First Question:  Ask Me If I Have to Pee

Scot Tolman Thoughts on Breeding

One of the benefits of enduring/surviving/doggedly persisting as long as I have in the horse-breeding business is people new to breeding often see my longevity and modicum of success as something from which to garner some insight. I use “benefits” because I love talking horses, so I’m almost always happy to chat about breeding and the horse business. I use “almost always” because…well, there have been times when I’ve been sitting in my Subaru outside the post office while on my morning errands, for over an hour, eyes glazed over, listening to a voice over my car speakers put me into so much of an hypnotic daze that I nearly have to set a timer on my phone to remind myself at least to grunt or try to squeeze in an “uh-huh” occasionally to be polite. Additionally, by then, after my morning large decaf and 24 ounces of water, I also have to pee. Hard to focus when you have to pee. These are the only times when I don’t see these calls as “benefits”: when I have to pee and when you haven’t really called for a conversation, but, rather, needed a living, breathing body on the other end of the line to listen to you. And, honestly, if I don’t have to pee too badly, I will listen for a long, long time and be cool with it.

So, in this column, I’m going to attempt to do two things: One, give you some advice about how to prepare for calling someone from whom you want advice or simply a conversation about breeding horses. And, two, present an FAQ section of the conversations I frequently have. 

When I first started breeding, back in the days before the blessing/curse of the internet existed in more than some government basements and a few computer geeks’ Dorito-crumbed bedrooms with sticky Mountain Dew stains in the carpet, I researched breeding programs in Holland by looking at the names of the breeders on registration papers, in In de Strengen, and in sport and auction results. Then, I’d sleuth out some poor, unsuspecting Dutch farmer’s phone number, and call them, hoping they spoke English. Only once did I miscalculate the time difference and get somebody out of bed…only once. It was one of my shorter conversations, consisting primarily of my profuse apologies once I realized my mistake. Unfortunately, I had gone through my introduction with my name and farm name before I realized this grumpy Dutchman was, indeed, groggy, and not grumpy. Again, that only happened once. Now, given the advent of the internet and social media, we have access to top breeders worldwide with the pressings of a few keystrokes, and it doesn’t matter what time of day you send the message, because they’ll see it when they see it. So, that’s really the first step, make contact via social media, email, or text before you call. If you’re contacting someone in Europe, WhatsApp is usually the way to go. 

Whether it’s in your original message or initial phone conversation, keep your introduction brief. If the conversation goes well, there will be plenty of time to tell them all about chubby, eight-year-old you on your rescue pony who lay down and rolled every time you tried to canter. Name. One sentence description of who you are. One sentence explanation of why you want to speak with them. Some expression of appreciation for their taking the time to speak with you. Move on to your plan. 

Did I say plan? I did say plan. It’s worth repeating. Plan. LOL! 

I’m not trying to be overly flippant here. If my sense of humor feels at all accusatory or mean, please, don’t take it that way. Finding a mentor and regularly speaking with experts in the field is really key to improving your knowledge base and, consequently, your program. So, before you sit down to make a few planning notes for the conversation you’d like to have, have a conversation with yourself, and make a couple notes about your own program. To begin with, first, try to identify the biggest strength and the biggest weakness. If I take a minute to be metacognitive about my program and my own thought processes around breeding and my goals for my program, I’d say the biggest strength is probably the overall quality of our mares. None of our mares is perfect, but they are all outstanding individuals and out of top, top marelines. The biggest weakness is the lack of availability of stallions to improve them. In Holland or Germany, there are literally dozens of stallions to whom I would be excited about breeding. For my mares in North America, regardless of how objectively honest and critical I am about the weaknesses of my mares, my options are really limited in finding the stallions to improve those weaknesses. Second, write a goal statement. What do you want your program to become? What are the characteristics of the “ideal” horse you are trying to breed? For now, leave both your potential market and the methods of reaching that market out of the equation. The horse market is way too fickle to count on. If all you want to do is sell a foal, then breeding for the market is fine. No judgement from me. If you want to build a program, however, you need to have a clear vision of what you’re trying to accomplish. That goal can change or be adjusted, but you have to have an overarching goal to guide your decision-making process. My goal is to breed a naturally balanced, athletic horse with the physical and mental potential for Grand Prix. 

