The Homogenized Horse
written by Cheryl Aldrich
Note from the Author: While you are reading this article please keep in mind that it is not my intention to insult any particular breed. There are many great horses in all the breeds mentioned in this article, but as a HORSE lover I am trying to point out trends in the American horse breeding industry. History repeats itself. Peruvian Horse owners as well as owners of other Spanish breeds should think about what they are trying to accomplish and what direction their breed is heading.
The Andalusian horses entered the ring at a flying trot, long tails dragging the ground, the fine skin surrounding the eyes and muzzle glistening with a coating of oil. They fanned out along the edge of the arena, horses stopping; head to tail, necks arched, inside hind leg dropped one step back. A few regal Andalusians stood balanced and square, neatly groomed, handlers standing quietly in front of them. The Spanish judge nodded his approval at them as he walked down the line of horses. Other trainers danced with their whips at the end of leadlines, encouraging their horses to stand stretched, Arab style. Turning to the ring steward with a frown, the Spanish judge said: "These are not Arabians. They are Caballos de Pura Raza, have them shown as such, please. Ask the exhibitors to wipe the oil from their horses, let them stand naturally, and walk into the arena. Show these horses as Andalusians, not Arabians!" The contrast in cultures jumped out at the experienced eye. It is an old story, traditionalist vs. the Americanization of a Spanish breed. The Andalusian show could have been a Peruvian Horse show 25 years ago.
Only the efforts of some very strong minded traditionalists have saved the Peruvian horse from Americanization.
In the beginning of Peruvian Horse shows there was a group who wanted to show Peruvian Horses in the same manner as Quarter Horses and Arabians, competing in Western classes, English classes, and timed events which were not part of the Peruvian heritage. Changing saddles from traditional Peruvian to English or Western did not make the Peruvian horse, with it's lateral gait, adept at dressage or barrels. Bred to do one thing, give the ultimate bounce free ride, the Peruvian horse looked silly running in timed events, or copying English style classes.
Spanish breeds are the new kids on the block in the American horse show world. How these breeds will develop in the US is in the hands of the owners, breeders and judges. Will they follow in the footsteps of the breeds that have become SHOW HORSES or follow the traditions from their countries of origin?
THE AMERICAN MELTING POT
In recent American history, beauty in horses has been depicted by painters and sculptors as the Arabian horse. A taller, longer legged, stylized version has stuck in the American breeders conscience, influencing the standard of the perfectly conformed horse, a Saddlebred with a dished Arabian head. The artistic ideal of the thickset plain headed work horses became eye appealing, if at all, only in work.
The great American melting pot has swallowed up many breeds. Each of them moving toward taller, more refined bodies, all proclaiming to be the most versatile in order to gain a larger market share. The American need to improve has served our country well. We are the most advanced, powerful country in the world; but there comes a point where improvement becomes a detriment.
Many breeds have been changed into an unrecognizable animal in the name of improvement, versatility, and an artistic concept of beauty. But what is improvement? How important is versatility? What is correct conformation and what events are logical for competition in each breed? Do we want Homogenized Horses or distinctly different breeds?
The Arab has been improved or Homogenized by the innovative American breeders. Twenty years ago these once intelligent, tough horses were renowned for their exotic beauty. Today they are rangy animals, with table top flat croups and exaggerated swan like necks. In the homogenization process their desirable Bedouin temperament has been lost to a nervous, high strung demeanor and a terminal genetic disease has been allowed to creep into the genetic heritage of the breed. CID is an immune deficiency disease seen in quite a few newborn Arabian foals. While some Arabians only carry the gene for this disease, a foal that inherits this gene from both parents is sure to die. But Arabians are not the only breed to have a genetic disease that is breed specific.
Quarter Horses have their own genetic disease, called HYPP. Thought to be linked to a top producing stallion of halter champions, it now affects approximately 50,000 Quarter Horses. Apparently winning in the show ring was more important than the soundness of the horse. When stressed, horses affected with this syndrome can have tremors, heavy sweating and labored breathing; severe attacks can cause collapse or death.
Until the 1950's Quarter horses were of the Bulldog type. Half leg, half body built close to the ground for agility and short bursts of speed. With the arrival of organized Quarter horse racing, Thoroughbreds were crossed with Quarter horses to produce more speed and stamina over longer distances. Many of todays Quarter Horses look more like a Thoroughbred, than their Bulldog style ancestors.
