On Math, Afghanistan, Marketing, and Dreamers

by Scot Tolman

Scot Tolman Thoughts on Breeding

Firstly, I’m delighted that Anna Goebel has asked me to be both a part of the launch of and an ongoing contributor to her new site, warmbloodbreeding.com. Strengthening the knowledge base and opportunities for breeders has been one my primary focuses over the last 30+ years of my involvement with breeding warmbloods. It’s wonderful to be part of an initiative that aims to support North American warmblood breeders. It will be good to be writing regularly again. I’m a little out of practice, so forgive me if my long, convoluted sentences get a little out of control. Three years of no longer teaching English has definitely taken a toll on the efficiency of my output and will, most likely, dictate some stylistic irregularities…

Secondly, this first column is a reaction to the recent interview with Andreas Helgstrand which first appeared on Dressage-News.com.

Let me start by saying I don’t personally know Mr. Helgstrand. Andreas, (may I call you Andreas?) if you’re reading this, we have a few mutual friends. I’m not going to name drop, but one of them has a first name that starts with an E and last name that rhymes with “achoo”. That’s neither here nor there. The point is you and I don’t know each other, but everything I hear about you from people who know you is that you’re a really nice guy and you throw a great party. From my own observations, you have an incredibly good eye for horses, you’ve built a team of the best horsemen and women in the world to support you, you, or someone you’ve hired, is a marketing genius, you’re an effective and talented rider, and, most importantly, you have vision. You see possibilities, and you find a way to make them a reality. So, yeah, there are lots of reasons for us sloths of the horse world to dislike you. Kidding, of course. I’m happy for your successes and admiring of your talents, abilities, and work ethic. Your vision, and its accompanying marketing and financial success, has impacted the global market of buying, selling, and breeding horses more than anyone or anything else I can think of over the last 30 years. Consequently, it was with great interest that I read and began to digest your recent interview with Dressage-News.com, discussing breeding in North America. Although I would like nothing better than for your success in this venture, I have a couple thoughts.

There’s a line in The Kite Runner, by Kahled Hosseini, that I’ve been trying to find so I could quote it exactly as a metaphor for one of my first reactions to this interview, but I’m not finding it, and Anna wants this column ASAP, so I’m going to try to suppress my pedantic love of exact quotations, and jump in with a paraphrase/description. The line is stated by the father,

Baba, to his best friend and business partner, Rahim Kahn, as Baba and his son, Amir, are preparing to flee Afghanistan in the middle of the night ahead of the Soviet invasion. The essence of the line is “They will leave. Everyone leaves. Afghanistan is unkind to strangers.” The political and religious factions, combined with sheer size and diverse topography of Afghanistan, have proved daunting to every “super power” that has attempted to either control this country, be it in the name of democracy and relieving oppression, or be it in the name of greed hoping to exploit its vast natural resources. Historically, these efforts, well intentioned or not, have left Afghanistan war torn and depleted, yet, in the end unconquerable.

Now, let me see if I can resurrect the tone of this piece before I have to go escape my own country in the middle of the night to avoid the wrath of the Facebook dressage-breeding forums. I’m not saying Andreas Helgstrand is going to leave North American breeding any more “war torn” or politically divided than it already is, nor am I saying he is an evil super power bent on exploiting the natural resources of our breeding population and a growing market. I don’t think he’s evil. I don’t think he plans to “exploit” anyone. I think he is a man with vision and good intentions who sees the possibilities that exist in North America for breeding sport horses on par with any country in the world. That being said, I do think he’s a super power in the dressage market, as were the Soviet Union and the USA to Afghanistan. And, although “exploit” is the wrong word, Helgstrand isn’t exactly filing for a 501c3 status. He’s interested in helping expand and improve breeding in North America because there’s money to be made. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that,” as Jerry or George would say on Seinfeld. Where the Afghanistan metaphor most directly applies in this situation is to the sheer size and topography of North America and to the economic, political, and (I’ll use this word because of the blind fervor with which many of us approach breeding horses) “religious” divisions and philosophical factions that make up the North American sport-horse breeding world.

The USA and Canada are huge countries. When it comes to breeding horses, North America’s size is both one of its greatest assets and one of its greatest liabilities. One of the reasons people go to Europe to buy horses is the convenience of it. On a buying trip to any European country, it’s feasible to see dozens of horses in a single day or couple of days. Here, unless you’re located in Southern California or Southern Florida, you could easily have a four or five- hour drive between farms, maybe significantly longer. If Helgstrand’s base for his sales, the young horse classes he’s proposing, and the younger stallions he’s promising to North America are in Florida, well, at least the flights are typically cheaper and shorter than going to Denmark, and, if the stallions are on the continent, we would have access to fresh-cooled semen. But, there are many good breeders in North America who are going to have trouble logistically and/or financially getting their horses to Florida in the first place. OK, let me think about this issue for a bit. I’m going to say problem one is not solved yet.

