When your scribe recently took over the Summerhill blog, he was asked to provide commentaries on various issues we had observed, discovered, proven or disproven over the many years of our walk towards the national Breeders’ Championship. One of our discoveries was the futility of so many of the breeding theories that make what is a relatively simple business, appear remarkably complicated.

tony morrisTony MorrisIn our view, England’s Tony Morris is one of the most rational intellectuals when it comes to his commentaries on racing and breeding, and besides having the mind of a colossus, he has one of the most remarkable forms of expression.

ii) Dearth of Genetics Research
He recently reminded us that most people that are attracted to the business of breeding, are lured at some stage or another into a study of the countless statements on how best to go about it. Of all these theories, few appear to have been tested scientifically, yet most have the potential to lead breeders on a merry dance. The real problem is that until very recently, little has been done in the sphere of equine genetics, so what we knew was pretty much limited to the Y chromosome, the factor for maleness which contains little other than genetic material, and that the larger X chromosome is present singly in every male, and doubly in every female. We have little idea how or whether the X chromosome travels throughout pedigrees, or whether it is at all significant. That is about the sum total of what genetics has told us thus far.

As a result, we are left largely with the theorists and some of the wild and woolly “old wives tales” around which they have written their books, and upon which their fame (and fortunes in some cases) are based and in more recent years, some have developed sophisticated computer programmes, which have moblised legions of zealous fans.

iii) The Futility of It All
Some of these ideas go back virtually to the dawn of the breed. A belief in male lines has been with us from day one, and before the end of the 19th century, Bruce Lowe provided a system of classification by female line that was interpreted, and is still widely interpreted, as a formula for success in breeding. Plenty of other theories have been developed since then, and some of them are still being developed. Nicks, in-breeding, line-breeding, dosage and numerous variations on those themes are advanced as viable methodologies. Computer software programmes have made it easier to devise theories that are propounded as though they are natural laws, and they seem to find adherents as religions find adherents; everybody wants something to believe in, says Morris.

Those that read the annual mating recommendations we send out to both our Summerhill clients, as well as to the owners of several thousand broodmares in South Africa, will know that we have always urged our friends to pitch the bulk of their faith in the judgment of the stockman. His eye, his instincts, and as important as anything, his experience. In the end, the consummate stockman’s prowess will prevail, and that in the final analysis, it’s what sets him apart.

iv) Back To Reality
No computer has ever consistently been able to breed a successful racehorse, and while from time to time, by virtue of coincidence, a “software” mating will deliver up a good winner, the very people that advance the computer as the principal tool in designing matings, and point to the number of duplications of certain ancestors as the reason for the animal’s success, are singularly unable to explain why the full brother or sister to the same horse turns up with little or no talent at all. Conversely, when a horse which is largely the product of an “outcross” mating turns out to be as good as the one carrying patterns of inbreeding, the proponents of inbreeding are deafeningly mute. To those who want to believe, it is simply not enough to know intuitively that many of these theories do not make sense; the application of reason does not appear to satisfy those whose minds are already set. Even a welter of statistics casting serious doubt on these theories seems unable to alter the believer’s devotion.

V) What Matters Most
Simply put, computers have no understanding of the physical nature of the animal or its mate, its speed or stamina credentials. There is little or no measure of courage, soundness, mental strength, athleticism, aptitude, nor any of the other essential elements in the production of a good horse, including an appreciation of the role of the environment and nutrition. Yet, when inbreeding is practised, it should be to elicit the replication or reinforcement of certain traits of desirability, rather than to satisfy any supposed magical potion that is presumed to exist by mere dint of the presence in the pedigree of more than one line of any particular ancestor. In other words, the computer (a wonderful record keeper) or the theory, should be applied if they have a role at all, as a tool in the whole exercise, rather than as an object of worship.