Breeding Policies and Practice in Britain

The British Festival of the Working Horse promotes changes in the breeding policies and practice relating to our working breeds in Britain.  A sea change is required to move breeding policy and practice away from indiscriminate breeding and back to sensible selection of breeding stock. This will result in a much needed return to breeding for purpose which will keep our working breeds true to type and fit for purpose.

We have had the great good fortune to visit, study and work with working horse men and women from all over Europe and beyond. The more we see of the policies abroad and compare them with our own, the more concerned we become.

It is the norm for stallions to be worked apart from in Britain where it is the exception. 

We have been to Germany to see Peter Weil working a team of five stallions. When in Romania we worked a pair of Hutzl stallions - bridleless and bitless when logging. We invited Hans Sidback over from Sweden to run a couple of training courses and heard about his team of four stallions. We ploughed and logged in the Czech Republic with stallions. We have logged in Japan with with stallions. The list of Countries and examples goes on.

In Germany, stallions have to pass a detailed test including working, driving, docility and breed correctness, before they are allowed to be used for breeding. In France the Haras system insists on similar. In the Czech Republic both colts and fillies are trained from 3 years old and assessed 11 months later. Any that do not pass the very high standard are not bred from, nor are cross breeds allowed. Whilst we were in the Czech republic a stallion was out with one of our hosts for assessment and has since been cut because he did not meet their exacting standards. To our eyes he worked kindly and well.

The proof of these exacting standards show in the breeds and in the reliable quality of their horses. Any that do not match up are not bred from and sometimes the hard decision is taken to find another use for them if they do not work well. Good horses in France and Belgium are worked. Bad horses are eaten. Very hard in our sentimental eyes.

In Britain we expect no such standard and if we have a mare that is difficult we have a foal from her, 'to get something back'. This lack of policy and inclination to indiscriminate breeding has led to a deterioration in working ability over very few generations. Worse, we now breed for the show ring, for 20 minutes of dash and fire rather than a day's work, for looks rather than brains, ability and conformation. We are not against showing working horses but we are against breeding purely for show. You only need to look at the show strains and the working strains of our gundog breeds to see what will happen to our horses if we continue. Breeding for the show ring will change the abilities, the intelligence, the docility, the size and the type of our breeds and, again, will lead to a continuing deterioration of our horses.

If you have any doubts about how serious the divide is, spend a day at Pferde Starke in Germany and a day at the Shire Horse Show in Britain. Then try to explain the similarities - the contrasts are much easier to list.

There are exceptions, of course. There are stallions from all the breeds which work and they and their owners should be applauded. They are the exceptions and there is little sign of an improvement.

We would like to see breeders and breed associations insisting on their breeding stock, male and female, proving their working ability, their docility and their adherence to the breed standard before being allowed to be used. We would encourage the rejection of non working stock being used for breeding. 

It is not enough to keep up the numbers of our heavy horses and working breeds and types. We are not particularly good at that even. We should insist on keeping our breeds genetically diverse, true to type and fit for purpose.

The only way to do that in the long term is to start to impose minimum standards. Results will not be achieved overnight but the breed societies could, for example, give premium status to proven working breeding stock, especially stallions, and subsidise the cost of breeding from such stock. Setting a standard would work and matching that with a financial incentive might help to reverse the decline.

The alternative is much less palatable to those of us who wish to work our horses. Many horse loggers take pride in working British native breeds. We already go abroad for much of our harness and equipment.

Will we have to import all our working horses because breeders in Britain can not produce good working horses? What then will happen to the working qualities of our native breeds?

















Living horse power is cheap and readily available. We can breed horses, without limit, without endangering the planet.We know a lot about them and how to use them. They can pull things for us, carry us, help support our society, feed it and enable it to function. They can do so far better than they did in the past if we take advantage of some of the technical advances made in agriculture and machinery design. They can be fed from our fields. They don't destroy the environment but enhance it. They create employment, not replace it. They are a source of companionship in the workplace, a source of pride and pleasure when seen to be working to perfection in harmony with man and his surrounding. Why on earth don't we use them?

Charlie Pinney. 2003.