by Scot Tolman
First, thanks so much to all of you who reached out to me after reading Part One of “Not Dead Yet.” It means a lot to me. Hearing your stories and feeling the love of people from around the world was really heartening. Although I steadfastly believe most of us have more shared experience than disparate, it’s easy to feel isolated as a breeder in North America. I’m happy to be a small part of creating some of the conversations and sharing some of those experiences that bring us all together. It seems the last two years of Covid—no keurings and limited inspections, owners-only events, no in-person annual gatherings—have exacerbated our breeder-isolation predicament. On the positive side of learning to live with Covid, we’re all much more adept at Zoom and FaceTime, so maybe a monthly “cocktails and conversation” format could work. Anything that involves cocktails has to be at least tolerable, right? It would be great to have some real-time conversations about the breeding season and how it’s going for people.
Second, I promised I’d keep Part Two more in keeping with my normal writing tone, and I’ll do my best. It’s not going to be easy, however. A large man in his early 60s shopping for a riding horse/school master for himself in the Netherlands isn’t as idyllic or gratifying as one may think. I’ve taken many riders and breeders horse shopping in Europe over the years. I’ve done a fair amount of horse shopping myself, as my growing board bill from Stal 83 can attest. I have never in all these years actually sat on a horse on foreign soil, let alone gone with the intention of looking for a horse to sit on on a regular basis. So, although I can find humor in the whole situation, there were a number of insecurities rearing their judgmental heads and releasing the proverbial butterflies.
On this particular trip, my insecurities already simmering, we met a very dear friend for lunch on one of the first days. I love her. I love spending time with her. But, I truly hated her for about three minutes and twenty seconds. Warm greeting. Hugs. The traditional three kisses. Then, “Have you been riding?”
She held me at arm’s length and looked up and down my body.
“I think not.”
In my head, I desperately tried to piece together, “you look so much older than the last time I saw you” in Dutch (which isn’t even true–she looks fantastic), but my internal Google Translate failed me. I settled for hoping she would momentarily choke, slightly, on her mustard soup. This was the moment I adopted the Fight Club motto for my buying trip. “The first rule of Fight Club: You do not talk about Fight Club.” Hence, the first rule of Scot’s buying trip for his personal riding horse: “You do not talk about Scot’s buying trip for his personal riding horse”…unless absolutely necessary because you want to sit on the horse. At that point, rather than have the confused Dutch person wondering why this large man is expecting a pony ride, I, indeed, would have to divulge the real reason for looking at their horse.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m becoming a fairly body-positive kind of person. It’s been a struggle, and only taken about 62 years, but it’s true. I’d like to lose some weight and I get self conscious because of it, but I’m in the gym five or six days a week. I work with a personal trainer once a week. I’m fit and strong with a lot of muscle on my body. However, stand me next to Edward Gal, and one of us looks like a retired offensive lineman for a sub-par professional football team and one of us looks as if horses are begging him to wrap his skinny legs around their girths and passage off into the sunset. So, yes, when a seller hears someone wants to come look at his or her PSG horse as a personal riding horse, I’m imagining that he or she is expecting an Edward Gal prototype showing up at the mounting block, and not number 72 from the Senior’s League O line. When in reality, they’re probably thinking, “Now, how much am I supposed to raise the price for an American?”
One of my biggest quandaries internally before, during, and after this trip didn’t/doesn’t involve my physical insecurities, however. It involves my breeding goals. I have spent the last 30-plus years methodically and persistently building a program that produces top dressage athletes, modern horses that are refined, athletic, and with enough chutzpah to have the energy to excel at upper level sport. “Chutzpah”, “refined”, and “athletic” were not the goal in this purchase. At all.
I have a few strict rules when considering a horse for myself: One, the horse has to have an ass bigger than mine; two, I don’t bounce so well anymore, so shorter is better; and, three, any “chutzpah” better be in looking for treats and not in an overly responsive reaction to my leg. In short, whatever horse I purchased probably wasn’t going to have much resemblance to the constantly modernizing ideal I’ve maintained in my head as a breeding goal over the last three decades.
