The Long Road to Specialisation

How, in half a century, the equestrian world changed on a scale never seen before

It was at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico: the individual gold medal in show jumping went to the American rider Bill Steinkraus on Snowbound, a thoroughbred and former racehorse who'd had tendon injuries, whilst silver went to British rider Marion Oakes on Stroller, a thoroughbred/Connemara crossbred pony measuring just 145 cm. It was a televised sensation: two underdogs showing the establishment how it's done! The studbook experts shrugged, mumbled something about "anomalies" and went about their business. That is, breeding according to the philosophy of a German breeding director: "They must be chic, they must have 'go'". Why, then, get involved in the production of show jumpers? There would be enough jumpers from their large pools of horses. Period!

That same year, former KNF (Royal Dutch Federation for Rural Riders) secretary (and later author) Wouter Slob pondered whether it was possible to breed specifically for show jumpers. This question cannot be answered definitively, he wrote, because as far as inherited jumping talent, 1) there is still too little known and 2) there have been too few horses specifically bred for jumping. However, there were stallions who had sired many top jumpers. These include Furioso xx (Precipitation xx) in France, the Anglo-Arabian Ramzes (Rittersporn xx) in Holstein, and Gotthard (Goldfisch II) in Hanover. Their progeny were followed by many breeders and riders who were indeed on the lookout for the blood of such great sires, but the breeding associations didn't have any pronounced interest in specialisation at this time. They were too busy turning their plough horses into ridable beauties to serve the exploding number of newcomers in breeding and sport.

Fast-forward two years after that memorable medal sweep by a retired racehorse and a pony. A Dutchman by the name of Léon N. Melchior, virtually unknown in the equestrian scene, jumped into second place in Leeuwarden with his Holstein mare Heureka Z (Ganeff) in the Puissance, with a jump of over two metres at the end. The mare had previously mastered all the top jumping courses on the continent under the German multitalent Hermann Schridde, and Melchior, sitting in the saddle for the first time in over five years, hoped to make it to the sport's greatest podiums through her. Unfortunately, Heureka was pulled from competition in 1972 due to an injury. What to do? Melchior thought it over briefly, and made her a broodmare.

Léon N. Melchior and his holsteiner mare, Heureka Z

Developments in horse breeding

Although he had no breeding experience, Melchior knew intuitively what animal scientists learn at university: selection for a specific trait always holds more promise than breeding for multiple uses. The best examples of this are trotters and gallopers. And Melchior may not have realised that his philosophy was being put into practice in the 60s and 70s in cattle breeding: specialisation for economic (and, in his case, athletic) success. Cattle breeders replaced dual-purpose cattle with American and Canadian Holstein Friesian bulls, sending milk yields through the roof. Breeders of milk cows had reliable data to consult, but Melchior did not. However, being a pragmatist, he knew that the better the parents had performed as show jumpers, the greater the chance of breeding good show jumpers from them. So he filled his new stables at Zangersheide with stallions and mares in whom the desire to jump to the other side of the fence was deeply rooted, either genetically or through their own successes. By doing so, he entered a breeding scene that adhered to the teachings of the eminent animal scientist Prof. Dr. Carl Kronacher, namely that "breeding is an interplay between determination, possibility, and permissibility in every direction".

A glimpse into these transformative years reveals that enormous social changes were pushing the traditional, thoroughly quality-conscious breeding associations into diversity. These changes were driving the transformation that was liberating equestrian sport and its foundation, breeding, from their niche existence. Without them, Zangersheide would not be what it is today. The exodus from agricultural use that began in the mid-1950s and public indifference to equestrian sport did not stop the selection activity of the associations, although they did ask themselves for whom and for what purpose it was being done. Even the greatest optimist did not believe that horses would ever again rise above the fringe status of unlucrative pets.

The horse's re-entry into public consciousness was therefore astonishing. As the horse threatened to disappear completely from everyday life outside the racetracks and show grounds, the broadest strata of society discovered the horse as a status symbol to enhance its members' increasingly lavish leisure time. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, equestrian sport and breeding began to expand on an unprecedented scale. What had been, just a few years before, a rustic pastime on hilly meadows and the pleasure of the urban well-to-do was becoming common practice. Horse riding became a people's sport! Riding clubs, riding schools, and equestrian facilities sprung up like mushrooms. The equestrian industry responded by creating a market for helpful but sometimes completely useless products.

