American Breeders Series Part Two: Hilltop Farm

By Stacy Gormley

Hilltop Farm is indisputably one of the most successful breeding operations in the United States at the moment. Over the years, Hilltop has built up a sturdy reputation of featuring top breeding stallions and mares to develop high quality offspring. These young horses have gone on to be successful in many disciplines. Hilltop has also been at the forefront in the development of the national Young Horse focus in our country. Hilltop Farm gave Dressagedaily some very practical insights into the breeding industry in the United States and offers a positive outlook on the future of breeding and competition in America.

Photo: Hilltop's Royal Prince Reigns Supreme at the 2004 USEF/Markel Young Horse Dressage National Championships

Dressagedaily: How has the quality of sport horse breeding stock changed in this country?
Hilltop: The overall quality of breeding stock we are working with in this country has certainly improved over the past decade. We have stallions and mares who are now part of our domestic programs that have claimed top honors on the world stage (like Royal Prince’s 4th place finish in the 2004 WBCYH) and many who have been at the top of their peer group in Europe before importation (like Contango, Contucci, Festrausch, Liberty Gold, or San Rubin). Americans have invested seriously in quality stallions and mares and, as a whole, we are now producing horses closer to on par with the quality produced in Europe. A smaller percentage of the horses produced in the US each year bear the qualities to be competitive at the highest levels of sport, while a larger percentage are of quality to be good riding horses for amateur riders. The ratio is not much different in Europe; they simply produce that many more horses!

The quality of breeding stock and the horses produced is also changing because of education. It used to be that the average breeder took a mare and based their breeding decision on a personal liking or preference. Now, with the development of Sporthorse In-Hand classes and the whole competition structure of National Championships and awards that bring recognition to breeders by the USDF and USEF, breeders have become more educated and focused in their decisions.

Unlike the leading countries in Europe, however, we still have a fairly large gap between the breeders and the riders, where many of the quality horses we produce here in the US never make it into appropriate hands to be effectively developed. This is where the US still needs tremendous focus and development. In 2005, Hilltop Farm made a large effort to begin to bridge this gap, with the first-ever National Young Horse Trainers Symposium. The symposium was directed toward professionals who were committed to making a serious investment in young horse training.

Dressagedaily: How important are the Young Horse classes and FEI and National Markel/USEF Championships?
Hilltop: They are quite important for many reasons. We hope and expect that as more quality young horses find their way into capable hands in this country, we will soon see an American-bred horse competing for top honors at the World Breeding Championships for Young Horses. In 2005, Håkan Thorne successfully participated on an American-bred gelding in the WBYHC, which was a landmark in our progression toward being more competitive in this world event. However, Americans need to learn how to select which horses are suitable for the Young Horse classes and how to properly develop them. In 2005, Hilltop offered three public short courses which presented the succession of training to properly develop the 3-6 year old up through the levels to be prepared, if suitable, for the FEI Young Horse Tests. The USDF is now working to pick up the reins on offering this education to the public, in hopes to improve the overall quality of young horse training in this country. As we begin to focus on young horse training more as a country, we will likely see more quality young horses have opportunity, which will certainly allow the US to getting even closer to par with the leading European breeding countries.

The Young Horse Championships are an effective new focus that will help us produce more horses on the appropriate training scale to be more competitive on the world stage. However, not every young horse is suited to these tests. Extremely sensitive horses, for example, will not likely lend themselves to the development required at each level. There is a danger to push horses to meet the demands of the tests, where it may be better for that individual to develop more slowly, building the foundation needed to later represent itself with quality in sport. Education is very critical to the Young Horse Programs. If there is not support for the developing horses and riders, there could be horses that are not guided successfully to meet the demands of these tests and, even worse, some could be ruined along the way if the Young Horse tests are seen as an end in of themselves. It is important that the Young Horse tests are considered as goals for a particular horse, but goals that are only worthwhile if the horse lends itself readily to the timing of the training scale required.

Dressagedaily: How important is it for Americans to produce their own athletes?
Hilltop: It is very important that we produce our own athletes. Each country has an identity in sport and in breeding. If we continue to rely on the horses produced in Europe for our sport endeavors, we will never develop our national identity as breeders. We have many difficult challenges in this realm: a huge geographic distribution of breeders and interests, many sporthorse registries that are all independently governed; and up until recently, less than adequate record keeping of breeding-related sport results. The USDF and USEF have done an excellent job in bringing our record keeping to a new level in the past couple years and the fruits of their labor will be follow in the years ahead. We can look forward to better understanding the influence of the stallions and mares influencing our country thanks to their efforts. Each sporthorse organization must continue to raise the bar of quality expected in its registry in order for American-bred horses to continue to rival European-bred. But most importantly, we must develop a national network of young horse trainers to better link the breeders to sport, the real place where the quality of our breeding programs is evaluated.

Dressagedaily: How have the mares in this country changed over the years?
Hilltop:More and more breeders have imported quality mares from Europe, many who have tested at the top of their peer-group. It is not uncommon for a breeder to make the investment in a States Premium Mare from Germany or a Keur mare from the Netherlands. More and more breeders understand the importance of a proven mare-line, where the not only the mare herself, but her dam or her sisters are quality producers too. As breeders in this country work to establish their mares, breed registry records and our USDF/ USEF record-keeping systems will hopefully help track progeny successes for a particular mare and make the same trends visible. In the end, the quality a mare produces is her true measure.

Quality-producing mares are essential to the development of our US sport horse breeding programs, whether breeding to a domestic stallion or using imported frozen semen. Many have been imported already, many have been produced on these very soils, and we will always, always need more. The more US breeders recognize and rely on the mare's contribution to the overall rideability, responsiveness, and expression of gaits in the young horse, the sooner and more consistently we’ll produce better horses. The stallion can only do so much....the mare must be a wonderful starting point for the end result to be more likely to make a lasting contribution to the industry.

Related Links
Hilltop Farm
HorsesDaily American Breeders Series
Horsesdaily "On the Scene" at the 2004 USEF/Markel Young Horse Dressage Championships