In It For The Long Haul: David Wightman On The Journey Of Breeding Dressage Horses
There's an undeniable allure to breeding and developing your horse, one that often instills a sense of pride perhaps akin to parenting. For many dressage enthusiasts, having a hand in producing beautiful, quality dressage horses is not only a business, hobby, or interest, it's a chance to create a legacy and leave mark on the dressage world. For Adventure Farm's breeder and trainer, David Wightman, he can't think of a better way to leave his fingerprint, than through a horse.
(David Wightman on homebred horse, Hotshot AF)
Coming up on January 21st, Wightman will be speaking at the California Dressage Society Symposium along with DG Bar's Willy Arts about his experience breeding and developing young horses. Together with his wife, international competitor Kathleen Raine, Wightman runs a small, but high quality breeding program out of their barn in Southern California.
David recalls his beginning with young horses saying "I started as a working student for Hilda Gurney when I was, I think, seventeen years old. Back then I met my wife, Kathleen Raine." As fate would have it, Raine's mother would actually be the one to show the young couple the ropes when it came to selecting promising young foals. "We would look at tons of young horses - out in the fields - from weanlings to yearlings, and two year olds and three year olds. So I started to learn what they looked for in those young horses back then. I learned what the qualities were that they were looking for, like horses that could really sit down as a foal and really trot uphill."
It wasn't until Raine's mother passed away in 1996 that the pair branched off to buying and breeding young horses on their own. Wightman recalls that the new experience came with an initial learning curve, explaining that the process of producing good horses is more complex than people might imagine. "The horses come and then often times there is some kind of soundness problem, though not all the time, or sometimes we've had horses that have come out who have a difficult temperament, or conformation didn't come out as we had hoped it would." Wightman adds that on rare occasions an "unsuccessful" breeding can be even more heartbreaking than simply a poorly put together horse. "Last year we had a mare and we bred her to For Romance, and the foal when it was being born didn't have its front legs up so it didn't make it." Though negative, Wightman feels that it's important to share these stories to give prospective breeders a full picture of what the journey can entail.
Through years of practice Wightman and Raine have honed their breeding program, and though modest, "we breed probably one to two mares per year, sometimes as many as three", the results are noteworthy. "Now we bred a really good one named Hotshot AF, and he was fourth as a four year old in Lamplight (dressage show) and fifth as a five year old at Lamplight, and he ended up winning the USDF championship at the annual show this year." In addition, Wightman says 'We bred Breanna, Kathleen's horse that she's been so successful with. We've done some embryo transfers with her and she has a foal on the ground from Negro - the father of Valegro.'"
To Wightman, determining the perfect mesh of gene pools is one the most captivating aspects of the breeding process. "I think you have a good quality mare and you try to breed to some different good quality stallions - that's the way to do it." However, no match is a sure bet. "You can take the best quality mare and the top stallion in the world and come out with the negative qualities in both horses. But that's what makes breeding interesting. Or you can take an Anglo-Arab mare and breed it to an old fashioned Hanoverian stallion and come out with really quite a good horse. We've seen that happen too."
At a barn where Wightman clinics he remembers discussing with a student potential matches for the woman's pinto Anglo-Arab mare. She eventually settled on Batido, a traditional Hanoverian stallion, and the resulting foal was beyond anyone's expectations. Wightman recalls, "out came this horse, Brigadier, and that horse ended up winning the national championship for six year old horses."
According to Wightman, Brigadier was an excellent example of a fine breeding match in which opposite traits combined for a truly athletic horse. "People have to really think about what qualities they have in their mare, and what qualities the stallion would cross well with. When we bred Hotshot, I had always really liked the stallion Hotline, and when I looked him up I read that the stallion needed to be bred to a really elastic mover. So I thought about the mares that we had and we bred him to one of our mares that was a really elastic mover and showed great bending of the joints, but this one mare was built a little bit out behind. It didn't matter (about being out behind though) because that ended up being a really good cross. She really brought the elasticity into the horse and he brought better hind legs into it."
For breeders like Wightman, breathing life into a horse like Hotshot is the ultimate goal, but the excitement begins well before the foal, with an intriguing puzzle of gene pools and matching making. "If you're interested in breeding and researching bloodlines, and enjoy trying different things then I think breeding is really interesting and fun. Then you develop a horse that you created yourself, but you also created a life. When you raise a foal up until around three years old, get them going under saddle and train them up, I think that's really rewarding."
However, for those who breed simply to save a few dollars over purchasing a "made horse" or young horse, Wightman warns of the many hidden "costs" that buyers are often overlook. "Here's the thing, when you go to buy a good horse from a breeder you're picking out one with good conformation, straight legs, a good walk, trot, and canter, and of course the temperament is good and the rideability is good, the contact with the bit is good and the horse wants to work and go forward - that breeder has already bred four or five other horses that did not come out like that. So in order to make a little bit of money on this one horse, and make up for the other five horses that didn't come out so great (that is all factored into the price). That's the part that people don't realize. When you bred one good one and you ask a decent price for it, you generally have several other horses that were OK, but they weren't as good as that really good one. "
According to Wightman, the bottom line is that breeding horses is a process that should be undertaken for the passion of the project. It's also not for the faint hearted. On the path to creating remarkable dressage horses like Hotshot and Breanna's foals, there has been losses at worst, and sometimes average quality horses at best. Devotion to the process is what carries breeders through. Wightman stresses, "I think when you are a breeder you have to really do it because you enjoy breeding."