End 2019 the KFPS was the first studbook in the world to publish breeding values for character. This gives breeders an extra tool to select on one of the ‘unique selling points’ of the Friesian horse: its reliable character. That’s a commendable goal, for don’t we all want that reliable, hard-working horse that gives everything it has for its rider without ever putting a foot wrong?
Research into character
Yet, that’s not so easy, for the simple reason that ‘character’ is a complicated concept. ‘All horses have their very own and therefore different character which is made up of all sorts of different aspects, as explained by Dr. Bart Ducro B Sc, university teacher in the field of horse breeding and genetics at Wageningen UR. ‘But related horses often have similar character traits and that points in the direction of a genetic basis. A lot of research has gone into character, including existing differences and into finding out more about the genetic predisposition. The problem is that so much is still unknown. There is not something like a specific gene that determines whether a horse has a good or bad character. It also happens that a horse has unpleasant contact manners but gives everything for its rider when under saddle. Those are different aspects of character. Riders and owners can also have a different perception of character: some are at their best with hot-headed horses, for others it’s the opposite. So when breeding for character it’s key to find consensus about what character traits a studbook wants to focus on in breeding.’
Character in breeding goal
Director Ids Hellinga explains: ‘Essential pillars in the KFPS breeding goal are breed characteristics, exterior, sport aptitude, health and character. We already have selection moments and tools for the purpose of breeding selection of the other characteristics, but we had very few tools for character. Occasionally, a stallion was required to leave the Central Examination because of an undesirable character, but basically, that was it. And there have been debates whether more focus on sport aptitude influences character. It’s not so that selection on sport leads to a less reliable horse, but if we’re not alert this could indeed happen. The simple fact is that if we don’t monitor character we won’t know what’s happening and won’t be able to target it in breeding. That’s why we have been scoring character traits in the ABFP Tests since 2013.’
Ids Hellinga: ‘So it’s not always a matter of one extreme is good and the other one is bad. Somebody who wants to compete a horse at high levels in the sport most likely prefers a more sensitive horse than the rider who only wants to go on recreational hacks.’
Ticking the boxes of one of the five categories is not only straightforward for the person who is scoring the horse, it’s also easy to understand for breeders. Which is why the scores for the eighteen character traits are being published in the stallion reports. Bart Ducro welcomes this initiative. ‘Breeding on character is definitely a constructive approach. It’s something we pass on to the next generations of horses.’
But it is also quite complex, precisely because of all those different factors that play a role. ‘Along with the separate character traits and combinations thereof, environmental factors and genetic disposition also play a part. So aspects like how a horse is raised, educated and trained. The environment can be a very decisive factor for how a horse turns out. A stallion who is very calm by nature but has a high-strung dam, is prone to take over some of her behaviour. Generally, character is considered to have a low hereditary component but is largely determined by circumstances such as raising, training and contact with other horses. ‘That low hereditary component we see is also based on the fact that we still don’t fully know how to measure character. That’s why it was a good decision of the Studbook to start collecting scores and a few years later, to evaluate and compare the results with what we see in practice. That’s something we can learn from’, says Ducro. ‘In horses there is quite clearly a genetic component too. Everybody who is familiar with the equine world knows that certain bloodlines show up specific character traits.’
‘But still, the breeding values show a great overlap with the experience breeders and users have with the character of offspring from certain stallions.’ The fact that the scores fit in well with our feelings builds confidence and shows that we’re on the right track, even though, clearly, there’s still a lot left to improve’, says Hellinga, who points out that studying the possibilities is already in full swing.