Léon Melchior & Ratina Z

The number of mares kept rising. Nevertheless, officials like the German FN Secretary General Dr. Hanfried Haring called for more breeding to stop the import wave of sport and leisure horses of vague origin that was sweeping over Western Europe. But this boom also had a dark side. Many mares were bred under the philosophy "she's useless as a riding horse, we'll breed her". This negative selection hampered the breeding associations hammering away at progress. And, in those years of increasingly internationalised horse trade and weakening borders, those who were breeding did not necessarily have a background in it. Put plainly: breeders were no longer country folk wearing loden coats, but middle-class people wearing suits. Much of traditional breeding knowledge and innate instinct was lost. There were more and more people with horses, but fewer "horse people". Emotion replaced the drive for success. Horse breeding as "l’art pour l’art". But one should be cautious of dismissing this surprising, "I-want-a-horse" boom, as it is often these newcomers who show interest in new findings and new responsibilities regarding husbandry, training, medical care, feeding, etc., providing important new impetus to horse breeding within a few years' time.

An eventful day at Maastricht

At the same time, elite equestrian sport reached the highest rung of the ladder of success. Riders embraced the challenges posed by the changes to international course requirements. Show jumping was discovered by the media, and the horse industry used the sport's popularity as a lucrative form of advertising. Horses predominantly from Holstein and France were causing a sensation. Hanoverians as well, named the most successful breeding association by the WBFSH during the Jumping Indoor Maastricht in November 1992. The win was largely due to the world's then most successful show jumper: Ratina Z (Ramiro Z-Almé Z), whose breeder was Léon Melchior. The Hanoverian Bobos congratulated him with somewhat pained smiles, because it had leaked out that the Master of Lanaken was about to take his leave of them. For good!

The Hanoverians accepted the honour of registering Ratina as welcome publicity, but made it unmistakably clear to Melchior that in future it would only brand as Hanoverian those horses that also have Hanoverian blood. This contradicted Melchior's philosophy of breeding with what is genetically and athletically geared towards the highest possible success, no matter where it comes from. This meant that Ratina would get the trophy, but her offspring would not be accepted! Hanoverian breeding director Dr Jochen Wilkens said that the association regretted that no agreement could be made with Melchior, whose dam lines were strongly Hanoverian from the beginning, but that "[w]e are bound by certain tolerance limits set by the studbook regulations". Melchior and the gentlemen of Hanover confirmed their continued friendship and parted ways over a good drink, fully aware of what would happen a few hours later in the MECC Maastricht press centre.

Maastricht in November 1992. Léon and Marleen Melchior with Ratina Z, who had just been named the best show jumping mare in the world by the WBFSH. Just hours later, Melchior would announce the founding of Zangersheide Studbook.     

There, Melchior announced to the international press that he would establish his own studbook to fulfil his breeding vision, with organisational support coming initially from the Fédération des Studbooks Luxembourgeois. However, the man from Lanaken also made it clear that "[o]ur studbook is not meant to be a gathering place for those dissatisfied with their current associations! Members must share our breeding philosophy. Their sole aim must be to breed a world-class show jumper!"

The incredible history of Studbook Zangersheide has been chronicled many times in Z Magazine: about Melchior's innovations in equine health and reproduction technology, about the successes in sport made possible by strict selection, and about its continually increasing membership numbers allowing for a broad foundation for breeding show jumpers. Melchior's death in 2015 at age 89 left a legacy of breeding and sport that will benefit future generations. And not just those of the Zangersheide Studbook.

It is not as if the other European breeding associations are against progress. On the contrary – Since the above-mentioned structural decline, they have created sport horses that are impeccable in both conformation and inner qualities, and rank among the best in all disciplines and for all classes of the population. It's only with specialisation that breeding is still stuttering. Naturally Selle Francais leads the list there as well as the Holsteins, who seem to be able to jump practically from birth. But it wasn't until Léon Melchior set his walking stick for the modern show jumping horse in Maastricht that other associations reacted. The Hanoverian Verband, for example, began to select cautiously for jumping talent and started a breeding programme for it. Others followed with hesitation. But, strangely, it still took years before the major associations began to select their stallions at licensing and their mares at the shows separately according to jumping and dressage genes.  They wasted years while Zangersheide took the highest jumps – literally. The "Oldenburg International" (OS), founded by Paul Schockemöhle and other Oldenburg breeders in 2001 as a reservoir for show jumpers, was based on the principles that Léon Melchior shared with astonished reporters in a smoke-filled room at the MECC nine years earlier. Melchior's vision has become reality the world over!

As Cold As Ice Z, the living proof that breeding with proven (mother) lines works


By Gerd-D. Gauger




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