The Arabian Foal Festival by Bart Van Buggenhout
Written by Bart Van Buggenhout
I worked for 13 years as the manager for Al Rayyan Farm in Qatar, one of the leading stud farms of straight Egyptian Arabian horses. When I decided to leave Qatar about two years ago, I changed my position to become the manager of Aljassimya Farm. I was intrigued by Sheikh Jassim bin Khalifa Al Thani’s
commitment to breed his own show horses; a commitment that has serious long term responsibilities.
Two big steps had to be taken: finding the right horses and finding the right place to start such a program.
I had the idea and good reasons to look for a farm in the U.S., a country that has a history of big breeding programs, and not just Arabians, but so many different breeds. Sheikh Jassim himself really thinks outside of the box and enjoys the research process, and he settled upon California.
A few phone calls and a flight later I visited the Santa Ynez Valley, “The Valley of the Arabian Horse.” A year and a half later our farm is in development and several foals are on the way. The community has been so welcoming, making Santa Ynez and California really feel like home.
During the startup phase of our endeavor, my home felt like an airplane, as I was constantly traveling around the world visiting breeders, trainers, and attending shows, gathering ideas for this program. It was a privilege to travel abroad looking for the foundation stock for the Aljassimya Farm breeding program. In so doing, I was struck by a scarcity of good horses available on a worldwide scale. Strange, because the demand for top show and breeding horses is still quite high, with an active market in the Middle East still going on.
With a declining number of breeders, fewer foals are being born year after year. This is a main concern. When I visited the breeders, one observation was clear: I was not the first headhunter on the search for top horses. Good horses sell for good money and even in the hard times we have gone through, these horses were still selling. However, many of the top horses in the U.S. are being sold overseas and we are losing that valuable gene pool here in the U.S. I can’t say that selling your best stock is wrong, as each breeder needs to make his own decisions. But it does come at a price. The breeders now seem to be spending their money on lesser horses that they have a harder time marketing, as demand for these horses — the middle market — is basically nonexistent. Why is that?
I have seen a big change in the way we show our horses over the past 10 years. Today’s shows seem to service the high end of the horse world. They have become very professional and rather expensive to enter. A breeder must send his filly to a professional trainer at a cost that reaches nearly $1,000 a month, plus supplements, blankets, transportation … and finally a presentation fee that boosts this whole package sky high! No way can a breeder with 20 to 30 horses to feed at home put several of them in training, so only the best will go! Again, those that are likely to be sold (overseas).
Are the star horses lost this way? Is the quality lost this way? Obviously YES, these are the horses these breeders worked hard for, probably waited years for, and they should be the steppingstones to the next level of quality for their programs. It’s clear that some sort of action needs to be taken to help the breeders promote their full program at a lower cost. Without question, the first step that needs to be taken is rejuvenating our local market with shows and boasting about our horses.
The Santa Ynez Valley is a prime example of all the above needs. There are many breeders, a lot of horses, but practically nothing is happening within the community — a community that has so many possibilities and the potential for real change if the breeders would come together.
Seeing it from the outside, I thought the best first step to make this happen is a foal show. Why foals? Well, they represent the future, we love them, they are so cute, and everybody is excited about the possibilities in store for them. I think they are the best way of getting the breeders back together in a close working relationship; but also showcasing our breed to the local community and hopefully stimulating sales of these horses. Their destiny doesn’t have to lie just in being a top halter horse in an international market. We’ll encourage families to enjoy our Arabians, and performance-minded individuals may find their next superstar at a younger age, and the beginnings of new breeding programs may also result. By opening up a new market, we will enable our current breeding farms to keep the bloodlines that are so valuable without the sacrifice of selling their best stock to ensure the rest of the farm is fed.
How will this foal show work? Well, first of all it’s a show for foals/weanlings and yearlings that have never been shown before. All participants must be shown by amateur handlers, to be approved by the organizing board of this show (myself, Greg Gallún, Henry Metz, Kelly Elm, and Doug Dahmen). We don’t want the so-called professional amateurs! Furthermore, the foals/weanlings and yearlings cannot be clipped by more than a 10 blade, and all whiskers, eyelashes, and inner ear hairs need to be left intact. The presentation will only include the walk and trot with no hard stand up — no whips or chains are allowed, but a leather chin strap can be used.
