Thursday, June 5, 2014

Everybody Loves a Warmblood....

                    Sure They Do!

[Circa 1988, The Chronicle of the Horse]

Leave it Europe to create something as confusing as a Warmblood.  Part Thoroughbred, part plow-horse, and with personalities as varied as the terrain, or in some cases, none at all.  Still, America has developed a love affair with these horses only slightly less flaming than cheap gas.

In actuality, it would be hard for Americans to create such a horse.  We are too argumentative, too opinionated, and with more states and ingrained prejudices than Europe and Asia combined, the results could be scary.  Can one imagine New Jersey and Connecticut each having their own state horse?  Better yet, could anyone pronounce such a breed?  And then there is Texas...

There would also be the problem of state-by-state attributes, uniqueness being the selling point.  New York Warmbloods would be bred to accept bad drivers and random muggings with grace, Idaho Warmbloods could live on potatoes, and Florida Warmbloods would look great in a bathing suit.  And what about California?  How could a person resist a horse that was bred to appreciate surfboards, bad air and pink tofu?

No, America is a poor proving ground for new breeds.  Look at the Quarter Horse.  After 60 years of not-so-selective product improvement, they are still not sure if they want a short muscular horse, a tall muscular horse, or a Thoroughbred.  Or maybe none of the above.  Perhaps the real problem is little more than the American tradition of fashion by the decade, an odd belief that after 10 years of passionate commitment, the honeymoon is indeed over.

In Europe    

Each European country has its own version of the Warmblood.  The one exception, of course, is Germany, which has either absorbed the American concept of hamburger marketing or finds horse breeding to be the last vestige of feudalism in a shrinking world. Such district-by-district envy could be a source of unending friction for the Germans, except for the fact that they still have not answered their centuries-old dispute over who makes the best beer.  At Europe's pace, arguing over horses is still probably 200 years away.

The fervor of horse breeding in Europe should by all calculations be drawn along nationalistic frontiers.  Ranging from Sweden in the north, to the palm-lined beaches of the south, each country should by all accounts, produce a specialist in something.

Everyone knows that German horses can jump, but no seems to know why.  It has been theorized that a connection may exist between their diet of brewery wastes and the fact that their evolutionary development has been interrupted on numerous occasions by artillery barrages.  The military connection may also explain their propensity for dressage, as the Germans have always taken great pride in one form or another of marching.  It probably works off the extra calories associated with the question of who makes the best beer.

French Warmbloods were obviously created to be show hunters.  Such unbridled arrogance would surely be wasted on anything less than a French horse.  Aside from their ability to enter a show ring with all the panache of an Oscar night, they are easy to feed (they eat anything), and easy to name.  They are all called "Pierre."  Or "Capucine" if it's a girl horse.

Swedish horses are all blond and blue-eyed with good tans and a knack for skiing.  When brought to America they excel in grand prix events held on the snow or tundra.  For this reason most are assessed an automatic 4-faults whenever the footing comes up "cold."

Dutch horses are the most difficult to label of the Warmbloods.  Other than their ability to live around barbed-wire, most seem to have been bred by accident.  Almost all Dutch farmers seem to have three or four of these brutes around, but they are never sure where they came from, or if they should really sell them.  Farmers are like that.

And of course there are the English, but they can never leave anything alone.  Aside from the classic half-Thoroughbred-half-draft field hunters that they are infamous famous for, the English also produce an endless assortment of half-cobs, half-Welshes, half-Connemaras, and an experimental goat-cow combination that will produce two kinds of cheese on a diet of kippers and ale.  But the English have a huge advantage in marketing horses in America.  We all speak the same language -- sort of.

In America  

Once these Warmbloods hop off the plane, everything changes.  Like most new immigrants, they want to take a quick peak at the Statue of Liberty, then get on with dinner.  But the food is different, the rules strange, and the expectations practically overwhelming.  In America, horses are expected to lead well, cross-tie politely, and only step on humans with one foot at a time.  And the competitive demands are frightening. Imported horses are never allowed to fail at anything.  They must move like a gazelle, jump anything in the parking lot, and exude substance and poise from every pore in their body.  And that's before the show actually starts.

While new owners are busy admiring their new acquisition, the grooms are kept busy trying to convince the new arrivals that a vacuum cleaner is not a meat-eating version of an over-sized blender.  And vacuuming is important, considering that a Warmblood may have more surface area than some small farms. 

Then of course, comes the matter of shoes.  Europe has never been big on horseshoes, so most Warmbloods arrive with these large round things at the bottoms of their legs that resemble a hair pizza.  Farriers love these large feet, particularly when they find their way into tool boxes, water buckets or the occasional shirt pocket.

It is such activities that probably led to what farriers call the "Warmblood Surcharge," a small fee added onto the bill to cover such things as broken anvils, overturned trucks and missing apprentices.  These charges are also meant as compensation for a farrier's loss of height, which often occurs after being pile-driven into the ground by an animal just slightly heavier than a small house.

But one day calm prevails and the new arrival jogs around the arena with the authority of an old veteran.  Processed, refined, transformed and converted, the Warmblood is Americanized as apple pie.  No longer afraid of vacuum cleaners or weed eaters, indoor shows or brightly colored fences, the horse is ready for whatever America has to throw at it.

Then the door opens and in walks an Appaloosa.  

Gosh, I sure was generous back in those days.  But then, it was The Chronicle and they do get a little fussy about breed bashing -- deserved or otherwise.  So later, in order to set the record straight, I wrote my own book, including a chapter I entitled, "The Other Thoroughbred."  A primer follows:  

     "Sure, there are dumb-bloods around – I mean Warmbloods, but most have an IQ normally associated with poultry and have feet the size of garbage can lids.  Am I prejudiced?  Yes.  Emphatically.  These horses are bred in Europe, basically mongrels that end up with some royal tattoo on their butts in a wild attempt to get them adopted by Americans with more money than sense.  Europe is the dog pound of the horse industry.  Every farmer has two or three of these brutes just waiting for the adoption papers to be finalized.  They are basically a cross between a heavy horse – say a Percheron and a Thoroughbred.  The idea was to gain size and soundness from the heavy side and a little heat and ambition from the Thoroughbred influence.  The plan actually seemed somewhat reasonable if you ignore the ‘Irish Setter Syndrome,’ another human experiment in DNA intervention that scientifically established that an organism could fetch and drool whether it had a brain or not.  Now that kind of mental acuity may not seem important if you are a tail-wagging potted plant, but the story gets a little more frightening when you are trying to make eye contact with a 1500lb pile of indifference."