No matter how successful a stallion was during his show career, when he enters the breeding shed, he’s navigating uncharted waters.
By Kristin Pitzer
While a stallion is in the show pen’s spotlight performing in front of a roaring crowd, he seems invincible. Everyone wants to watch him and cheer for him, and for those competitive years, he can be on top of the world.
But going from the show pen to the breeding shed often happens with much less fanfare. It can be hard to find people willing to take a chance on an unproven stallion to be the sire of the next generation, no matter how successful he was as a performer. The first few foal crops he produces will either secure his place as a remarkable sire, or he’ll fade into the background. It takes time and work to foster and nurture a junior stallion’s breeding career, but perhaps just as much, he needs someone who believes in him and the mark he can leave on the industry.
Beyond the Bright Lights
A substantial performance record can help generate interest in a stallion as a future sire, but that alone won’t propel his breeding career. Hubert Heule, who previously managed ARC Gunnabeabigstar’s breeding career, noted that show-pen success won’t necessarily cause breeders to line up outside the barn once a stud moves into this next phase of his life. Case in point, after ARC Gunnabeabigstar won the 2014 NRHA Futurity L4 Open co-championship, Heule expected the breeding contracts to pile up. But it took hard work to get “Big Star’s” fans to actually commit.
“[Winning a major event] sure helps, but it’s not a guarantee,” Heule said. “In the end, it’s the individual, that’ll make people want to breed and get excited about your horse.
“Most of the time, they’re great show horses, but getting people to actually invest money in your stallion, because that’s basically what they’re doing by breeding their mare to your horse, is the hardest part,” he added. “I think people want to know there’s a serious commitment behind the horse and a plan behind him.”
According to Franco Bertolani, head trainer at Cardinal Reining Horses, which stands Inferno Sixty Six, Dun It For Whizkey, and several other stallions, a horse that wins a lot of money might have more people take a chance on him sooner. But a horse with lower earnings can be successful, too, if he has other qualities to back him up. Bloodlines, he said, can be just as important.
“I trust in the individual horse and also the family,” Bertolani said. “If I like the mother or the full brother or his family in general, I think the horse deserves a chance.”
Bertolani believes Dun It For Whizkey and Inferno Sixty Six were both aided by their show-pen performances—each is an NRHA Futurity L4 Open reserve champion—but they’re also out of proven mares. Those two factors helped both stallions book quite a few mares at the beginning of their breeding careers. Inferno Sixty Six bred almost 150 mares the first year he stood at stud.
Cardinal Reining Horses also stands Tricked Out Spook, owned by Tanya Jenkins. “Hugo” won more than $75,000 in NRHA LTE, but Jenkins also put an emphasis on riding him outside the reining pen. She believes longevity in the show pen is necessary for a sire in addition to good breeding.
“More or less, people are expecting to see the stallions last longer,” Jenkins said. “It’s important for that stallion to go as long as he can. With Hugo, I think it’s cool that you can do so many things with him—not just the reining, but the ranch riding, I rope on him, he trail rides—I think that’s important. Is it going to make somebody breed to him? It might, because it shows that he’s versatile and he likes to be ridden.”
Getting the Numbers
Even when a stallion has a good pedigree and a decent show record, there’s still work to be done to attract mares. Because a junior stallion has no performers proving his worth in the show pen, it’s important to market the qualities he might pass on to his foals.
“For Big Star, that was easy,” Heule said. “His pedigree and athletic ability were, for me, two things that there was no doubt about. Every stallion is an individual, and every stallion has his own qualities you try to promote. You try to convince people that’s what he’s going to produce, and keep your fingers crossed [that it comes to be].”
Once people are interested in a stud, it’s important to get the numbers on the ground—that’s one of the biggest challenges for a young stallion. While it might sound reasonable to limit the book to only proven mares, junior sires generally can’t be as picky with pairings. Plus, having a variety of babies in the first two or three foal crops can show that the stallion doesn’t need to prove out of only the greatest mares.
“I think there’s a misconception in trying to breed only a limited number of proven mares that are very good,” Heule said. “A great stallion will outproduce himself, and he’ll also improve mares. I think if a stallion can prove out of average mares, he can still produce nice horses so you have something on your hands.”
Bertolani said promoting junior stallions sometimes has to be done creatively—whether it’s trading breedings or giving some away for free—to get more foals on the ground the next year. If a manager is unwilling to do that and ends up with only a handful of babies the first few years, it could cause other issues. For example, if some of the babies get hurt or can’t make it to the show pen for whatever reason, that sets the stallion back a year.
“Of course, we want to breed to proven mares, but nobody’s going to breed a proven mare to a junior stud,” Bertolani said. “They’re always going to try to find the big ones. And I don’t blame them; I do the same.”
“We advertise our young stallions, push them, and breed to anything—any kind of mare,” he added. “I have a 2-year-old from this year that’s one of my best prospects, and his mother is a cutting mare with no history in the reining. Sometimes that can happen. If I say, ‘Just proven mares,’ you might only breed to five mares a year, so you won’t ever know if it’s going to work.”
The more quality horses people see coming up by a stallion, the more interested mare owners will be in the horse, versus just one or two babies that are doing well, which might be considered a fluke. And those first crops of babies don’t have to be limited to a certain breed or discipline.
