Leveraging Genetic Typing
"Mail Order” human and animal DNA tests have become mainstream products. Marketers are aggressively using online and broadcast advertising to demonstrate how simple and affordable the process has become for the masses. 23&Me.com offers a product for $199 that provides over 75+ online reports about your ancestry, traits and health. Additionally, for many of us, our pets are part of our family and we want to know about their ancestry and the subsequent correlations with their health and dispositions. In a quick Google search, I found 4 canine DNA Test Kits on the popular online pet store Chewy.com. Additionally, an exciting development for sport horses has been created by Plusvital. The company uses genetic testing to create a nutrition programs customized to benefit a specific horse’s performance. As the results of genetic testing becomes better undetsood by scientists, the applications of the results will continue to increase in breadth.
DNA testing delivers a level of precision to ancestry, As the hunter/jumper industry strives to sustain the affordability and tradition of the sport in the U.S, it is important to utilize the historical and DNA records already in existence with a breed that once dominated both the hunter and jumper disciplines: The Thoroughbred.
Bloodlines and Suitability
For over 20 years I owned registered American Quarter Horses. Quarter horse breeders have done a phenomenal job in producing offspring with inherent traits for each specialized discipline offered at AQHA sanctioned events. For example, many of the hunters are considered “appendix”- a TB mare crossed with a registered AQHA stallion. The association has strict standards for registry and retains decades of competition results. Bloodlines thus are typically the starting point when purchasing a new prospect.
When I transitioned to the hunter/jumper world and initiated the buying process for a hunter, I only heard the word “warmblood.” After years of coupling genetic information with actual performance records during the buying process, this lack of bloodline knowledge left me uncomfortable. I was instead relying on individuals that were reputable in buying and selling and USEF’s competition database as we searched for a “forever” horse.
When we purchased “Sazerac” (i.e. Sunny), we chose him for his beautiful jump, gorgeous look and solid record in the USEF 3’3” green hunter division. He was marketed as a Thoroughbred (TB), but we had no genetic proof nor did he have physical brands or tattoos.
Image: Sazerac and Becky Warner competing at HITS Tuscon
I had just recently listened to George Morris commentate the Maclay Finals and he could not say enough positives about the breed’s suitability for the job at hand. Additionally, I rode and or owned several Appendix Quarter horses and I appreciate that the TB in their blood gave them heart. While some potential buyers might have been deterred that Suny was not a warmblood, I was very comfortable with owning a Thoroughbred.
An Unexpected Message
I purchased Sunny from a hunter barn in Virginia and I changed his name with the USEF using a simple form and bill of sale. I commend his first “sport horse” owner, Loreen Kay, for discovering him as a four your old. At the time of his purchase, she was a top young professional in the eventing world with a trajectory to represent the U.S. Team. When her advanced mount suffered a career ending injury, she made an incredibly difficult decision to return to school and earn a medical related degree to stabilize her financial future. She subsequently retired her older eventing partner and sold Sunny as a hunter prospect.
Loreen could not forget her special red horse and she actively pursued trying to find his new owners after he left the South. This was not an easy task because, as I mentioned earlier, I had changed his name with the USEF. Six months ago I received an unexpected message on Facebook messenger from Loreen and what followed were incredible conversations that put the pieces of Sunny’s background and quirky (and entertaining) behaviors together.
I also found out that she purchased him from an agent in Ocala and the previous owners did not want his records released and their names to remain anonymous.
The Jockey Club
Once Loreen provided us with Sunny’s historical background, I thought we were at a dead end regarding any genetic typing. I was content because we had a talented horse and the information we now had was quite valuable. Loreen explained he was mouthy because he was a stud until he was 3, he cribbed because it was a learned behavior he mimicked during turnout with a top eventer, and that Loreen’s trainer, the great Jimmy Wofford, believed Sunny had loads of talent.
Image: Jimmy Wofford schooling Loreen on Sunny as a 4 year old.
Once again, it was another message from Loreen that opened the door to potentially discovering if he was papered. She did not know the specifics, but found out from a friend that the Jockey Club offered DNA testing. I called the Jockey Club registration department and they were extremely helpful. They explained that they retain DNA records of all registered horses on file. I purchased their $80 DNA kit and I sent hair samples from Sunny to U.C. Davis and notations of markings and cowlicks to The Jockey Club offices in Kentucky. Within two weeks, we found out that Sunny was in fact registered and had been bred by a prestigious farm and owned by very famous owners. He had exquisite genetics that pointed toward a potential Kentucky Derby prospect. .
A friend of mine has studied TB pedigrees for years and she has created a report that documents the top hunters and jumpers in his lineage. Interesting enough, I have always joked that he did not make it to the track because he was busy looking for butterflies… he “typically” acts like a trail horse, but he is in his element when he is jumping and he “hunts” the fences and is extremely careful. He also carries the Thoroughbred characteristic of being very brave- no fence seems to phase him Additionally, he is now eligible for the Jockey Club’s Thoroughbred Incentive Program (TIP).
The Jockey Club’s detailed genetic records is an incredible resource in studying the breed's top jumping sires and the use of this information has the ability to create a resurgence of the Thoroughbred as one of the greatest breeds of sport horses.
Responsible Horse Ownership
I want to make a note to commend Sunny’s breeders. I do not know exactly why he did not make it to the track, but they were ethical in sending him to an agent that was a gateway to the sport horse industry. If the wrong party affiliated with racing knew his bloodlines, he might have been purchased as a racehorse and sent to smaller track where he would be over raced. Instead, he has found his niche as a top hunter and is doing a job that his ancestors have a long history of success.
Sourcing Prospects in the U.S.
Americans need to remember that historically some of our best hunters and show jumpers were Thoroughbreds and that we need to elevate the breed that has brought so much credibility to our country on the national and international stage.
Fortunately, we have legendary classic equestrians, including George Morris and Bernie Traurig, that are actively advocating the importance of the Thoroughbred in the U.S. hunter/jumper industry . Additionally, contemporary sport horse influencers are actively backing the talent of the thoroughbred, two of the most noted being Ali and Francie Nilforushan, owners of the prestigious Nilfroushan Equisport Events. In a recent Chronicle of the Horse article, Mr. Nilforushan, stated “For many years there was a Thoroughbred on the podium in just about every Olympic Games, and I know they are still out there….”
Click image below for a historical perspective produced by Equestrian Coach.com detailing the contribution of the Thoroughbred to the American hunter/jumper industry.
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I get a lot of suggestions for articles; one of the topics that comes up most frequently is envy among fellow riders and the discomfort it creates at the barn.
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