I’m here to admit readily that I’m a horse snob. Any horse in our barn has to have the look and the movement to continue to take our breeding program to higher and higher levels. Before deciding to go to the Netherlands to buy my riding horse, I looked at a number of horses in North America. Quarter Horses, heavier type Warmbloods, drafts and draft crosses. Every time I narrowed it down and thought positively enough about the horse to show it to Carol, she said,
“You’re not going to be happy. Not your type.”
So, yeah, now I’m the 62-year old offensive lineman and horse snob looking for a horse that has an ass bigger than mine, isn’t too tall, has enough chutzpah but not too much chutzpah, and has a type close enough to my ideal that I’m going to be happy riding him and seeing him or her in the paddock when I look out the kitchen window with my morning decaf. To put it bluntly, I wasn’t expecting to come home with a horse. But, I did.
Enter Floris. Whom I’ll get to in a minute. Let’s go shopping first.
Due to the parameters of what I was looking for, I had set up appointments to see a number of Gelders horses on this trip. If you’re not familiar with the KWPN system, there are four breeding directions: Jumpers, Dressage Horses, Harness Horses, and Gelders. The KWPN North America also has a Hunter direction. If you’re not familiar with the Gelders horse, it’s one of the two original Dutch breeds, primarily used for agricultural purposes, that are the base of the modern Dutch Warmblood. Initially, an individual horse had to have a certain percentage of Gelders blood to be eligible for this breeding direction. Now, the selection for the Gelders direction is based more on type, so often you’ll see a lot of heavier German blood in the pedigrees of these horses. To quote KWPN inspector Wim Versteeg, “Dressage or show jumping horse breeding is really about breeding a horse for the highest level. With the Gelderlander horses, the emphasis is on completely different things. There we are looking for a versatile horse with the character to ride, jump or drive; a horse to ride in the forest and that is suitable for the whole family. That requires a different approach.” This isn’t to say that Gelders horses aren’t capable of the highest level of sport; there have been many Gelders and part Gelders horses successful at the upper levels. It’s just saying that focus is on temperament, versatility, rideability, and more of a classic type.Given that I’m five years away from being eligible for full Social Security, my riding goals, and my three primary requirements in buying a horse for myself, I think you can understand why I focused my search on the Gelders Horse.
The population of Gelders horses is significantly smaller than dressage, jumping, and, even, harness horses, however. There are fewer breeders. As a matter of fact, often, most of the audience at the annual KWPN Stallion Show will go out for a coffee or smoke break during the presentation of the Gelders horses. They’re just not that popular because the perception is, correctly or incorrectly, that they are old fashioned and a step, if not multiple steps, backwards in breeding modern sporthorses. And, honestly, as much as I like them, that has been my perception, as well. Nonetheless, I know these horses, I know what they are bred for, and I decided this was the breeding direction that most fit my riding needs and goals. So, I held my preconceived notions and prejudices in check and began my search.
The first horse I looked at was a large, grey, lower-level school master. I love greys. His hind end connection and slight unevenness in the use of his hind legs negated him for me. The second was a HUGE, young stallion. This guy has talent, a great brain, and size enough for me and a couple of buddies from the offensive line to ride at the same time. The price was way too high for my budget, however. Next, I looked at a super fancy young mare who had done really well in the National Mare Show/Gelders division. Beautiful mare. If I had been looking for a mare to add to my program, I would have bought her without much hesitation, but, as a riding horse, she was a little too small and a little too green. The next stop was at the farm of one of the top Gelders breeders in the Netherlands, the Hekkerts. It is nearly impossible to go wrong buying a horse from this program. The Hekkerts are the breeders of the KWPN-approved stallion, Henkie, Adelinde Cornelissen’s up-and-coming super star and the first Gelders stallion to ever be also approved by Oldenburg. I’ve purchased a stallion prospect two years in a row from them. But, the horses they had available as riding horses were mares that hadn’t been under saddle for a number of years. Given that I wanted to begin riding sooner rather than later, it didn’t make sense to me to buy a broodmare, have her restarted, then import her. Next, there was another young stallion that was really cool, but, again, too green for me. Then, we looked at a great horse that was too broke–I would have been bored after the first week with him. I was pretty convinced that I wasn’t going to find what I wanted.