Morgans are quickly passing on to the trendy standard set by an artistic concept of beauty. Gone are the short bodied, sensible work horses, replaced with pretty but empty headed, lanky saddle horses.
THE WORK ETHIC
At the beginning of the 20th century breed characteristics were defined by the work for which the horse was used. Most working breeds were built close to the ground, under 15 hands, half leg, half body. Closing the 20th century, ribbons won at horse shows set the course a breed would take. Taller, leggy, long necked, with a pretty head, the Saddlebred/Arabian type has become the idealized American style of show horse: The Homogenized Horse. Horses that must be pampered with special feed, expert farriers, and the most advanced technology veterinary science can offer, to keep them working and breeding sound. Homogenized horses do not live in the pasture or ride the trails. These horses are found in stalls or being ridden in an indoor arena.
Looking back to the time when horses were a necessity, bred to do a job, the intrinsic value of a horse was in its ability to do the work for which it was bred. Today a horses' value is based on how many ribbons it has won in the arena. Unfortunately fashion and passing fads play a part in horse showing. Color coordinating of tack, clothes and horse can win or lose a class, while the breed type of the horse must relate to the class in which it is competing. Regardless of the breed, Western classes require a quiet stock type horse while English classes need a tall lanky style horse, and horses competing in Park classes should be large, flashy and hot tempered. The different types and temperaments looked for in each class are expected to be found within each breed. Is versatility so important that each breed must create a specific type of horse to wear each style of saddle? Arabian owners point to the judges as the reason their breeds have changed. The judges for the most part are also trainers, who look at a horse with a trainer's eye, seeing each horse as what it can or has been trained to do rather than what it was bred to do.
STICKING WITH TRADITION
As in many things, the Peruvian breed is an anomaly, having survived its transplant to the United States without a loss of heritage. Few if any breeds can boast of this achievement. There are many factors that contribute to this phenomenon, one being that the majority of Peruvian owners are amateurs. They are a group of people who do not have preconceived ideas of what a horse should be and show a willingness to listen to the Peruvian breeders' common picture of the traditional Peruvian Horse, holding true to the course set centuries ago. Breeders in Peru spent generations creating a breed of horse with unique qualities. Willing dispositions, smooth four beat lateral gait, and elegance combined with the energy to travel to any destination. Traditionally in Peru the judges were the breeders. Men who spent many hours riding their horses around their haciendas. As riders, not trainers, they insisted on qualities being created through careful genetic selection rather than clever training. Breeding an animal to perform a specific task takes careful planning through many generations. The first importations of Peruvian Horses arrived with Peruvian trainers, thus further guaranteeing the continuance of the Peruvian heritage.
Even the tack and clothes used for Peruvian shows perform a specific task, to ensure that the focus is on the inherent ability of the horse rather than the fashion of tack and clothes. Competitors all wear the same basic white pants and shirt, neutral colored poncho and straw hat. Silver or fancy tooling on the tack does not influence the placement of the horse. The 1992 National Champion of Champions Breeding Stallion won his title wearing a common work saddle. While it is not required to use Peruvian tack in the show ring, it is rare to see other types of tack in the arena. Exhibitors recognize that the saddle and bridle have been designed over the course of many centuries to enhance the gait of the horse and comfort of the rider. Peruvian owners and breeders differ from other horse people, having held on to the traditions which have kept our breed unique rather than melting into the sameness of other breeds.
Today few Peruvians will catch your eye standing in the stall or pasture. But an extraordinary metamorphoses changes good quality Peruvians from caterpillars into butterflies when mounted. Once saddled, these little workhorses with short dumpy bodies and plain heads suddenly become powerful, exquisite creatures suitable for royalty. Homogenization is becoming more evident in the Peruvian show ring with the pretty headed, taller, far from the ground look seen more often. It has not taken over the breed, yet. But if it does, the whole being of the breed will be changed to something entirely different. We only have to look at other Homogenized breeds to know.
As a relatively small breed we need to take stock of what our priorities in promoting our breed are. Do we want to have the largest breed registry with the most versatile horses ? Should the Peruvian become another homogenized horse, or would the breed be better served by educated owners and breeders producing a typical Peruvian horse for a select segment of the horse market that is intent on preserving the integrity of the breed while improving it within the context of its breed standards? Prices for Peruvian horses have held their value better than many other breeds. Being the perfect amateur horse with a forgiving disposition, easy to ride, while making the rider look professional, has made the Peruvian Horse one of the fastest growing breeds in the U.S.