Once you spend a little time talking to yourself, start thinking about two or three things you hope to get from the conversation. The goal here is to make a new friend, a connection, kind of like speed dating to find a mentor. If the person is knowledgeable enough to be worth contacting, you’re not going to be able to “plug into” their brain and get all the information in one shot. Think of it as a biopsy, not an autopsy. You want a sample of what they know to see if it has value to you. If your conversational scalpel is making long slits and digging deep into their gizzards on the first go round, they’re probably not going to answer your call next time. For instance, I’m dying to have a conversation with Willeke Bos. She’s the breeder of three out of the four premium stallions in the most recent KWPN Stallion Show. She bred All At Once, Vitalis, and Jameson. This woman has been breeding a third of the time I’ve been breeding and with far more success. With a little luck, I’m hoping to have this conversation in person next month. The couple things I hope to get from the conversation are, one, what German lines are you most excited about using right now, and, two, how much do you let the KWPN determine your goals. I’m hopeful there will be more conversation than that, but if I come away from the initial conversation with some idea on those two points, I’m going to be really satisfied.

So, before I move on to the FAQ section of this column, let’s reiterate: Reach out and make a connection, have a heart-to-heart with yourself about your own program, biopsy not autopsy. Some of the relationships I value most in my life are the connections I’ve made with people to whom I’ve reached out over the years and people who have reached out to me. One of my initial goals when I first started breeding was to improve breeding as a whole in North America. Lofty, yes. But, although I’ve become a little more focused on more personally self-sustaining goals in our breeding program as of late, it’s still my belief that we become stronger individually by making everyone stronger. If my experiences and base of knowledge can be helpful, I’m always willing to have a conversation, and I don’t think I’m an aberration. The vast majority of breeders area going to be more than happy to have a conversation with you. And, if, for some reason, they’re not, it says way more about them than it does you. 

Without further ado, FAQs: 

“What’s the one piece of advice you would give to someone starting a breeding program” 

Research. Research. Then, research some more, and buy the best mare you can afford, even if you can’t afford her. No other decision is as important as this. A top quality mare allows you to make stupid decisions as you’re learning, and not pay as much of a price as you would with a lower quality mare. Believe me, you’re going to make some stupid decisions. We all do. One caveat: It’s always better to buy a less spectacular mare from a top mareline than it is a spectacular individual from a lesser mareline. Blood will tell. Every time. 

“How do you sell all your foals?” 

Well, to start with, I don’t always sell all my foals. I keep way too many. Occasionally, we’ll have a yearling or 2-year-old gelding we’re not keeping for our program that hasn’t sold, but not that often. The reason we sell most of our foals, and most of them in utero, isn’t that complex, though. One, again, it’s hard to find a higher quality group of mares than ours. Two, I never breed for the market; I breed to improve my program. I always tell people, “I don’t sell horses–I sell myself.” A better way to put that so I don’t end up in the middle of a prostitution sting operation is that I sell my dreams. My vision. My belief in the quality and potential I am producing. If you don’t believe you’re breeding good horses, no one else is going to. 

“How do you make money at this?” 

That’s really simple. A lot of years, you don’t. I’ve used this quotation many times in interviews, columns, and in my journal on our website, but it bears repeating. “How do you make a small fortune in the horse business? Start with a large one.” Breeding is a high-overhead, labor-intensive, risk-laden business. As successful and financially solvent as our breeding business appears on the outside, there have been many years when our biggest benefit was a significant tax write-off. It took decades to reach a point at which we consistently showed a profit. So, long story short, it’s really difficult to break even in this business, let alone make money. Things that help? The big one is to learn to do your own breeding work. It’s time consuming and requires investing in an ultrasound machine and a set of stocks, but the money you will save in one breeding season will cover those expenses. Before you know it, you, too, will be spending most of your summer with greenish brown stains on all of your shirt sleeves and a faint smell of horse shit every time you turn your head to the right.

