This week’s Thoroughbred Logic tackles the age-old question: nature vs. nurture? How much does a horse’s pedigree play into its personality and abilities? Here’s Aubrey Graham’s take:
Welcome to the next installment of Thoroughbred Logic. In this weekly series, Anthropologist and trainer Aubrey Graham, of Kivu Sport Horses, will offer insight and training experience when it comes to working with Thoroughbreds (although much will apply to all breeds). This week Aubrey begins to take a look at what’s in a pedigree and nature vs. nurture.
Last night, I was asked how much stock I put in the link between bloodlines and certain equine traits. The question wasn’t super specific, but it did mention the expected sire in such a discussion: Storm Cat. Tying together bloodlines and horoscopes and linking to last week’s discussion on foal raising, here’s my take:
I’ll be cliché. A good horse is a good horse. If a horse can do the job that is asked and makes a rider’s heart happy in the process, I don’t give a damn about the pedigree.
That said, I am admittedly a total pedigree nerd. Any time a new horse comes in, or I am looking to bring one home from the back side of the track, I check the pedigree (and the dosage profile, but I’ll get to that in another article). When I do, I am looking for recent stallions – not necessarily the immediate sire and dam’s sire, but usually grand sires and maybe as far out as grand-grand sire. So, a good horse is a good horse, but how these horses are bred is no crapshoot. There are hundreds of years of precision-based genetic masterminding that has gone into crafting a creature with raw speed and potential for serious talent.
To give credit where credit is due, I have learned a ton by following Jessica Redman and her successful resale ventures (Benchmark Sport Horses). Pedigree, conformation, and movement are all there to see, and it is easy to start heading towards statistical significance of sporthorse talent linked to certain bloodlines when you have that many horses through a barn per year. I run her commentary against what I see in the pedigrees that come here, arrive in friend’s barns or simply come across my social media feed. There is so much to more to learn, and the process itself is persistently fascinating.
I didn’t know a damn thing about racing pedigrees until a few years back. At that point, I thought it was pretty cool if Native Dancer was in there or Secretariat. Sure, still cool, but those are some pretty diluted bloodlines by now. To boot, I have no idea if Secretariat’s offspring ever made good sport horses, but from what has come through my barn, I can tell you that El Prado lineages have huge shoulders and a jump that correlates. Flatter makes horses with big strides and outstanding hunter-type movement. Langfuhr creates a solid body-type with usually lovely balanced carriage, Two Step Salsas can seriously jump, and Ghost Zappers are big bodied and big moving types that, when balanced, feel like you’re riding off to war.
As such, physical genetic traits indeed carry on down the lines — or at least the breeders hope they will. It would be likely then that the tendency for certain personality-based trends would come down the line too… but then we’re in nature vs. nurture land, and I think there’s always a bit of both.
So when spitballing an answer to the question about breeding yesterday, I mentioned the likeness between the assumed personality traits (and some physical ones) and zodiac signs/horoscopes. Horoscopes, whether you believe in them or not, are written so that they can be general – so that anyone who wants to see themselves in them and their description can grasp a turn of phrase and make it apply to their life. Writing them is an art but recognizing the traits you’re looking for is simply a matter of pattern recognition.
Hypothetically: Oh, you just started dating a scorpio…? Keep an eye out for that temper. As soon as that partner’s temper flares, box checked, yep, he’s a Scorpio.
Also hypothetically: Oh, that one is a mare with Storm Cat in her bloodlines? She’s going to be a handful (even worse is expected if she is red). And so, a new filly comes in and everyone waits for the behavior to show up. And perhaps even, she’s treated in such a way that incidentally encourages the common idea that they are quirky or hard-to-handle.
I’m certainly guilty of personality-trait pattern recognition in these horses. Hell, I think patterns are wicked cool – so I keep an eye out for them anytime there is similar breeding coming through the barn. Correlation or causation, I have no idea. That said, I have had a few horses grand-sired by Pulpit… both have had crap feet, were tall, and both had the most loveable, ridiculous personalities (Pulpituity & Mountain Holiday). Conversely, I have had two horses here by Kodiak Cowboy, and both are sporty with absolutely huge tempers. I say that lovingly, as one of those horses is my upper-level hopeful. Rhodie (Western Ridge) is sensitive and outstanding under saddle – when he wants to be. When he doesn’t, or when something hurts, he verges on over-reactive and dangerous. And to address that Storm Cat query… in relation to the geldings I have in my barn, I just find them quite talented but apt to enact an equine version of complaining when things are not perfectly how they want them.
A few horses with similar breeding and traits certainly does not statistical significance make. That said, it is interesting, and if I find another big Pulpit grand-kid who comes through, do I fall in love with them the way I have loved Mountain (Mountain Holiday) and Juice (Pulpituity)? And with another Kodiak Cowboy, I’ll be intrigued to see what their demeanor is like. Sweet and friendly most of the time, with a twinge of “something hurts — I’m taking you down with me?” Oh… that must be the sire. (You can tell I’m making fun of myself here, right? . . . Okay, good).
I read a post a while back about Storm Cat offspring and how the expectation that they would be as brutish and as hard to handle as their sires is what led to the foals being handled a particular way. The expectation, therefore, encouraged negative behavior that may or may not be genetically present. Nurture, folks, nurture.
I’m certain nature plays a role, but how we handle the horses regardless of their breeding has so much to do with how well they can do in second careers. There is a reason that I adore all of the horses that have come through Laura Newell’s hands from Winchester Place Thoroughbreds. They are sweet, curious, and socialized from a young age to love humans – even their super duper, Storm Cat-heavily-bred foals by Fiona Cat and Winter Cat follow suit and let nurture direct how they interact with folks (at least on the ground) while nature brings them speed and solidly big bones.
So circling back around, would I buy a horse purely based on pedigree — sight unseen? Absolutely. But that’s the fun of the gamble that comes with hunting down the patterns of what makes a good sporthorse. On the other hand, regardless of pedigree, do I expect every horse that walks into my barn to have the potential to be both talented and have sweet, quirky behavior? Also yes. For while playing with genetic trends and patterns is fun, expectation sure has a way of shaping reality. I’d like my barn to be full of lovely, playful happy horses — so that is where I set my expectations.