Throughout my planning and actual shopping on this trip, I was communicating with Gelders aficionado Liz van Woerden. If you don’t know Liz, she’s a Dutch native who temporarily resettled with her husband and family to Arizona. Liz is a Gelders devoteé. She has studied them, written about them, networked both here and in the Netherlands with Gelders breeders, and been a source of incredible positive energy and enthusiasm in promoting this breeding direction. When I communicated my lack of success to her, Liz said,
“I think you should go look at Floris.”
To be honest, this wasn’t the first time she had made this suggestion. She’d been in the Floris camp from the moment she heard I was horse shopping. Although I had looked at a couple young stallions, “snip snip” had been in my brain when considering them. Buying an established breeding stallion for my personal riding horse was just not on my agenda. Plus, I knew Floris. I had never met him in person, but I’d seen him at the Stallion Show when he was approved, I saw him later when he came back under saddle, I had seen video footage of him and his offspring. Nice horse. A little small. Great canter. By Negro. But, not a horse I was interested in for my breeding program, so I hadn’t given him much consideration. Plus, he had been for sale for a while and hadn’t sold. That was a red flag for me. Confirmed PSG, KWPN approved, some top offspring. Only 12 years old. Why hadn’t anyone snapped him up? Must be something going on. Well, guess what? There wasn’t anything going on.
Mostly to appease Liz, I made the appointment to see him. Again, I had no intention of buying him, so I didn’t pack my breeches or helmet in the trunk of the rental car. Basically, I just showed up to be polite, since Liz had been speaking with Floris’s owner and they knew I was shopping. They had trucked Floris to a local indoor because their place was under construction. The first time I met him in person was on the van. He was just hanging out. I said hi, patted his neck, and thought, “what a good boy.” He was much more solid in person than I had expected, and he was also a bit taller than he looked on his videos and from our seats at the Stallion Show. His owner took him off the van and finished tacking him up, then we walked into the indoor. There was another horse schooling. Floris went into an “I am the King posture” and made a little noise, but that was it. Corienne, the owner, hopped on with no further walking around or lunging and began riding him. What struck me immediately was his workman-like attitude. No fuss. No resistance. Just right to work. What struck me next was the quality of his canter. It’s amazing. Uphill, balanced, adjustable. Really good canter. Corienne showed us all of the PSG movements, then my friend, and new USDF Gold Medalist, Kathi Bruce, hopped on. Floris was just as consistent and willing to work for Kathi as he had been for Corienne. Kathi stopped, and, in her very distinctive voice, said,
“I think you should get on.”
I’m not going to lie. I was as nervous as hell about the prospect of getting on this approved stallion and PSG horse in front of two upper level riders and my good friend, Margret Peters (yes, same Peters that are the breeders of Alexandro P). Plus, I knew the saddle was small enough that my testicles would be resting on the pommel. I made some excuses: No helmet, would have to ride in my jeans because I hadn’t brought my breeches, etc., etc. But, I could tell from the look on Kathi’s face I was going to be getting on this horse. So, Kathi hopped off, they led Floris to the mounting block, and I put my big toe and part of the ball of my foot into the tiny stirrup, and lifted my leg over Floris for the first time. Fortunately, my skinny jeans had enough elastic in them to accommodate a riding position and keep my testicles relatively safe. My feet, however, did not fit into the stirrups, so, (and don’t try this at home, kids) with no helmet and no stirrups, I had my first ride on Floris.
Did I mention this was the first time I had been on a horse, any horse, in well over a year? And, here I was on an upper-level stallion in front of two upper-level riders. Let’s just say I didn’t attempt to do much. But, as it turns out, I didn’t have to do much. I knew almost immediately that Floris was the horse for me. And, as far as I’m concerned, thank-the-horse-gods lucky me: A bunch of people missed the proverbial boat.
