Why New Zealand sport horse breeders are playing catch-up with the rest of the world

All horses that are registered with the FEI must be identifiable with a microchip. Each also has its own unique FEI identification number, and a Unique Equine Life Number (UELN) given by the studbook of origin.
All horses that are registered with the FEI must be identifiable with a microchip. Each also has its own unique FEI identification number, and a Unique Equine Life Number (UELN) given by the studbook of origin.

In Europe and indeed most of the world, every horse bred, bought, sold or simply transported has a Passport with it at all times.  These Passports record the horse’s pedigree, breeder, date of birth, identification and vaccinations.

In New Zealand, Studbooks and Breed Societies have been an integral part of the country’s sport horse growth for the past 50 or so years. But still, there seems a reluctance from some New Zealand breeders to correctly identify and record their horse’s date of birth and pedigree with an independent passport issuing authority.

Why do horses need passports?

The importance of a bloodline, passport and DNA can be well illustrated by the Friesian horse. A Friesian horse that is born in New Zealand will have its DNA tested and verified in the Netherlands. This is because all the Friesians that are born world-wide are registered in the main studbook in the Netherlands, the KFPS. They are now part of the World Breeding Federation for Sport Horses (WBFSH). The Friesians that are competing at Grand Prix level dressage for New Zealand will connect the Equestrian Sports New Zealand (ESNZ), Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) and the WBFSH.

Having the DNA tested is not only to verify parentage, it is also about finding out if the horse is a carrier for hereditary defects. In the Friesian population, this is about dwarfism and hydrocephaly. The Friesian Studbook has a test for this. The Warmblood breeds are concerned about WFFS (Warmblood Fragile Foal Syndrome) and the mares and stallions can be tested for this. The connemara breed tests for Hoof Wall Separation Disease (HWSD). This is the basic start for continuing fluidly into the use of a passport.

Horses can contribute to the success of their parents when they are competing in sport. They also contribute to the name of a breeder, to get recognized. For example, Backatorps Danny V (Quasimodo Z – Zippit GH x Lupicor, breeder: F.L.M. Teepen) qualified for the Olympic Games with Kiwi showjumper Bruce Goodin. His sire Quasimodo Z (Quidam de Revel – Caloma Z x Carthago, breeder: J.L. Laamens) jumped at 1m60, as did his mother, Caloma Z. Quasimodo Z comes from a very good damline from The Netherlands. The mother of Backatorps Danny V, Zippit GH, jumped at 1m45. Her grandmother produced the 1m60 jumping horse Winny (also by Quasimodo Z) with Joy Lammers. All this information is recorded because the breeding was verified and the bloodlines are in the passport.

So what is the attitude of the authorities to the collection of such data?

The FEI’s position

The FEI states that breeding horses for competition plays a central role in preserving the high standards of equestrian sport. “Both FEI and studbook registration is a central element in the collection of meaningful data on these horses”.

“In September 2015, the FEI signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the World Breeding Federation for Sport Horses (WBFSH), which represented 70 sport horse studbooks from more than 30 countries. In June 2021, the number of members was 80 studbooks from 35 countries. The collaboration between the two bodies aims to stimulate horse breeding development worldwide and integrate breeding with horse sport.

“The WBFSH is the international federation of studbooks for sport horses globally and is the major connection between the breeding organisations of sport horses and the FEI. The cooperation between the FEI and the WBFSH is a logical link between horse producers and the athletes who ride these horses in FEI competitions.

“The studbooks provide important information to breeders on the continued genetic improvement of sport horses. Through the MOU with the FEI, breeders also have access to a horse’s FEI competition history, which can influence their selection of stallions and mares.

“Together with the FEI, the WBFSH organises the World Breeding Championships for Sport Horses annually in the three Olympic disciplines of dressage, jumping and eventing. The WBFSH rankings for each discipline are published monthly on the WBFSH website, providing official information on every horse competing at international level all around the world.

“FEI horses must be identifiable and traceable. In accordance with Article 113.1 of the FEI General Regulations, all horses competing under FEI Rules must be registered with the FEI, which means that they are automatically entered in the FEI Database. Horse registration with the FEI takes the form of an official, valid FEI passport, or a national passport approved by the FEI and inserted inside an FEI Recognition Card.

“Since January 1, 2013, all horses that are registered with the FEI for the first time must be identifiable with a microchip. Each horse also has its own unique FEI identification number given by the FEI, and a Unique Equine Life Number (UELN) given by the studbook of origin. Both the microchip (if applicable) and FEI ID number are always recorded in the FEI passport or FEI Recognition Card.

