There are many more horses and people riding there, and breeding.”

While complex databases don’t guarantee you’ll breed a champion, they do give breeders an upper hand. “It’s a numbers game even when you have this data,” Boyd admits. “There was a famous jumping mare, Ratina Z, that Ludger Beerbaum rode. She was one of eight or nine full brothers and sisters, none of which made it to the grand prix level.”

As George Morris so succinctly put it, “…the Europeans are so far ahead. It is such a big industry … so professional, so scientific. Yes, we will do our part in breeding, but I don’t see how we could ever catch up.” This is especially true in Canada, where, without a traceability program in place, and despite a breeder’s best efforts, a stallion’s progeny are often difficult or impossible to track once they have been sold. North American breeders would do well to closely examine the methods and practices that have been modus operandi in the European sport horse registries for generations, get on board with life numbers, and start now to develop their own comprehensive databases if they want to remain competitive on the world breeding stage.