The Peruvian Horse does not have the agility of a Quarter Horse, or the fashionable singular beauty of the Arabian. Its qualities do not lend themselves to versatility but, as Verne Albright once said: "What the Peruvian does, he does better than any horse in the world. He is the absolute master, the ultimate riding horse".
Jennifer Hamilton, breeder of Icelandic Horses wrote to say, "We raise and train Icelandic Horses which as yet, have not been ruined by the Show Ring Aesthetic as I call it... But already I hear people say: "can't you put a prettier head and neck on them..." That's when I jump into high gear on educating people on the value of these unspoiled horses; their gaits, their temperaments, their usability... It takes guts to say "NO!" to money and show horse pressures... Good luck on protecting the Peruvians and all ancient breeds, for that matter".
Education, the key to understanding, is the first line of defense for preventing homogenization of the Peruvian Horse. The Peruvian Horse must be presented to the buying public for what it is, a tough, strong, never quit, smooth, trail horse, a fancy parade horse, the most elegant comfortable ride available for amateurs, children, and professionals. Peruvian Horses must be ridden to be truly appreciated and to give a good ride their conformation must be half leg, half body, with a level bottom line and more angle to the hind legs than found in other breeds. The stylized, tall, leggy, long necked, horse with the dished head that has become the ideal conformation for many breeds is not part of the Peruvian's history. The Peruvian Horse's conformation does not look like an Arabian, Quarter Horse or Saddlebred. It must remain uniquely Peruvian as function follows form. Three words that can affect the continuance or disappearance of a breed. What are the differences between breeds if not distinct conformations that allow a variety of different uses?
For those of us who own Peruvians, we must accept the fact that not everyone will want a Peruvian. Our horses have not been bred for speed or agility. A buyer looking for those qualities needs to look at another breed. For our breed to continue and thrive, new owners and breeders must be enticed to join it. But these people must like the Peruvian for its own unique qualities and not for what they would like it to become, a Cutting Horse that does not bounce or an Arabian with a smooth gait.
In Mother Nature's selection of horses, a pretty head, flashy color, or extreme action was of no importance. What did count was soundness, the ability to survive climatic conditions of the area in which they lived, and the capacity to reproduce without artificial help. When men began selectively breeding for conformational traits needed to complete a specific task, these same attributes were still essential. In the early days of horse breeding, veterinarians did not posses the skills for breeding barren mares or keeping horses with a tendency to unsoundness working. Breeders had a cold eye as they used their horses for a specific type of work. When a horse could not perform reproductively or in the work arena it was passed over for an animal that could do the job. Today veterinarians have the technology to produce foals from mares that will never carry them, and to make unsound horses appear sound. With the advent of the show ring as the ultimate test of a horses' quality, dispassionate objectivity has been lost. How many breeds of horses, or dogs and cats are now subject to inheritable diseases or reproduction problems? Veterinary technology is a double edged sword that must be used sparingly.
SHOWING FOR SHOW
Our second and strongest line of defense must be positioned at the entry gate of the horse show arena. The seeds of the Homogenized Horse were first planted in the show arena where, within only a few decades, some breeds have become unrecognizable. Although the Peruvian horse has been able to avoid the homogenizing process during its first 30 years in the United States, there are signs of problems beginning to appear. Once these seeds become full grown it will be extremely hard to clear them from the arena. Classes held at shows must be thought out as to how they will affect the breed. Will the winners of the class fit into the picture of the ideal Peruvian, or does the winner have to be out of type to take home a blue ribbon? Many of today's breeding programs set their courses by which animals are winning blue ribbons. When Park Horses became fashionable in the Arabian and Morgan breeds, the style of the horses created for competition changed drastically. A segment of both breeds became taller, longer legged, and developed an exaggerated front leg action. This Saddlebred style, foreign to dessert or farm use, has come about through the show ring. Judging for tack and clothes, while not giving enough weight to the original purpose the horse was breed for, has also led to homogenization. In doing this, the original purpose of the horse gets lost, confused by these extraneous influences. Show organizers, concerned about entertaining spectators sometimes feel that changing saddle and clothing styles add variety to the show. Since the Peruvian has not been bred to trot, canter, gallop, jump or cut cattle, showing the horse for entertainment only gives prospective new owners an inaccurate idea of what the Peruvian horse is capable of doing.
