We usually think that a mare (or Stallion) that is successful in their athletic career is a good candidate for the breeding shed. After all, success breeds success doesn’t it? I would submit that this may not always be the case. It is worth considering what it took to get and keep them at top performance levels. The length of their career is also an important consideration.
Is a horse that has a stellar career that lasts only a season or two before circumstances end that career really a good candidate? It would seem to depend on the reason(s) for the end of that career. Is a horse that had to be retired for soundness reasons truly the one we want to reproduce? A career ending accident is one thing, but other causes should be considered carefully. Many causes of unsoundness in and of themselves may not be genetic. However, the conformation that led to the unsoundness IS. A classic example is Navicular disease. The disease is not inherited but the small foot/ large horse conformation that leads to it certainly is.
Even if a horse has a long career, some consideration should be given to what it took to keep him/her that way. Did the horse need considerable maintenance? Did he/she require multiple joints injected 2-3 times a year to stay sound and performing well? When did the need for these injections start? Was it just later years or early in her career?
It is nice that we have multiple modalities to help keep our equine athletes in top condition. I certainly advocate using them. It is not inexpensive to train a horse to peak performance and every effort should be made to keep them there. However, we need to step back and ask ourselves are we breeding horses to rely on these drugs, blankets and all the other tools we have.
I would submit that as responsible breeders we should consider soundness AND maintenance when choosing our breeding stock. The Thoroughbred has long been bred for performance. After all they have a clear goal: the first across the finish line wins. However years of breeding has also brought about the “Thoroughbred foot” that is often softer and more brittle than other breeds. The Jockey Club is making efforts to encourage breeding for a better foot.
We have a responsibility to be good caretakers of our horses. This extends to breeding. If we continue to breed horses that require more maintenance at earlier ages to reach and maintain peak performance, then over time we are by default breeding weaker, less suitable horses. We owe our sport and most importantly our horses better than that. In breeding, the goal is to improve the horse, and therefore the breed. One example is the Quarter Horse stallion, Impressive. This stallion was allowed to breed long after we knew that he had the gene for hyperkalemic periodic paralysis (HYPP). This gene is now present in a large number of Quarter Horses and has found its way into other breeds as well.
It is certainly a balance to weigh the importance of maintenance and talent when choosing whether or not to breed a specific mare. It is decision that can only be made by the individual breeder. I would ask that the question of how difficult it was to maintain soundness be given due consideration. We should strive to breed horses for soundness and longevity as much as for talent and athletic performance. We ignore this at our own peril. It may not happen tomorrow but eventually we will breed horses with shorter and shorter careers.