Since this is a local show it will be organized on a smaller scale, and thus the cost of the organization will be seriously lower. Food and drinks available will be managed by a charity, which allows us to be involved in our local community and help it raise some much needed funds.
It will be interesting for the breeders to exhibit these horses that they would otherwise not show. First, it’s close by so transportation costs will be low; second, training and handling can be done at home and with this set of rules every farm should be able to find talent to do this within its existing staff or close by in the community. We are looking forward to finding new handlers for the future!
The classes will be divided between male and female. The male classes will be divided from the get-go into colt and gelding classes.
Also we will split the show type from the performance type. Currently every performance trainer needs to wait until his foals have grown up to the age of breaking them under saddle before he can do something active with his product. Making a special halter class for performance foals and yearlings gives these horses a chance to shine in the spotlight and a job besides just standing around in the pasture and waiting for their turn. Also it gives the performance world the chance to actively start marketing their horses at a younger age.
To support the show structure we have overhauled the judging system. Participants will be judged by one judge (two judges will rotate throughout the classes) in comparative qualifying classes of five participants. The judge chooses the first- and second-place horses of each class, those horses are brought forward, first the second place and then the first place. Next the judge will explain, via a PA system, why each horse was chosen. This will be approached from a positive side, listing the traits that put these horses at the top of the class. It’s a great learning opportunity for newcomers, and for breeders — they now don’t just have a winner, they know why their horse was chosen. And it puts some excitement back into our classes wondering who is winning — similar to many of the talent shows that are popular today. The class will then be placed and we will know why a judge chose the winners. The other three will not be placed, nor qualified for the championships. They enjoyed the experience of being at a show ground, building up confidence and experience and this will be an added value for their character and an added value in experience for their handlers. They will not have lost face or value.
The two horses that are placed will move to a championship class. There will be a filly foal champion, colt foal champion and a gelding foal championship class, both for show and for the performance classes. The championship has a preselected quality and therefore we will be using the point system as we feel at this stage it can be used in a positive way and still provide some sort of education for the public.
The championships for the show horses will be judged by the five standard scores: type, head and neck, body and topline, legs, and movement.
The championships for the performance horses will be judged by a new set of scores: athletic structure, neck and shoulder, body and topline, legs, and movement. We will invite two show-qualified judges and two performance-qualified judges.
In this way we have for the show type a concentration on beauty and elegance, and a focus on general conformation and functionality for the performance type. Now each breeder, show or performance, has a class to participate in. I see, for instance, that a good show gelding foal would make a good future western horse but a good performance gelding would likely find his way in hunter, sport horse, or endurance.
This is all a test and we need to be realistic; on paper it sounds great and we feel it’s worth trying. I think it’s going to be fun, it’s going to be local, and it’s going to stimulate our breeders and Arabian horse lovers to get back in action. I see it as serving the breed that is a passion for so many of us, at the exact moment it needs to be served, on a local scale by local organizations trying to reach as many new faces as they possibly can.
Our show organization is going to try to find some sponsors, but the sponsorship money is going to be spent on advertising the event itself! What better prize money for a breeder, than finding a new customer to buy a filly, colt, or gelding, and help them step into this wonderful world of the Arabian horse?
For our organization, this is a first step to see what our team can bring to fruition; we hope it leads us to bigger and bolder moves in the future. I believe our horses need to be introduced to the masses. We are very fortunate, an Arabian horse show where you keep your numbers under control can easily be organized everywhere because you need so little: with portable stalls, a green grass area, and a good PA system, you can build a show. Can you imagine local breeders from California making an 80-horse show in downtown Los Angeles or San Francisco in some park over the weekend, when spectators are actually free of work and can take time off? That is a broader audience and an additional layer of marketing we need to go after.
Why wait? Let’s be adventurous.
No more time to lose talking about it. If we want to change then let’s start doing it. October 5 and 6 — the Arabian Foal Festival — Santa Ynez Valley, be there!