THE BREEDERS SHOW
Decades ago, a group of Peruvian gentlemen created a system of judging that rewarded the Peruvian Horse for its inherited abilities. Traits were produced through generations of planned breeding to do a specific job. This system of judging, along with the Peruvian traditions, was imported with the horse and has protected the breed from homogenization for it's first three decades in the United States. The breeding division classes held in U.S. shows are considered the most important contest in the show. They reward the horse that is most typically Peruvian. The horse with the best gait, brio and conformation, all inherited traits that allow them to be the best ridding animal. In the U.S. we have created Performance or Pleasure classes that are judged on the riders equitation, the horses training, and how they work together. Both Breeding and Pleasure/Performance divisions along with Gait, Conformation, Conjunto, Matched Pairs, Parade, Trail, Musical Exercise, Costume, Junior Riders, Sidesaddle and Silver fox, pass the acid test of not changing the original purpose of the breed. They all showcase the Peruvian Horses' inherited talent, an elegant means of transportation and fabulous trail horse for both amateur or professional.
Before 1942, breeders in Peru were spread throughout the country without any organization to unify their breeding programs or methods of judging. But after La Agricola, a store selling agricultural products, was opened by Carlos Luna de la Fuente, breeders of Peruvian horses, all owners of haciendas, regularly met at the store. Within a short time it became a meeting place where breeders discussed what made a Peruvian Horse great. It is only natural that these men who used their horses daily on their haciendas based the concepts of judging on the original function intended for the Peruvian Horse. A comfortable yet elegant means of transportation that suited their aristocratic taste.
By 1945, organized shows were in full swing, with competition being tough. It was at one of the early National shows in Peru, that we saw the first recorded attempt at homogenization of the Peruvian Horse. Two dozen matched gray partbloods, each horse with it's own uniformed handler arrived at Peru's National show. They were owned by the Larco family who's goal was to "improve" the Peruvian breed by crossing it with an imported gray Arabian stallion. Only by the inflexible stand taken by the judge, Antonio Grana banned these partblood horses from competition, was the Peruvian horse saved from this "improvement".
Antonio Grana, who spent a good part of each day on a horse, had a well defined idea of what a Peruvian Horse should be. He also had a strong character and was not afraid to impose his ideals. In the early days of the breed's development he had more than one opportunity. At one point a group of Northern breeders led by Fredrico Torre Ugarte, a man who seldom rode, became enamored with flashy high action of the front legs at the expense of smoothness and pisos. Again, as the judge of the National show, Antonio Grana withstood the pressures to award ribbons to horses who deviated from the breed standard.
Today the Peruvian horse is enjoying a boom in popularity in his home land. But as the internal Peruvian market is limited and breeders must sell horses in order to continue breeding, the association in Peru, like the one in the U.S., looks for ways to make the shows more exciting, hoping to attract and encourage new owners. Imagine my shock when one of the new classes at the 1994 Nationals in Lima was a gaiting race. My shock turned to horror when in the next class the horses lined up in full Peruvian attire, took off in a flat out gallop racing to the finish line with their uncoordinated, painfully slow Peruvian gallop. I was embarrassed for the spectacle the horses presented and hoped that owners of true race horses were not watching and laughing at our breed. Antonio Grana must surely have turned over in his grave.
Where does the next step in the evolutionary ladder take us? Dangerous waters lie ahead for the breed. Without nature's selective process and everyday practical use as the guide, the show ring has become the defining yardstick. As we all know the show ring can be full of illusions and a blue ribbon can be made of fools gold. But with all its' deficiency the show arena is still the best comparison of breeding qualities or training.
How does the Peruvian Horse beat the homogenization process that has overtaken so many breeds in the United States? First through education, by making sure that each owner and prospective buyer understands what the Peruvian Horse can do well. Next by being aware that blue ribbons set the direction for many breeding programs and that the type of classes used in competitions point out what is important in a Peruvian horse. Long time breeders, judges, the breed registry and show organizers must stand together on what type and characteristics will represent a Peruvian Horse. Remembering where the horse came from in the past while moving into the future in a consistent well defined direction.
Fito Matillini once told me, "The Peruvian Horse is in a constant state of evolution. The perfect horse has not set foot on this planet, and never will. Peruvian Horses must continue to improve, but changes must be made within the context of the breed standards."
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Last updated 10/02/2008