“Do you make your breeding decisions based on the market?” 

I think I’ve answered this one already, but it’s a question I get all the time. Absolutely not. Breeding something specifically for the purpose of selling it is never on my mind. My decisions are based on breeding for the next great broodmare or stallion prospect. I am continually evaluating and re-evaluating our mares and what they have produced in order to make better decisions. All of these decisions are based on long-term goals. Well, almost all. I will occasionally breed a mare to a certain stallion I hadn’t planned on because a friend or customer wants something specific. Normally, this is a repeat of a cross I’ve already done–someone wants a full sibling. But, specifically breed for the market? No way. If you do what is best for your mares and for the future of your program, you build your own market. 

“With all of the risks and investments, is it worth doing?” 

I can’t really answer that for anyone other than me. I don’t give up easily. One of my gym t-shirts has the Nelson Mandela quotation, “I either win or I learn.” There are certainly times I think I want to quit. One year, between December and June, we lost seven horses. Seven. All freak accidents or old-age related for the most part, but losing seven horses in six months takes an emotional and financial toll on a breeder. We’ve lost mares during foaling. We’ve lost foals. We’ve lost both the mare and the foal. This year alone I’ve spent over $40,000 at New England Equine Medical and Surgical. On the flip side, have I already bought frozen for the 2022 breeding season? Yes. Am I already excitedly keeping a list of S names on the white board in the barn? Yes. Did I still get up at 2 am for a week in December and a couple days at the beginning of the month to see the stallion selections? Yup. When Van Helvoirt, the breeder of Jazz, founder of the Wendy line, and breeder of multiple National Mare Champions, became too old to care for his horses, he sold them–but, as part of the deal, his older mares stayed at his place so he could still see them every day. He was well into his 70s when he bred Jazz, a stallion that changed Dutch breeding forever. I’m not giving up. Breeding horses is part of my soul. If my kids decide to put me into a nursing home a few decades down the road, it better be one with a run-in shed outside my window. 

For those of you thinking about starting a breeding program, or those of you who just feel isolated because the closest fellow Warmblood breeder is a six-hour drive away, I hope there’s something helpful in this piece. Breeding horses can be lonely, frustrating, credit-card-maxing, and emotionally devastating, but it can also bring just enough joy and self-satisfaction to make it all worth it. And, one of the most satisfying aspects of the whole thing is the connections you make with other breeders. These connections can be a lifeline sometimes. So, even if you just need someone to whom to vent who understands, I, for one, am willing to sit outside the post office and listen. For quite a long time. Just give me an occasional pee break.


Scot Tolman is the owner, with his wife Carol, of Shooting Star Farm, a family-run, Platinum Level breeding farm with the KWPN-NA. Scot, and Shooting Star Farm, have been written up in several equine publications, here and in Europe. As a writer, Scot has been published most notably in Warmbloods Today magazine (no longer published), and he maintains Scot’s Journal on the Shooting Star Farm website.

Scot stands two Dutch Warmblood stallions. Click to view their Stallion Profiles on WarmbloodStallionsNA.com:

Gaudi SSF

The most popular dressage stallion in North America!

Jaleet SSF

World-class expression and athleticism!

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

One Reply to “First Question:  Ask Me If I Have to Pee”

  1. Rebecca Pennington

    Oh, Scott. What an eloquent piece on this breeding obsession. Though I have (finally!) retired from breeding (Hanoverian and Knabstrupper), I fully concur in all you have written. Wishing you continued success and fulfillment.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

eighteen − 16 =