Breeding for Trainability

In Lynn Reardon’s book Beyond the Homestretch: What I’ve Learned from Saving Racehorses (1), there is a chapter called “Spider, Part II.”  In it Reardon describes the mental anguish she went through in beginning the under-saddle training of Spider, a three-year old Thoroughbred.  She had never trained a horse before, and she recalled her early unpleasant experiences helping someone else break a youngster.  She pondered hiring in a trainer but lamented that the ones she could afford she really didn’t like.  She pondered hiring in an assistant to help her do the training, but her few experiences with cheap help were not positive ones.  Meanwhile, Spider was idle in the pasture, and Reardon was increasingly anxious about what to do. 

In the same chapter, Reardon also discussed Spider’s breeder, Debbie.   According to Reardon, Debbie did a great amount of study on the ancestors of her breeding stock.  “I did a lot of research and discovered which bloodlines produce sound, sane horses – ones that tend to be well built and very athletic.”  (2)  Terms such as ‘near-human intelligence,’ ‘sensible temperament,’  and ‘good minds’ populate the chapter where Debbie’s breeding program is concerned.

Until I read the chapter in Reardon’s book last night, I’d never stopped to consider the idea of selecting breeding stock for trainability.  I have been trying to do it because it’s so important to me, but it had never occurred to me to explicitly describe this aspect of selection in a breeding program.  I realized that when I talk about selecting for temperament, trainability is an important aspect that I consider.

A few months ago, I was contacted by a woman who owns two Fell Ponies.  Early in our conversation, she indicated that one of the ponies was very challenging while the other was very easy.  I told her that I was sorry she was seeing the extremes of Fell Pony temperament and went on to describe my own similar experience.  Her heartfelt response made me sad; she was genuinely happy to know that her experience wasn’t unique.  She had been terribly confused by the popular notion that Fells have great temperaments, yet she had one that had the farthest thing from it, making her feel very alone.  As we continued to share, I told her I knew of at least three other challenging Fells, and as we talked more, I realized that all four were related.  It was a stark example of the opposite of selecting for trainability.  As breeders, if we’re not careful, we may be selecting for something we really don’t want.

Even the most challenging equines, when they meet the right human, can become terrific partners.  A trainer once told me that 60% of horses he’d met were easy and the other 40% were more challenging.  The trick for the more challenging horses is to somehow find that special human that can bring out their best so they avoid the worst fates of neglect or being sent to slaughter.  Breeders can do our part by carefully selecting our breeding stock with trainability in mind.  Reardon wrote, “Even amateurs like me could start Debbie’s unbroken horses because she prepared such a solid foundation in them, covering both the ‘nature’ and ‘nurture’ sides of the equation.”  I can’t imagine a higher compliment that someone could pay to a breeding program.

1)      Reardon, Lynn.  Beyond the Homestretch: What I’ve Learned from Saving Racehorses, New World Library, Novato, California, 2009.
2)      Reardon, p. 158.
3)      Reardon, p. 172.

(c) Jenifer Morrissey, 2012

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About workponies

Breeder of Fell Ponies, teamster of work ponies, and author of Feather Notes, Fell Pony News, and A Humbling Experience: My First Few Years with Fell Ponies. Distributor of Dynamite Specialty Products for the health of our planet and the beings I share it with.
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