“FEI passports are primarily a record of formal identification, including a diagram page where markings and whorls and the like are noted. Equine influenza vaccinations are recorded and signed by the administering veterinarian, and the passport may also contain records of infectious disease testing, FEI events attended, and testing under the FEI Equine Anti-Doping and Controlled Medication Programme. Where applicable, pony height validation is also included in the passport.

“The FEI Passport or Recognition Card is checked at every FEI event to verify the horse’s identification and check its vaccination record. Incorrect or missing information may lead to a fine, disqualification or the horse not being permitted entry to the event site.

“For the FEI, these passports are important as they serve to maintain the integrity of the sport. The registration process, which includes the FEI passport, guarantees correct identification, encourages responsible ownership and ensures that the welfare of the horse is better protected. It also allows for horse movements to be tracked when travelling and competing at FEI Events.

“The FEI fully supports the responsible use of horses in sport and is 100% committed to putting equine welfare above all commercial and competitive influences. As part of this overarching welfare approach, the Code of Conduct for the Welfare of the Horse prefaces the FEI Veterinary Regulations and is also the preamble to all our Sports Rules.”

Nadine Brandtner, general manager for the WBFSH, says that she has often heard the expression “we don’t ride the papers”.

“While this is true, there is an element of irony, because a rider may not be aware of the horse’s pedigree and may have chosen the horse based on specimen or ability. But its conformation and ability, temperament and talent are mostly not to be a result of coincidence, although there are always exceptions to the rules.

“We only need to look back in history at how the use of the horse changed from a working animal to a recreational animal and an athlete in equestrian sports. The increasing level of the sport of the last five decades was not a coincidence, but rather the result of organised breeding. The development of the studbooks was driven by the desire to breed horses that were fit for their purpose, through focused and selective breeding. To facilitate this kind of breeding progress, record keeping was essential: Tracking of pedigrees, coverings and foal registrations, selection of mares and stallions, to ensure horses are used in a breeding program that continues to drive evolution.

“With this, of course, arose the need for identification of horses – how do you track pedigrees without scrutinous identification? How do you track the value or contribution of parent animals to breeding progress, if their offspring are not recorded, or not recorded correctly, and their data captured and analysed? All of this starts with correct identification. And registering a horse with a studbook gives the horse an origin – a quality seal so to speak, a brand. In days gone by horses literally used to get branded with the studbook brand. These days these studbook brands or logos are still included in the horse passports.

“In many countries the studbook passports are standard. In the EU the requirements pertaining to the information that has to be contained in the passport is laid down in the legislation. This includes the origin of the horse (date and place of birth, breeder), as well as identification with a UELN and microchip number, often also the DNA code. Physical identification and pedigree need to be included. However, in many countries, such standard passports are not a legal requirement, and studbooks that are not issuing them should consider the added value they give breeders, riders and owners.

The NRPS stallion, Barnike, owned by Ballywalter Farms, claimed the Six-Year-Old title with Ireland’s Bertram Allen.
The NRPS stallion, Barnike, owned by Ballywalter Farms, claimed the Six-Year-Old title at the WBFSH Championships in 2013 with Ireland’s Bertram Allen. © FEI/Dirk Caremans

“Passports that meet the requirements of the FEI, will also be permitted for the horse to compete with at international level. This means that the studbook passport will stay with the horse throughout its life. The FEI has a published list of organisations it recognises as passport issuing authorities that produce identification documents that meet identification and age verification standards. This is a good guideline for studbooks to use that are considering the introduction of breed passports.

“Over and above verification of identity and giving the horse a brand, horses registered into WBFSH studbooks, are eligible to participate in the World Breeding Championships for Young Horses, in dressage, jumping and eventing. WBFSH studbooks also feature in the WBFSH studbook rankings, breeders are listed in the WBFSH breeder rankings, and stallions contribute to the WBFSH Sire rankings.”

The New Zealand position

The NZ Warmblood Association was formed more than 40 years ago to register and promote horses of European Warmblood descent. In the last 7 years, the NZWA has undertaken rapid growth, becoming members of the WBFSH and becoming the first NZ Studbook to issue FEI Recognised International Passports.

The association says these passports “add great value to the NZWB horse and serve as proof of the date of birth, breeder, pedigree and identification of the horse. All horses whether branded or not are microchipped and their UELN number recorded in the Passport.  This is the only Passport the horse will need from birth right through its sporting career both nationally and internationally.”

“The NZWA is dedicated to promoting the NZ bred sport horse on the international stage and will continue to work hard behind the scenes to bring Passports and accurate Pedigree recording in New Zealand up to international standards, both in the breeding paddocks and in sport.”

Equestrian Sports New Zealand (ESNZ) Operations Manager Emma Gowan says there are 11 organisations in New Zealand that are currently listed as being able to issue Universal Equine Life Numbers (UELN).

