Kerstin Cyrus: "Because They Don't Know What They Are Doing" - German Breeding in a Crisis

Mon, 04/15/2019 - 09:30
Chicken Run (2000, by Aardman Animations)

Guest columnist of the week is Kerstin Cyrus. Beginning her life with horses in show jumping, Cyrus was a competitive rider in Germany having competed up to S-level with starts at regional championships and qualifications for the Nationals in her younger years. After her studies, getting married and children she started breeding with Hanover as her breeding "home". She also scouts for high quality colts, which she either presents for licensing or in sport. 

"Because They Don't Know What They Are Doing"

This title of a world-famous film Rebel Without a Cause from the 1950s contains the so-called chicken run. You are heading towards a cliff with two cars and the first person to jump out of the car is the chicken. In the movie there are only losers, the challenger can't get out of the car and crashes into the cliffs, the survivor is accused and an innocent man is shot by the police.  The film took place in a time of the half-powered, who demonstrated their social dissension with status symbols like cars and who after the Second World War got into a kind of silent generation.

What does all this have to do with horse breeding? A lot, I would say.

Has the Knowledge and Expertise Gone?

German breeding is in upheaval. The old generation of horse breeders is either giving up due to their age, or is handing over their farms to their sons by means of court rights. Many of the sons don't see any return in horse breeding and prefer to plow the grassland. Others continue to breed horses, but have their own ideas about the breeding market of tomorrow. More and more "new" breeders are joining them; either they come from hobby sport and bring along their faithful sport mare as a future family member for breeding, or you have the generation of 30+ breeders who simply see it as a mad hobby and do whatever they want.

They all have one thing in common: They have to be registered in a breed society to get papers for their foals. Often the origin of the mare determines the affiliation to an association. And so they often end up in Westphalia, Oldenburg or Hanover. A breeding plan and structure passed down in the family of breeders become less and less, but "new" breeders believe to be in good hands with the breed association, as they provide breeding consultation and possibly later on marketing.

The associations face the challenge of picking up the "old" breeders as well as the younger generation of breeders. Where the "old" breeders still have years of know-how at their disposal and maintain their breeders' tables in the villages for decades, the younger generation is dependent on the internet for the first time. However, those who have read the headlines on the Internet in recent years, or the few remaining specialty trade journals, will start to wonder: scandal in Westphalia, restructuring in Oldenburg, Holstein has a big structural change in front of it triggered by dubious commission payments and now also "my" association, the Hanoverian Verband, is facing a crisis.

What's going on? Should I change association? Will they soon be broke and do I have to pay more for it? The internet is both a curse and a blessing. It can inform, but also especifially disinform. Truths alternate with half-truths, mixed with one's own intentions and experiences. In case of the Hanoverian association the internet does one thing: Share, create dissension and publicly damage the largest breeding association in Germany. What happens there is a disgrace for this traditional horse federation and it will damage the reputation and also breeding for a long time. We really have other problems and instead of sticking together, for the sake of breeding and for the preservation of the Hanoverian horse, we publish the worst slogans on the Internet. There one can talk excellently about each other, instead of with each other.

It's All About Money and Social Media

The board in Hanover is completely divided, the breeders are therefore also. We used to discuss mare lines, good and bad qualities in mares and stallions, pairing suggestions, the latest stallion show or how to improve one's own mare base. Yet now for the Hanoverian association it is only concerned with "likes" on social media. There is surely an internal re-organisation needed of the federation as its still prevailing structures originated from a long outdated time. Is it still up-to-date to have an executive committee with over 20 persons, or to prevent members from voting at general meetings, but instead allowed selected delegates to vote?  Most members do not even know their delegates at all, are not informed by them at all, yet they have the right to vote. Is this still up to date? Is it still up to date to have a breeding manager who at the same time is a managing director? No !

German breeding associations now face international challenges: younger breeders, internationally connected with one another, and stallion owners that have become global players. In addition hot branding is no longer allowed, which to me represents a further loss in the breed society identification. The breeding world is subject to strong change. In the old days breeders used to go with their mares to the local stallion stations as the head of Celle, Dr. Burkhard Bade, had assigned his stallions to specific locations where the mare base needed the blood. No-one is dependent on a nearby stallion station anymore. The state stable master at the time had first right to buy stallions at the licensing. Now wealthy private stallion owners, or syndicates turned the stallion market into a stock exchange with new stallion stations popping out of the ground like mushrooms.

Marketing Matters, Quality Out the Window

Tradition has met with a modern, monetary trend. High-gloss brochures, entertainment filled stallion shows, higher prices at the auctions each year. And then Facebook entered the internet, Clipmyhorse caused less and less people to meet each other at foal and mare shows as well as sports events. Breeders, whether young or old, soon had their own home page for their own breeding, no matter how small they were. They could connect to the whole world around the globe and so there seemed to be no need for a horse association anymore. Actually nobody needed a breeding manager anymore, because they already knew from the internet which stallion would fit their mare. If a stallion costs two million at a licensing, it must be good. If the Global Players argue about the stallion, then he must be super.

