Preparing Young Horses for SalesBy Kentucky Equine Research Staff · November 2, 2002
Winning is the driving force behind many equine endeavors. Some horse enthusiasts breed, raise, train, and compete their own horses, but many prefer to shortcut the vagarious nature of the breeding business by purchasing a horse that is “made” or possesses the potential to be everything the buyer could want. Public auctions often provide the best opportunity for these horsemen to locate the right horse for their purpose. For the consignors, the fall of the auctioneer's hammer can signal the difference between economic viability and the death of a dream. The dream begins in the breeding shed. The old adage “breed the best to the best and hope for the best” certainly holds true for the highest priced sale horses. The pedigree page is often the first introduction a buyer has to an individual horse. Sales agencies pride themselves on consigning horses with the most sterling of bloodlines as the catalogs' headliners.
Thoroughbred sales companies have defined specific ways to indicate exemplary performance. Bold-faced type (called “black type”) and capital letters are used to indicate the quality of races won by the horses in the pedigree. Once the catalog has been mailed and the horses and buyers have arrived at the sale, the ticket to a higher price is appearance. According to Mark Taylor of Taylor Made Sales Agency, “It is the complete picture – conformation, fitness, and finish – that ultimately sells the horse.” The Taylor Made Sales Agency sold its first consignment in 1978 and since then has established an impressive record. In the last twelve years, it has sold more sales-topping Thoroughbreds at public auction than any other sales agency in the world. Mark, one of four brothers who together own and operate the sales agency, a stallion station, and a boarding operation, is the head of the public sales division. He has devised guidelines for the preparation of the horses the sales agency will handle that cover the range from weanlings and yearlings to broodmares.
Each type of horse has specific requirements, and each individual within a group may have special needs on top of those. Mr. Taylor believes weanlings are the most challenging to prepare for the sales ring. As Thoroughbred sales weanlings are often sold in November, there is a limited amount of time to prepare them for their debut. Mr. Taylor explained, “After weaning, young horses go through a gawky stage that can alter their appearance dramatically. Sometimes the foal we assessed in July looks considerably different as a weanling in September. For those born early enough in the year to be weaned in September, there is time for them to mature out of that awkward stage. The horses that are most difficult are the ones born late in the spring. We have had good success weaning those young horses quite late. Sometimes their weaning is completed at the sale. We don't wean them as abruptly as we do the earlier foals, so many of them avoid going through that awkward stage.”
Even with the most careful guidance, some weanlings seem to grow in fits and starts. One of Taylor Made's sales standouts, Unbridled's Song, was just such a one. Today the horse is known for his stunning wins in the 1995 Breeder's Cup Juvenile Stakes, the 1996 Florida Derby, and the Wood Memorial. This winner of $1.3 million was an equine version of the ugly duckling that grew into a swan. Mr. Taylor stated, “He was a gangly weanling. He grew into a better-looking yearling and has just continued to look better every day of his life.”
Mr. Taylor feels that sales preparation for young horses has changed considerably over the past two decades. He said, “We used to be pretty aggressive with our young horses. We fed them to grow quickly, and we worked them to build muscle. Today, we are more conservative. Our goal is to raise well-grown foals that are marketable as weanlings or yearlings that become sound, quality racehorses.”
At Taylor Made two of the most important components of producing healthy, attractive young horses for the sales ring are a vigorous deworming schedule and a carefully designed nutrition program. Like many sales companies, it employs an equine nutritionist to supervise each aspect of the farm's program from the forage to the grains and supplements. “We look at every individual and design a program to accommodate that horse's specific needs. Some horses grow more quickly than others do, some get fat on air, while others need considerably more food to grow well. Our goal is to have the horses at a good weight for their body structure and to avoid any problems like physitis or osteochondritis dissecans (OCD),” Mr. Taylor said.
Feeding young horses for sales preparation has always involved providing a balanced nutritional program. The recent trend to send yearlings to the sale ring in a more fit and athletic condition differs from the past when it was common to see yearlings that looked heavier. As a result, many nutrition programs have been designed to produce a more athletic individual. Kentucky Equine Research, Inc, (KER), an international equine nutrition and exercise physiology firm, was at the forefront of developing sound nutritional programs for growing young horses a decade ago when, together with Farmers Feed Mill, a feed manufacturing firm in Lexington, Kentucky, it developed a sales preparation ration known as Hallway Prep 14.
