By Barbara Aitkin Jenkins
Before the victory laps, the show pens, and the training barns, a horse’s life starts in the hands of special people who use their skills, expertise, and passion for the industry to help facilitate the creation of the next generation of show horses.
Stallion managers work alongside stallion and mare owners year around to ensure that the breeding process goes as seamlessly as possible. Their goal is to have the final product (a beautiful foal) born happy, healthy and ready for a full life.
Some of the top breeding facilities in the Western Pleasure industry share a behind-the-scenes view on what it is like to own and operate a breeding facility and what drives them to get up each day to literally help create life.
Amy Gumz, owner and operator of Gumz Farms, along with her husband Kevin, started a breeding facility “out of pure necessity.” She explained, “We had a young stallion in the early 90s and, given our location, we were limited in options. This stallion also had some special management needs that we had difficulty finding a facility to service. So out of necessity, I quickly surrounded myself with people much smarter and more experienced than myself and started on this journey. I found this education very challenging and we jumped in with both feet.“
After building a facility to accommodate their stallion and eventually adding on to that facility over time, they became a destination for stallions. “Our hobby soon became a business and our education became ongoing as we were soon labeled as a facility that could haggle stallions with behavior or reproductive challenges.”
Robin DeGraff, of DeGraff Stables in Port Clinton, Ohio shared a similar story about their beginnings in the breeding industry. “I had a stallion who had marginal semen, and I wanted to be able to get the best product out there. We felt if we kept that stallion at home, then we could manage him the best. That led to figuring out how to get the product (being the semen) to the mares in the best shape, which led to us eventually getting other stallions to stand. We were fortunate enough to have other stallion owners see us managing and marketing our stallion and want us to do the same for them.”
For Debbi Trubee and Roger Landis of North Farm in North Lawrence, Ohio, managing and owning a breeding facility was a natural step in their lifelong horse careers. “Roger and I had both been successful in the training portion of the industry, and I think as we got a little older and wanted to slow down, having it morph into the breeding business along with the interest in being a part of the beginning was always an interest for us.” Debbi continued, “It gives us a huge advantage as breeders because we’ve ridden many of the families that we breed now. It’s neat to look at papers and know that I’ve ridden some of those names.”
However, none of these businesses are defined as “easy” by any of the women who manage the facilities.
Amy describes the “behind-the-scenes” of her operation. “It’s critical that the breeding business is managed as a business with a strong staff, managerial direction, continuing education and facility and equipment to handle the ever-changing needs of this business. Continual investment in your equipment, methods and staff is critical and the key to success. I have always felt that surrounding yourself with people of strength and talent was the key to success.”
She continued, “Our daily life is a balance between routine and managing challenges. We try to enforce guidelines but flexibility has to come into place as we are dealing with many facets that are often beyond our control. The biggest challenge to keep in mind is we are dealing with animals, not machines, that often do not read the rulebook or instruction manual and looking outside the box is often that only path to a successful outcome.”
Debbi echoed Amy’s thoughts and described the business as a gamble. “Stallions are represented by their get and you kind of lose control because you’re not hands-on in getting those offspring successful. You’re dependent on getting the foals in good hands. Standing young stallions is ‘live or die,’ making sure those foals get in hands that will make them successful.”
Debbi continued, discussing the importance of show records, versus offspring’s success. “It’s a huge gamble. Because once the stallion leaves the show arena, whatever success they had only buys them some time. After the third crop, what that stallion won doesn’t matter. It’s what those babies are doing in the show pen that matters.”
Robin shared the importance of finding a niche for stallions, which is paramount to their success as a breeding sire. “The stallions really need to have a niche in order to have something to promote. We work with a wide range of stallion owners with a wide range of goals for their stallions. Some of them just own the stallion and breed him to all outside mares; others breed to their own mares as well as outside mares. We’re able to perpetuate that stallion to their own breeding programs that will be two completely different approaches that both works for the stallions depending on the owners’ preferences.”
Not only do stallion managers need to focus on the stallions, but they also have to meet mare owners’ requests. “We try to customize what the stallion owner (our direct customer) needs as far as a marketing budget and everything else that standing a stallion entails. We also try to meet what the mare owner needs because they are our target audience,” explains Robin.
Excellent customer service for both stallion and mare owners is what all facilities strive for in their business. They understand that many owners, of both stallions and mares, may not have the time, resources or technical understanding to breed the horses, so each facility makes it their goal to create an easy process for all involved.
Amy is always searching to learn a new trick of the trade, or advancement that will ease the breeding process. “I watch trends, try to learn from other facilities and continue to adapt to this ever-changing industry.”
Robin describes the benefit of standing stallions with professionals. “We’re used to doing it, we have set procedures and programs and we are able to be flexible for the owners.”
At the end of the day, each facility has the same goal.
“I’m blessed to spend time with some truly amazing creatures and, through my job, have met people that have blessed my life.” stated Amy.
Debbi followed the sentiment saying, “We love the part of creating the product. It’s rewarding in way more than monetary terms to match a mare and stallion, foal that baby and watch it grow up and hopefully do something. It validates everything to know you helped create a star.”