After ten minutes or so, I brought him to a halt, put my big toe back in the left stirrup, dislodged my pelvis from the confines of the three-sizes-too-small dressage saddle, and dismounted. We followed the van back to Corienne’s place. Floris, once again, announced his “Kingness” upon arrival, then went quietly into his stall. They showed us a super Floris two-year-old filly in free movement. We shook hands and said our goodbyes. A little later that day, I called back and began negotiating. Within an hour, I had my horse.
I’m trying to avoid the perception that I’m using this article as a promotional tool for my new stallion. For one, again, coming home with a breeding stallion was not my goal on this trip. Buying a horse I can trail ride, take to local non-dressage shows, use as a schoolmaster, maybe ride an upper level test on, and basically have fun with were the goals. Additionally, he is not available for breeding right now with anything but frozen semen, and, this late in the season, not many people are going to be jumping at buying a frozen-only contract. So, again, I hope you can accept that I’m describing my search for and eventual purchase of this horse in a spirit of discussion and self-reflection, not marketing.
That being said, and more to the point of this entire piece, I wonder if he will be interesting to North American breeders. I’m questioning this as a North American breeder myself, and whether or not he fits my program. As I mentioned above, I had known of Floris for many years but never considered breeding to him. He’s a fully approved stallion who had to undergo the Gelders testing, which means he was evaluated for dressage, jumping, and in harness in front of a cart. He’s a complete gentleman with very rideable gaits. He’s not huge and he’s not small. In short, he has the rideability, versatility, temperament, and size most amateur riders need and should be looking for, whether that fits their “ideal” or not. Do I need to rethink my breeding goals to be more in keeping with my personal riding goals? Or, can I do both? Breed for the type of equine athlete that takes our program to an internationally competitive level AND breed for a horse more suitable for my, and most people’s, personal riding needs? It’s a quandary. And, I don’t have an answer yet.
In short, I, like many of us, am an imperfect rider attempting to breed perfect horses. I don’t know if the perfect rider exists. I don’t know if the perfect horse exists, regardless of my never-ending quest to create it. In my heart of hearts, I know that it feels like “settling” for me to compromise my breeding goals. It’s difficult enough breeding horses with the intent of improving one or two traits in each generation without adding the component of “suitable for the imperfect rider AND international sport at the same time” to the equation. This isn’t to say that there aren’t those rare horses in existence who are capable of fulfilling this breeding goal, but they are an anomaly. One might argue that Valegro (who, as it happens, is Floris’s half brother) is one of those horses since he has been both the top dressage horse in the world and the hack mount for an eldery woman in the English countryside. I would counter this assertion with two things: One, that elderly woman was not riding him when he was a fairly difficult young horse, and, two, that elderly woman was not the one scoring over 90% on him at international Grand Prix. In any case, there’s something about a horse like Floris that has me thinking it’s time to either tweak our breeding goals or, at least, focus a couple of our breeding selections each year toward a different goal.
Mutter, mutter. Ramble, ramble. Much more in keeping with my normal writing style! LOL! Just be thankful I haven’t leaned on my penchant for emojis and GIFs in this piece. For now, I’m content with the fact that Floris is mine and seems to be a willing partner in this next chapter of my life. I’ve ridden him three times. He’s a good boy and tolerates me. He has a fancy new bridle that looks amazing on him. I caught a glimpse of us in the arena mirror today, and thought, “imperfect, but not embarrassing.” I’ve bred two mares to him and I’m thinking about a third. We’ll see how it goes. Horses have shaped my life. Specific horses have been my guides through tragedy and transitions. I am willing to be guided on this next journey, and, regardless of the questions posed in this piece, grateful to have found a partner for that journey.
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 delighted readers for years, with his own blog (Scot’s Journal on the Shooting Star Farm website) and other writings and musings. We are proud to host this bimonthly new feature, exclusive to WarmbloodBreeding.com, “Thoughts on Breeding.” His column is both humorous and thought-provoking, and takes on some of the most important issues facing North American breeders today.