Just about anyone starting out as a Thoroughbred breeder perceives himself as a near-expert. After all, it's just horses, right? No brain surgery here.
Whether it's because of a lifelong love of horses or a family background in racing or the self-assuredness of having succeeded at another enterprise, the pattern is common: Feel supremely confident that you know better than anyone what the secret is to producing a great horse. ... Start out as a breeder without seeking outside advice. ... Make a few rookie errors. ... Get burned.
While the pattern holds true almost unerringly, I've got to give a hand to the ingenuity of fellow breeders who've come up with countless ways of making it all play out. Here are seven of the more common mistakes made by new breeders:
Get rich quick: Raising horses can be profitable, but it's much easier to find youself on the wrong end of a five-figure loss than on the happy end of a profit (of any size). Remember that the only tried-and-true way to make a small fortune in the horse industry ... is to start with a large fortune.
Successful breeders weren't successful overnight. They learned the hard way to avoid "hot" sires that are likely to fizzle, and to balance the one foal that's a big profit-earner with another five or 10 that lose money. Sadly, new breeders who've taken an early hit will instinctively rush out of the industry before they've had a chance to put their expensive lessons to use.
Inbreeding is a dirty word: It might be a nasty accusation to make about a member of the opposing sports team or residents of the next town over, but "inbred" is not a put-down in Thoroughbred family lineages. In fact, inbreeding is the reason that racehorses in 2009 are the grand sprint athletes we know today instead of the wiry little Arab/Barb/Turk endurance types of 350 years ago. This was no million-year miracle of evolution; it was a deliberate and systematic program of a couple dozen generations of breeders.
I think the name "Thoroughbred" came about only because "Inbred" was already taken. (Or maybe I'm thinking of how the name "Blood-Horse" came into being....) Regardless, it's not necessarily a bad thing to see duplications of a name within a hypothetical pedigree when you're planning a mating. It might even be the best way to improve your mare's bloodlines.
"Has-been" (or "Never-was") mares: "Oh -- but she has Secretariat and Northern Dancer in her pedigree."
'fraid that just isn't reason enough to send a mare to the breeding shed. The fall/winter breeding stock sales always catch a few new suckers who can't understand why the 16-year-old daughter of Seattle Slew (or Nijinsky II, or Fappiano, etc.) isn't attracting a bid higher than the $5,000 he just called out. If you ignore her previous record of three runners and one winner from 10 foals, you're doomed to produce another of the mare's unfortunate specialties.
It's far too easy to put together a small band of "well-bred" broodmares that are proven failures as producers. It's also a simple and easily-budgeted task to find mares that went unraced and therefore never proved themselves worthy of the opportunity to continue the bloodlines. As in many industries, you're likely to get what you pay for when shopping for Thoroughbred bloodstock.
Breed today, plan tomorrow: If you're going to the expense of breeding a horse, you'd better know where that foal will be in two years. Unless you conscientiously breed for commercial appeal, you run the risk of being stuck with an unprofitable -- or even unsaleable -- yearling. Too many new horse owners jump in and breed with the idea that I can always sell the foal if I decide not to keep it. Wrong! If there's any chance that you won't be able to raise, train, and race the foal yourself, your mating choices must be planned to be commercially viable. And the truth is, your job just got a whole lot tougher. Many of the best breed-to-race stallions are -- perhaps counter-intuitively -- poor choices for producing foals for the sales.
Pedigrees on paper: Those new to Thoroughbred breeding often become caught up in what they see in print and can point to as "proof in black and white." An article might point out that Mr. Prospector-line horses won eight of 14 Breeders' Cup championships in 2008 -- but that doesn't mean that studs from the Mr. P. male line are the only ones worth looking at, or would even be appropriate for your particular mare. Another report might show that Kafwain has 67% stakes winners from runners when crossed with Blushing Groom (FR)-line mares. Dig a little deeper before you rush out and buy daughters of Rahy or Candy Stripes to send to Kafwain for a "sure thing." Remember, paper doesn't run the race. When you've come up with a list of stallions that match your mare well in a hypothetical pedigree, start asking yourself some important questions: How does the stallion fit my mare conformationally? Are they a good match in class and aptitude?
: If I had any musical talent at all, I'd put together a short riff of "Breedin' On Up"
set to the tune of The Jefferson's theme song
But since my abilities are far from artistically-inclined, I'll instead comment on appropriate stallion selection. You generally want to breed to the best you can afford that matches your mare in conformation, aptitude, and pedigree. There's a large grey swath here -- the right stud for your $25,000 mare might be a $5,000 stallion or one with a $20,000 fee. That grey area does have limits though -- sending the same mare to a six-figure sire is putting her way out of her league. This error is often compounded because we all have certain favorites that we followed in their racing days and emotions are hard to overcome. (I'd love to send a mare to Tiznow, but realistically, none of my girls has earned that trip!)
It's a common error for new breeders to pay more attention to stallion ads in the pages of The Blood-Horse
than to the fact that the fifth dam is showing up on their mares' catalog page. Overbreeding is rarely a wise choice, whether the goal is to race or to sell.
Forgetting where you are: The same foal (from the same sire and dam in the same year and bred by the same breeder) can vary widely in value depending on where it's born. Many states have incentive programs that offer compelling reasons to breed in-state. If you're banking on breeders' rewards as part of your profit plan -- or if you're breeding to race and want your foal to be eligible for money-added contests -- don't overlook or underestimate the value of knowing what incentives are out there.