Jim FitzGerald's Knockgriffin Farm relies upon Prep 14 to provide the nutritional background for all its young sale horses. Mr. FitzGerald stated, “This is a wonderful feed. The horses find it palatable. They have no digestive problems with it, and it provides everything they need to grow well. We have not had problems with physitis, and the horses develop a great muscle tone. I used to have to practice a bit of witchcraft to mix a little of this and a bit of that to come up with a good blend of everything, but with Prep 14 I can use just one product.”
As part of the FitzGerald/Keogh Agency, a sales agency that has sold over $21 million worth of horses including the top two yearlings in the second session of the Keeneland January Sale this year, Mr. FitzGerald also prizes the outward appearance his young horses carry with them into the ring. He said, “Prep 14 provides my horses with a lovely hair coat. No matter how much grooming you may do, if the horses are not fed correctly, you cannot get a good shine from their coat.”
Recent studies done by KER may further change the way rations for young horses are developed. Research presented at the 2001 American Association of Equine Practitioners conference indicated that there may be a connection between glycemic response and the incidence of OCD.
KER researchers used a glycemic response test patented by Dr. Sarah Ralston at RutgersUniversityto study the predisposition of Thoroughbred foals to develop OCD lesions. Six farms in central Kentuckycooperated with the effort, and the growth patterns of over 200 weanlings were charted for the year.
Surgery to correct OCD problems was performed on 25of the weanlings involved in the study. All 25 had above average levels of insulin and glucose as well as heavier body weights and higher condition scores than many of their peers.
KER researchers are continuing to examine the glycemic responses in young horses in an expanded study that includes horses on 16 farms in central Kentucky. A diet designed to produce a low glycemic response has been developed for some of these farms and the horses fed this diet will be compared to those fed a traditional feed. As the results of this study become available, KER President Joe Dr. Pagan predicts that a big change will be made in the way growing horses are fed.
The advantages of good nutrition provided from an early age can certainly be seen in the condition of the horses sold as weanlings and yearlings, but it also provides a sound foundation for the athletic careers for which these horses are destined. Christopher “Kip” Elser of Kirkwood Stables in Camden, South Carolinais an international agent and trainer who travels throughout the United Statesand Europeto market Thoroughbreds.
His specialty is preparing horses for two-year-old in training sales. He looks for a well-balanced horse and then prepares a program designed to capitalize on that individual's strengths. As with the younger sales horses, nutrition plays a key role. Mr. Elser stated, “Horses need to be groomed from the inside out. A well-conditioned animal cannot be developed without a balanced nutrition program.”
Mr. Elser admits to having been a feed room alchemist who, as he said, “used to travel up and down the shed row with the feed cart, putting a scoop of this and a capful of that into each horse's daily ration. Finally, a nutritionist told me that my method was guaranteed to do one thing–drive me crazy. I now feed a good, balanced high-protein diet that contains a bit more fat than would normally be fed to a performance horse. Two-year olds need to have that extra fat in their ration to maintain their weight through their increased activity level. I use Equi-Jewel for this. It is a stabilized rice bran product that also helps to maintain the shine in the horse's coat.”
The increased workload of the two-year-olds Mr. Elser prepares includes some hand walking and ponying. He prefers that his two-year-old charges spend time with a rider on their backs, but likes the idea of the automatic free walkers. “The walkers allow the horses to have a consistent form of exercise. I also like to use aquatreads (underwater treadmills) for rehabilitation and maintenance.” Mr. Elser pointed out the immense value in having knowledgeable horse people working with his animals at all times. “I cannot be everywhere at once. I must rely upon the people who work for me to be observant and dedicated.”
Mr. Taylor concurred. He said, “Taylor Made Farms expects to employ over 125 people during the September Keeneland yearling sales. About one third of that number will be full-time employees and the rest will be people hired just for the sales. We try to bring back as many of the same people every year as possible. They know our routines and what we expect, and they have the experience we need. A good sales associate is one who knows what pertinent information to pass along to us not only about the horses, but about the buyers as well. A good sales team is a valuable part of the overall effort.”
The polished weanlings and yearlings and the athletic two-year-olds that grace the sales rings throughout the world today are slightly different from the horses that went before them. Technology and research have combined to provide consignors and buyers with a slightly different opinion of what constitutes good health.
The shine that graces the coats in today's sales pavilions begins most often with exemplary nutrition. Muscled bodies have become more appealing, and the horses are the better for it.