Helgstrand states,

“The only problem has been that we are selling so fast in Europe now that we don’t need to bring them here. We sell enough over there. In the future as we get even more numbers then maybe we can make some good relationships with breeders over here to try to breed 50 horses a year and slowly fill up the market from this side as well.”

In Europe, Helgstrand has a network of buyers that travel around the different countries selecting young horses for him. I’m going to use the word “incredible” in the next sentence with both its meanings, “wonderful” and “unlikely”.. Wouldn’t it be incredible if Helgstrand were to develop a network of buyers in North America that travel the continent and select these 50 young horses each year for him? Again, I would like to see Helgstrand’s vision become a reality, so, please, don’t take my tone as overly negative. If anyone has the resources, visionary chops, and cajones to pull this off, it’s Andreas Helgstrand. I’m just reacting to the logistics.

So, here’s an idea. Let’s pretend Covid is completely under control and the US/Canadian border is easily permeable again. Perhaps, the Helgstrand operation sends a buyer on the inspection tour of each prominent studbook in North America. I’ve often thought this would be the most legit way of holding an online foal auction here: The foals have to be presented at inspection; the jury or a representative from the auction selects the foals for the sale; there’s a professional photographer and videographer on site for quality control of marketing material. Having a Helgstrand representative who is actively looking to buy young horses at each inspection site would definitely increase participation in the inspection process and, most likely, have an impact on increasing the number of foals produced in subsequent years. Hmm. I’m going to say this problem has a viable solution. You’re welcome, Andreas.

The math of this next excerpt from the interview isn’t adding up for me, however:

“The key, for sure, is that breeding grows and then we can start with the young horse classes and produce for top sport as well. That is not only for the richest people on Earth who can afford to buy these horses…then you can buy a horse for $20,000. Imagine that! That will be super.”

I’m going to make the assumption that he is talking about buying horses from these young horse classes, which means the horses are most likely three, four, or five year olds that have been properly prepared for these classes. To low ball this, let’s say we’re talking about horses nearing the end of their three-year-old year with four months of training. Again, low balling. This probably isn’t reality. I’ll start backwards. There will be at least one commission. Let’s say 10%.

Twenty thousand minus 10% puts us at $18,000. My guess is there will be an entry fee and normal stabling/showing expenses. Assuming the horse sells after the first young-horse class, we’re now at $17,000. A friend was driving to Florida and offered to take your horse along for the ride at cost. The horse arrived the day before the class, fresh and ready to go, and the buyer picked up all expenses immediately after your pony left the ring. $16,000. You got a fantastic deal on four months of board and training at $1500/month with a top trainer who didn’t charge you for traveling to Florida to compete the horse because he or she wanted the experience in Helgstrand’s inaugural young horse classes. $10,000. You raised the horse for three years with no vet bills, plenty of pasture, and your own hay. The horse is a really easy keeper and completely with the program, so this equine angel never broke a halter, chewed up a blanket, or trashed a gate. And, additionally, the horse only pooped in the very back corner of the stall like a well-trained cat in a litter box, so on the rare occasions you had him or her in a stall, there was literally no wasted bedding. Fifteen hundred/year x three. We’re now at $5,500. The mare who birthed this baby was also an easy keeper. She’s the one who trained your young horse to poop only in the back corner of the stall and not tread shit throughout the shavings as if the entire stall had been in a giant blender. She needed minimal vaccinations and deworming, and maintained her good condition without eating anymore while she was nursing. $3,500. Your vet is an altruist and works for the love of the horses and a need to be up every six hours for two or three days in a row because he or she has taken the repro veterinarian’s oath to get all mares pregnant on one cycle with one dose of frozen semen. $2,500. Thank god for the consistency, quality, and potency of European frozen semen. For a mere $1,800, you were able to buy a dose of the most exciting young stallion in the world, get it shipped to your vet, return the container, and pay the broker’s fee. We started at a sales price of $20,000. We’re at $700. OK, for argument’s sake, you spent one hour/day for three years actively working on something involving this horse, be it stall cleaning, feeding, teaching it to cross tie, holding it for the blacksmith, making phone calls looking for a trainer, etc. etc. If you include the five hours of foal watch, and only five, because the mare is completely predictable, we’re at 1100 hours. Rounded up, that’s .64/hour for your efforts, and that’s the low-balled, best situation, if your horse sells for $20,000.

Yeah. It would be great to buy a started young horse, of top quality, already in this country for $20K. Great for the buyer.

There is obviously some hyperbole to prove my point in the last paragraph, but the numbers are pretty much on point, if not a little low, for a best-case scenario. How often in your years of breeding and owning horses have things worked out in a “best-case scenario”? In the vast majority of scenarios, selling a started three year old for $20K is costing you money.