They are:

5540NZ  NZ Thoroughbred Racing
554001  NZ Arab Horse Breeders
554002  NZ Sport Horse Assn
554003  Welsh Pony and Cob Society
554004  NZ Trakehner Breeders
554005  NZ Harness Racing
554006  NZ Icelandic Horse Breeders
554007  NZ Hanoverian Society
554008  Equestrian Sports NZ
554009  NZ Warmblood Assn
554010  NZ Connemara Society

Gowan said that ESNZ had updated its forms and database to ask our members to include a copy of any breeding papers when registering – “but we can’t guarantee that our members will always follow these instructions”.

“If we are not advised of a horse’s breeding or that it is already registered with a breed society then ESNZ will automatically assume it is the first actual registration and issue it with an ESNZ ULEN number.”

She said ESNZ would not issue a second ULEN number intentionally, but if this happens it can be easily fixed if they are notified. ESNZ was working with the studbooks on “cleaning and improving the data in both the ESNZ and FEI database”. All NZ hanoverian and warmblood association horses had already been updated in the database.

“The registering of horses with a studbook or breed Society is increasingly becoming more important within equestrian sports, especially around age group classes and series.

“There needs to be more education from the studbooks about the value and benefits of registering with them. This needs to start with the studbooks to filter through to the ESNZ registration,” Gowan said.

She said a centralised database or direct link to each studbook database has been discussed as part of the breeding project “but is a long way off”.

“At the same time, it is also important to note and remember that not everyone is interested or wants to have their horse registered with a breed society, they are not interested in the breeding of their horse and just want to ride their horses.  So, we have to respect this.”

ESNZ was keen to work with breeding associations to ensure accurate data is available.
ESNZ was keen to work with breeding associations to ensure accurate data is available.

Gowan said that ESNZ and Massey University had also initiated a programme to improve the quality and supply of sport horses in New Zealand, with the aim of bringing the country’s sport horse breeding in line with best practice world standards.

“Greater depth and integrity of horse pedigree data combined with results on the ESNZ database will provide a complete pedigree and performance package for potential buyers including the export market.

“By integrating pedigree and performance on the ESNZ database we can calculate breeding values (BVs). BVs are an estimate of a horse’s genetic merit for a trait, such as jumping ability. BVs can guide breeders in their breeding choices to reduce wastage and improve the quality of sport horses bred here.

“The first set of sire rankings based on estimated BVs were calculated for showjumping young horse classes. In this case, the data is restricted to stallions with three or more progeny that have completed double clears. The aim is to progressively add other discipline rankings including dressage and eventing. Clearly, given one of the highest-ranked sires is called Unknown, the more horses registered with a verified pedigree the better the data and the more accurate the rankings will be.”

She said that ESNZ was keen to work with breeding associations to ensure accurate data is available wherever possible.

In conclusion

Equestrian Sport New Zealand’s project for creating national Sire Rankings based on breeding values is encouraging. But these rankings rely on the accuracy of the pedigree recorded for each horse on the ESNZ database. Currently, there seem to be no checks in place that require a rider to provide accurate information on the horse’s sire, dam and studbook. A veterinary certificate is all that is needed to state the age of a horse which can vary widely from an August-born foal to a March born foal – an eight-month age difference that is hard to prove from a veterinary surgeon looking at the teeth of the young horse.

To further support the breeders of New Zealand and help grow each of the three Olympic disciplines from the young horses up, other steps could be taken to bring New Zealand up to the standards of their European counterparts. The first step could be that horses entering young horse classes must have valid breed papers/passports.

Secondly, all horses registered for sport in NZ should have a microchip so they have a unique identifier that stops the horse from appearing under a different name. Another step would be to ensure all horses recorded in the ESNZ system as a “breed” have papers to prove that this information is correct. And lastly, in order to support the breeders, a horse’s name should not be changed without the express permission of the breeder and this name change should be recorded with any applicable Studbook.

These simple steps would go a long way to making sure New Zealand breeders and their horses are correctly recognised and represented in International Rankings.

On the home front, a system with passports and microchipping ensures great integrity and meaningful young horse competitions and sire rankings.

Adriana Van Tilburg
Adriana Van Tilburg

Adriana Van Tilburg has been writing about sport horse bloodlines for about 15 years.

She has been interested in the breeding of sport horses since she was very young. It was at a large stud farm near where she grew up that she met a mare who was pivotal to her becoming a journalist.

“She was a real black beauty and through an accident could not be ridden.” Adriana’s interest in the mare’s history and bloodlines led to work as a groom for several leading sport horse stables, including those of Jos Lansink, Theo Molenaers, and Erin Characklis.

Adriana writes for the international publication World of Breeding News, the Dutch magazine de Hoefslag and several other publications. “It is truly a passion to learn more about the complete world of breeding horses and the sport,” she says.


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