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Purity or performance

By Bert Theunissen

Of all sports horses competing at the most recent Olympic Games, 30 % were Dutch-bred. And of the ten gold medals available, five were awarded to horses from the Netherlands.

This is a remarkable achievement, considering that the Dutch do not have a long tradition in horse breeding like the Germans, the English and the French. Especially France and Germany, which had state-sponsored studs for centuries, have long been in the lead in sports such as show jumping and dressage, while England has been famous for its Thoroughbred racing horses since the late eighteenth century.

Finding out how this success came about is one of the aims of my study of Dutch horse breeding in the twentieth century. At this moment, I do not have a clue. Many factors must have been responsible, and none of them may have been completely unique. At least this is what can be inferred from recent analyses of the rising prominence of the Dutch-bred horse in international equestrian sports. It is emphasized, for instance, that the Dutch never cared for purity in breeding their horses.[1] True, but neither did the French or the Germans. While genetic purity soon became synonymous with quality in agricultural plant and animal breeding in the Mendelian era, horses in Western European countries were mainly bred for performance, not for purity. If it suited a breeder’s purposes, he routinely used stallions from various breeds for the improvement of his breeding stock. The herd books in which his animals were registered made no bones about such mixed ancestry either. Thus the Dutch so-called warmblood breeds that are now used in sports were actually performance types rather than genetically uniform breeds.

For instance, until World War II one of these types, the Gelderlander, was an all-round farm and carriage horse (fig. 1) that owed its special characteristics to stallions from another Dutch breed, the Groninger, as well as to several French and German sires, which were crossed with the Dutch Gelderlander mares. After the war, the Gelderlander was crossed with several foreign breeds such as the Arabian and the Thoroughbred to create a new type that was suited for sports.


Fig. 1 Original Gelderlanders at work (In de Strengen 27 (1965) no. 3, p. 1).

Anthropologist John Borneman has argued that this breeding for performance instead of for purity is what differentiates European and American horse breeding.[2] In the US, purity of the many different breeds is sacrosanct; outcrosses with other breeds are not allowed in pedigree breeds. While in the dominant European breeds, performance in sports is all that matters, many American breeds are bred merely for their outward looks or even their colour. Borneman speculates that the strong involvement of the state in European countries in breeding horses for the military has led to an emphasis on uniform standards of performance, while the plurality of the American breeds is to be seen as a case of ‘reverse totemism’, in which the breeds reflect the numerous differentiating cultural marks of what is officially a classless society.

This is an attractive hypothesis, but it has its problems. The Americans do indeed have many genetically pure breeds, yet they also have breeds that are judged on the basis of performance, such as the American trotter, which was created in the nineteenth century (fig. 2)

This type, as Philip Thurtle has shown, was bred for performance only; its breeders did not care for purity, the trotter’s speed in the racing track was all that mattered to them.[3] In contrast to Borneman, Thurtle argues that it is the trotter that should be seen as the prototypically American horse. For it arose from a process of selection on the basis of its speed, not on the basis of considerations of genealogy and purity – just like its owners, most of whom were aspiring business men in the Rockefeller era, whose success was not based on family relations but on personal merit.

Also, the European side of Borneman’s hypothesis is problematic for the Netherlands, as the Dutch never had state-owned studs, and government intervention was eschewed by the breeders. The only exception, a stud set up by king William I at Borculo in the nineteenth century, failed miserably. Perhaps it is precisely this independence of the Dutch breeders that provides part of the explanation of their success?

Other factors that have been mentioned include the acute Dutch sense for business and the severe performance tests that Dutch breeding horses have to undergo before being admitted to the stud book.[4] These factors are not unique to the Netherlands either, yet especially the latter seems promising, for here the Dutch may have developed their own approach. This is also where science comes in.

In animal breeding, I would argue, science mainly helps to enhance quality of production or of performance by rationalizing the procedures and processes involved in breeding high performance animals. Theoretical knowledge, particularly the theory of genetics, is not of much help here, since nothing is known about the genes involved in making a horse a superior racer or jumper. In dairy cattle breeding, scientists have been indispensable in rationalizing bull choice by introducing systematic milk recording (i.e., measuring a cow’s milk production on a regular basis) and tools for the quantitative analysis of the data it provided.[5] In horses, scientific tools for analysing performance records may have played a similarly crucial role. If this was indeed the case, the question still remains what exactly it was that enabled the Dutch to outcompete the traditional horse breeding countries. I’ll let you know when I find out.


[1] Tjerk Gualthérie van Weezel, ‘Nederlands paard is goudhaantje van de Spelen’, De Volkskrant, 10-8-2012.

[2] John Borneman, ‘Race, Ethnicity, Species, Breed: Totemism and Horse-Breed Classification in America’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 30 (1988) pp 25-51. doi:10.1017/S0010417500015036.

[3] Philip A. Thurtle, ‘Harnessing Heredity in Gilded Age America: Middle Class Mores and Industrial Breeding in a Cultural Context Journal of the History of Biology 35 (2002) 43-78.

[4] See note 1.

[5] B. Theunissen, ‘Breeding for Nobility or for Production? Cultures of Dairy Cattle Breeding in The Netherlands 1945-1995’, Isis 103 (2012) 278-309.


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