Alright, if you’re still with me, you’ve listened to my diatribe almost long enough. One more point/quotation to which to react:

“I think we can support that a lot because we have the best stallions in the world in dressage. Over here, they often bought an old stallion—say, 15, brought it to America to start a breeding season. These stallions are already too old. The breeding goes so fast that in Europe they breed the young ones because they are the next generation of top athletes.

“That’s why nobody looks to buy a horse in America, because of old bloodlines. We have the stallions in-house. And they also belong to the U.S. market. So we can support with young stallions here, try to help the breeders.”

So, breeding to young stallions solves all our problems in marketing and selling horses in North America. I’m sure he didn’t intend this to sound as simplistic as I’ve inferred it for my purposes, and I don’t disagree with him that it is one of the problems in North American breeding, but I don’t think it’s the only one. My reactions to this over-simplification are complex and colored by my personal experiences buying frozen semen from European stallion owners, including Helgstrand.

Who owns the most impressive collection of young stallions in the world, and who benefits most from people breeding to these stallions? That’s one of my first thoughts. My second thought is an inappropriate-for-print reaction, laced-with-profanity rant about the quality and dosing of some of the frozen semen Mr. Helgstrand is selling to North America. Just in the last breeding season, on one mare alone, I spent well over $4000 on some of this very same “young stallion” frozen semen he’s advocating in an attempt to breed one of these young horses he plans on selling for $20,000. And, I have no pregnancy. There is definite logic in breeding to young stallions to produce the future of our sport. Although, there’s also a certain logic to selecting the best stallion for your mare, and not the “flavor of the year”. Regardless, after multiple cycles of wasted frozen semen with no pregnancy, what option do I have but to use fresh cooled from an older stallion that is available to me with a live foal guarantee?

In defense of these older stallions, given the size of our breeding market, it makes no financial sense for a stallion owner to spend the money for a young, exciting stallion only for him to breed mares enough to barely cover his expenses, let alone recoup any of the purchase price. If Helgstrand and other European stallion owners are willing to either consistently sell us higher quality semen or offer a live foal guarantee with their frozen semen, then we can talk about our breeders’ decisions to use older stallions. Until then, unless he is, indeed, willing to stand a couple of these exciting younger stallions in North America, he is offering no solution to what he sees as our primary problem in breeding horses people want to buy.

Again, I don’t disagree with Helgstrand that the use of older stallions is part of the problem with breeding in North America, but it’s far from the only one. For example, access to quality training at an affordable price as part of an established system in starting and marketing horses, combined with the size of our countries, is probably a bigger reason we’re not selling horses consistently and for a good price, but that’s a topic for a different column.

Yes, I got a little bitter there. Sorry. I see a lot of horses here and in Europe. Although we’re not as consistent in producing the quality that can be found in Europe, nor do we produce the number of horses, there are horses produced here already that are on par with any in Europe. There are just not enough of them, nor enough people who know they exist.

I don’t want this column to end on a negative note. As I stated earlier, I think Andreas Helgstrand is a visionary in our industry, and, for all our sakes, I wish him only success. If he can bring his vision, enthusiasm, marketing prowess, and sales abilities to North American breeding, it will be good for all of us. Two final thoughts for you, Andreas: One, don’t over-simplify the issues facing North American breeders. Two, you could do something right now that would have a huge impact. Sell us a better product with some accountability for its quality and effectiveness.


Scot Tolman is a Dutch Warmblood breeder, philosopher, and wry humorist. We are proud to host this bimonthly new feature, exclusive to WarmbloodBreeding.com, “Thoughts on Breeding.” Scot has delighted readers for years, with his own blog and other writings and musings. His column is both humorous and thought-provoking, and takes on some of the most important issues facing North American breeders today.

The opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints expressed by the various authors and forum participants on this web site do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints of Warmblood Stallions of North America, WarmbloodBreeding.com, WSNA Ventures LLC, or their respective affiliates. The author(s)’s opinions are based upon information they consider reliable, but neither Warmblood Stallions of North America, WarmbloodBreeding.com, WSNA Ventures LLC, nor their respective affiliates warrant its completeness or accuracy, and it should not be relied upon as such.

3 Replies to “On Math, Afghanistan, Marketing, and Dreamers”

  1. Mary Nuttall

    A thousand time yes Scott! I am a relatively small breeder but have had some very successful horses. I read the original article and had the same thoughts. We cannot produce horses any cheaper than the figures you quoted. The cost of frozen semen plus all the new contract rules. The fact that one dose rarely does the job, the lack of a lfg, using private vet practices rather than dropping the mare off at the breeding farm, and the lack of affordable training for young horses all impact the bottom line adversely relative to being in the EU. I feel it is likely to draw potential buyers away from NA bred horses.

    Reply
  2. Karen

    Scot… I’m so happy that you have this passion and are such a leader. I couldn’t agree more with you and I really appreciate the time and energy and probably restraint that you showed in writing this article so thank you from the bottom of my heart I have forwarded it to as many people as I can

    Reply

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