“I opened it up because I wanted to see what he was going to cross well with—I bred him to a few Arabs,” Jenkins said of Tricked Out Spook. “There was [Wimpys Little Step], whose mother didn’t do anything. She was bred right but didn’t do much, but look at ‘Wimpy.’ You can’t be closed-minded.”
Jenkins was also willing to work deals when breeding mares or selling Hugo’s babies to get more of them on the ground and into the right peoples’ hands. A lot of effort went into talking him up to anyone who had a mare he might cross well with.
“You have to be his voice,” Jenkins said. “You honestly have to believe in your own horse because if you don’t, it’ll show. If you’re even a little bit leery about it and you’re not breeding your own mares to him, that’s going to tell others something.”
Promotion Is Key
Even after a mare has successfully foaled out and a live foal is on the ground, the stallion owner’s work isn’t done. Promoting his babies is the next step, as that will draw more interested mare owners. Though promotion takes time and effort, the return on that marketing can be huge, especially when the babies start riding.
“It’s more than just selling a dose of semen to people,” Heule said. “You’re selling them a horse. It’s the commitment behind the horses. For mare owners, it’s important that you’re not just there trying to collect the stallion and make money off these horses early on. It’s important for them to know they can market and sell those babies and at least try to get a decent return on their investment in the breeding fees.”
“You do have to promote them,” Jenkins agreed. “You follow those babies like they’re your own children. Just because they have a live baby on the ground, my job’s not over. I want to follow that baby as much as I can.”
Bertolani added that beyond promoting the babies owned by mare owners, the stallion owner will need to invest in some of the stallion’s offspring, too. That can be done by keeping a few or buying some 2-year-olds and putting them into training with trusted horsemen. Having those babies in good programs will ultimately give your stallion the best shot at becoming a great sire.
“You must have something to [show] the people when you want to sell a breeding,” Bertolani said. “You need material—videos or comments—so people start to understand the horse can be a sire, and see that the first or second crop is doing good.”
Bertolani said following the babies also gives him an idea of which crosses work best with the stallions. Since he trained both Inferno Sixty Six and Dun It For Whizkey, he already had an idea of the best crosses in mind. By checking in on their offspring, he can see which ones worked well.
“I follow the studs pretty closely—especially the ones I trained and the ones I rode—and a lot of people ask, ‘Which one do you think will cross on this kind of mare?’” Bertolani said. “I ask for all the info I can get about that mare, then I try to figure out which stud might cross better. It might not work, but I can get closer to finding the right cross because we’re always looking for the physically and mentally special horses.”
As babies get older and one crop turns into three or four, the manager’s job promoting the stallion might get a little easier. When people see videos of quality 2-year-olds or start watching the foals show as 3-year-olds, that can generate more interest in the stallion than even his own earnings record did.
“Once the offspring do good, they mark and win some money, then everything is going to finally be easier,” Bertolani said. “But until you get to that point, it’s very important to continue to promote those first babies as weanlings, as yearlings, and as 2-year-olds. After they’re 3-year-olds, I think if they’re good and do well in the show pen, they’re going to be easier [to market].”
Still, a stallion owner’s job is never done. No matter how successful the stud’s offspring are once they hit the show pen, managing the stallion and promoting his get will never stop. Owning a stallion is a business of its own, Heule said, and while the first few years might not see much return on the investment, eventually, if the owner keeps marketing the stallion, things can turn around.
“I don’t think you’re ever home free,” he said. “Coca-Cola still advertises a lot; so does McDonald’s. I think the first couple years, you’re not trying to make any money with the stallion business. After you have some babies out there that are doing good, and they’re proven and you keep doing your job, you can actually stick to your guns a little more, raise your breeding fee a little bit, and possibly make some money. The first couple years, it’s very hard. If you break even on the stud the first three years, I think you’re doing a really good job.”
NRHA Sire & Dam Program
Breeders’ incentive programs are another way to promote a junior stallion. One example is the NRHA Sire & Dam Program, which has provided significant benefits to participants while supporting NRHA since its inception in 1966. Both stallion and mare owners can take advantage of the bonuses offered by the program, and their offspring reap major benefits, too.
Stallion owners donating breedings earn these valuable incentives:
- Eligibility for NRHA Futurity and Derby sire awards, including cash!
- Stallion promotion through program advertisement.
- If your donated breeding sells prior to the start of the donation year’s NRHA Futurity, your stallion will be eligible for Sire Awards at that year’s Futurity. Your stallion wins these awards if any of his 3-year-old offspring finish in the top three of the NRHA Open and/or Non Pro Futurity among Sire Award-eligible sires. The following four years could earn him NRHA Derby Sire Awards. Stallions having 4-, 5-, 6-, and/or 7-year-olds that finish in the top three among Sire Award-eligible sires of the Open and/or Non Pro Derby, are eligible for Derby Sire Awards.
Mare owners are drawn to the programs for their own benefits and those of the offspring, including:
- The opportunity to purchase breedings that they may not otherwise have access to at reduced rates.
- Offspring are automatically eligible to compete in the NRHA Futurity and Derby—no nomination required—at reduced entry fees (up to 50% off) and with later entry deadlines.
To learn more about the Sire & Dam Program, visit nrha.com/siredam.