By Caroline Ironside
Those in the eventing world will of heard of the prefix "Future". What does this prefix stand for, well I think that is clear for most..... "Quality Eventing Horses".
This Studfarm owned by Julia Hodkin has been breeding eventers on a commercial scale since 2001 and coupled with top International eventing rider Jeanette Brakewell, they are paving a way in the UK at breeding top athletes for the equestrian sport. For the last two years her stallion Future Illusion has been the leading British bred stallion in the BEF Futurity, and is consistently siring foals that are awarded 1st Premiums or Higher 1st Premiums, as was introduced in 2010.
Future Illusion is proving a very valuable and versitile sire, and is very popular with mare owners across the UK, with his stock being sold to the International market.
We manage to catch up with Julia at the end of another very busy breeding season....
Julia tells us how it all began....
"Future Sport Horses came into being in 1997 when I made my first decision to breed a mare. I’d always been horse mad, and when I could no longer ride my beautifully-bred thoroughbred mare, I decided to breed a foal to give me another interest, and I began to breed ‘commercially’ for the sport of eventing in 2001."
With an impressive list of achievements, I asked Julia what she thinks it takes to become a leading and successful Studfarm.
"Honesty and integrity when dealing with your clients, your colleagues and your suppliers. I talk at length with mare owners about their mare’s strengths and weaknesses and what they’re hoping to breed, and provide the best advice I can with regard to whether our stallions will do the job for them. It’s better to say “The stallion is unlikely to produce that out of your type of mare” and direct them to another stallion than have a foal born who might not be what they wanted. Thankfully our main stallion Future Illusion has incredible versatility and conformity in his offspring and therefore covers a very wide variety of mares from show hacks and riding horses, to 4* event mares.
You rely on your team around you, and honest channels of communication are vital if everyone is to get what they’re looking for out of a relationship. The same is true with our suppliers who have been very supportive and are now extending that support to our Team Future Owners’ Club members. TopSpec Feeds, Intelligent Worming and Shearwater Insurance have been stalwart supporters of Future Sport Horses and we remain incredibly grateful for their generosity and expert input into our breeding programme. Also our vet, farrier, physio and rider are crucial members of the team.
Coupled with this is preparation, preparation, preparation. In every aspect of the stud. Whether it’s doing the research on bloodlines, travelling to see horses to help you build a database of information about families, or whether it’s preparing youngsters for competitions, it’s all about the ground work. Attention to detail is very important: if your foundations are built on sand then you can’t expect your building to be very robust."
Future Illusion (Fleetwater Opposition x Future Illicit Affair)
I went on to ask Julia about her Flagship stallion...
"We bred him! He is a genetically very prepotent stallion and replicates himself consistently. It makes breeding decisions very easy as you know what he’s likely to breed out of different types of mares. There’s no randomness to what he sires, and as a breeder, predictability in the offspring is a very important factor when you’re selecting a sire, otherwise you might not get what you were expecting. Randomness in a breeding programme is detrimental as it reduces your chances of replicating key performance genes consistently."
As Julia stands a top class stallion, I went on to ask what she felt were important aspects to standing a top sire.
"You have to believe in your stallion. If you’re not convinced and not prepared to breed your own mares to him, why would anyone else? You have to invest in their production and promotion. You also have to be objective about what they are and what they’re producing. If they are producing the goods, then you also have to communicate that to prospective breeders. There’s no point having a stallion which you want to stand commercially, if no-one knows it exists or what it or its offspring have achieved which make it a desirable choice to use."
Future Illusion (Fleetwater Opposition x Future Illicit Affair)
As Julia's own breeding brought her, her first stallion. I went on to ask her what she looked for in a potential sire, and whether she would look outside her own breeding programme.
"I don’t buy in stallions or colts as stallion prospects at the moment. I have considered doing both before though. I did look into buying a German stallion earlier this year who has since been brought to the UK but discounted it after further research as it lacked any real performance and also lacked any significant successful progeny given its age and the amount of mares it had covered. I also considered a colt bred by another UK breeding programme but decided to retain one of my own instead."
With the diverse change in breeding directions by some Studbooks, that in turn pushes breeders to look at their own breeding programme, so I asked Julia if her breeding choices have changed over the years.
"Without doubt. You live and learn. Originally, I bought highly graded mares. Then I refined my requirements to add the qualification that they were proven performers or proven producers. I now favour proven producers over proven performers as if I’m breeding from them rather than competing them, the only measure that really counts is how good their offspring are. What they did in sport is an interesting and useful indicator, however if there’s performance in their immediate family (siblings etc.) then I would always choose to breed from the dam of a top performer, than from a top performance sport mare, as the first is a proven producer whereas the second is only proven in sport and not in breeding and may not pass the genes that made her great. If you look at the longest established and most successful breeding programme in the world – racing and warmblood breeding, this is exactly the principle they use, and the very best mares may not even compete at all.
Each year I take stock of the foals I’ve produced. I compare them with previous foals and with their parents, and ask myself whether the foal is better, the same, or worse than them. If it’s worse, you don’t repeat the breeding and the mare goes on a ‘watch list’. I either repeat a more successful previous breeding or look to a different bloodline to cross with. If a mare is in the bottom quarter of my herd for 2 years running based on her offspring, she will be ‘culled’. She will either be retired or sold to a programme whose ambitions aren’t quite as high as mine.
With regard to stallion selection I originally primarily chose thoroughbred or British part-breds and did not use warmbloods because they were too heavy and unproven in Eventing. Breeding has moved on and in the last 10 years I’ve seen huge changes in the horses coming out of ‘warmblood’ breeding programmes. Many of them now have large amounts of thoroughbred blood in them, even though they still bear the same brand as the horses I considered completely unsuitable 10 years ago. If you look at the German eventing team, their horses are ‘warmbloods’ from a studbook perspective, but are 7/8ths or 15/16ths thoroughbred. In my eyes, that makes them exactly the sort of horse I’ve always been trying to breed! The ‘warmblood’ breeders have actually adopted the pre-existing thoroughbred based breeding programme for producing their top event horses."
So what does Julia prefer, a stallion that is a good performer in the sport, or one that shines as a breeding sire...
"As per my previous comment. A top stallion is one who consistently reproduces the characteristics in his youngstock that made him great in sport. One that doesn’t replicate himself in this way is just a great sport horse who happens to possess testicles. He is not a great stallion though. For me the measure of a stallion is all about what genetic legacy he leaves. If he doesn’t pass his greatness on, his own performance is irrelevant."
I went on to ask Julia what bloodlines she felt had a great influence on the world of eventing.
"I couldn’t comment on other disciplines are they’re not my area of expertise, but in the world of eventing a quick look at the British Eventing Stallion rankings, and the historical WBFSH rankings are enlightening. My personal favourites are Ben Faerie, Spiritus and Fleetwater Opposition, and I love to see the thoroughbreds Busted, Princequillo, Bold Ruler, Turn To, Owen Tudor and Fair Trial in a pedigree."
Fleetwater Opposition (Landford Common Stud)