Hanover abolished the naming of a licensing champion, for this reason.  In good faith, they hoped the breeders would concentrate on the premium stallions. It never happened ! Today 20% of the stallions cover 80% of the mares and not because they are so extraordinary, but because the marketing fits. From the preparation, exhibition up to the advertisement-effective auction show. Then in spring the great awakening comes and one has used a young stallion, along with 400 other breeders, a stallion which has not yet been performance tested, so there are issues with getting the foal papers. Also the foal does not turn out what the breeder has dreamt of. And then all of a sudden the federation is to blame. 

Meanwhile one sees less and less "pure" Hanoverian stallions on the domestic stage. And what about noble blood or thoroughbred? No, they have to fight the KWPN stallions that are knocking at the door. Our own pride in our mare lines becomes pale looking at the pedigrees from other countries trotting into the foreground. Headlines at auctions became the deciding factor, no longer outstanding stallions. Everyone jumped on the bandwagon. Now you hear screams that "we are outdated, we have to think outside the box." However, the only relevant questions, such as whether stallions should be prepared differently for licensings and auctions or whether stallions have become too big are not asked. Everyone sank into a collective hype. Bit by bit the big stallion owners got together and did what everyone would do. They opened up more and more markets. Here the most expensive stallion, there the celebrated Bundeschampion, there the outstanding World Champion. Yesterday they were still in the magazines being tapped on the fingers by their own federation for abusive training of the horses, and today they are the charismatic hippologist of the future. Success makes sexy, money makes sexy. It even draws the attention of private equity companies: a fast growing market with highly interesting returns. When money joins forces with the most successful and largest warmblood breeder in the world, Paul Schockemöhle, it is as if two universes merge. 

What Does the Future Hold?

The Niedersachsenhalle, the indoor arena at the Hanoverian society headquarters in Verden, has been renovated for a lot of money. Many Hanoverian breeders consider it a "waste of money," a thorn in the side, but it became the venue for Helgstrand Dressage and Paul Schockemohle to meet in a joint show. And the spectators, especially the Hanoverian breeders, were thrilled. Red carpet for the spectators, the gastronomy was restricted, doors closed, so that no noise level could disturb the gala. Flower bouquets exuded a heavenly scent, the stallions ran like bells through arena and everyone was animated. What a performance! The spectators were so fascinated by the absolutely ingenious marketing that they didn't even get the idea to actually look at the stallions in the riding hall. One could miss something. And you did, because the doors of the warm up arena were closed to spectators. Inside the European anthem played, and Paul Schockemöhle wisely said: Where better than here in the Niedersachsenhalle does it fit ?

Today's "small" stallion owners and the Celle State Stud have learned their lesson. Yesterday they were still at odds, today they urgently need to create synergies in order to have a counterweight and hold a small grasp on the mare market. Pape, Celle, Beckmann and Blue Horse are trying it. If they have no success with their own domestically bred or scouted products, they go shopping with their partners at PSI. The global players are everywhere. They determine the market and will determine the future. And so far they have only announced their cooperation with the stallions. Can we expect a merger between the biggest warmblood breeder with embryo transfer with the biggest stallion owner and trader from Denmark any time soon?

Instead of us, breeders, keeping the tradition with heart and soul and sticking to our old tactics of having face to face conversations, discussion about the good and the bad in breeding, and carefully weighing the options for a long-term vision, we are on the wrong course. Instead of leading the associations into a new future, with long overdue reforms, new media and new structures, we are falling into a kind of self-destruction. We sacrifice old values, are no longer loyal to a brand, but only got for our own interests. In Germany we no longer have good equestrian press. The few remaining print media publications are determined by personal interests, their own association membership or because they get invited and paid to be speakers at various horse events. It is no longer about the horse or horsemanship. It is about the big money. No more and no less.

Light at the End of the Tunnel?

I have a sombre vision about the future of horse breeding and it hurts me. All this brings me back to the title: "They do not know what they are doing".  Nobody wants to be the chicken, but many seem to act like one: headless and only supposed to lay eggs. The global players do everything right: they look at the excited chickens until they are fat enough to slaughter them.

Fortunately we just had the delegates meeting in Hanover and I breathe in deeply and exhale with relief. The mud battle, which was staged on the Internet and could have led to a feared war of the members, delegates and board of directors, has gone up in smoke. Reason and objectivity has won. The necessary structural reform was elected by a large majority. With it the entire executive committee will resign in 12 months and it will shrink. The post of breeding manager and managing director is to be separated in order to better position the association in changed times. Working groups will be formed to support the board with know-how, ideas and new structures. President Hans Henning von der Decken has been confirmed in office with a large majority. A breeder for the breeders. And the largest association should now be allowed to do this in peace in order to lead the tradition of the Hanoverian horse strongly and successfully into the future. 

- by Kerstin Cyrus