Flashback: Contribution of the Thoroughbred

Piggin' String is a heavy-muscled Thoroughbred

An account of the indirect contributions that the Thoroughbred has made to the western using horse.

The late Joe Palmer, spinner of horse yarns per excellence, once wrote that he had been sitting around hoping someone would ask him about the quagga so he could explain telegony. Despite the scarcity of people with a consuming interest in quaggas, someone finally did inquire. Thereupon, JP came forth with another of his interesting and informative columns about the Thoroughbred.

I cite this as an example of the many alluring ramifications there are to this subject as well as to show how far into left field a Thoroughbred enthusiast will go just to find an excuse to talk or write about his favorite breed of horses. Ask a Thoroughbred supporter about telegony, Grand Opera, or nuclear fission and you are apt to get in reply a few thousand loosely chosen words on The Kentucky Derby or on Swaps versus Nashua.

This as random and over-all nature of horse talk is not unnatural, for the entire history of the Thoroughbred breed, its origin and development, has been interlaced with most of the activities of mankind—social, political, and economic—for the past three hundred years. Take for example the name: Thoroughbred. It’s a real nice name for a breed of horses. There is something last-wordish about it; a suggestion of completeness and finality. It implies that nothing can be more thorough than thorough, so let that be the end of it. But, at first the name had nothing to do with horses.

Like so many descriptive words, Thoroughbred passed through various spoken meanings before it arrived in print in Samuel Johnson’s Lexicon in 1755. According to John Hervey in his Racing in America, the word “bred” at first was applied to men exclusively and had no reference to blood or ancestry. Instead, it meant that a person was educated to or prepared for a certain calling in life such as “bred to arms.” If he was broadly educated, i.e. prepared “through and through” for almost anything, the man was said to be throughbred.

Throughbred Blood Horse

Throughbred, when first applied to horses, usually was coupled with Blood Horse—e.g. “for sale a through-bred Blood Horse.” This was not to emphasize the horse’s high breeding but to say that the blooded horse was “educated,” trained, a made horse. Just when through-bred became thorough-bred and Thoroughbred became a noun and the unofficial name of the English Blood Horse is not known. Thoroughbred is not to be found in any of the early volumes of England’s General Stud Book. Not until as recently as 1911 was the name officially recognized and defined. By then, the word had long been used by horsemen generally. In 1911, the following pronouncement appeared: BY THOROUGHBRED IS MEANT A HORSE OR MARE WHOSE PEDIGREE IS REGISTERED IN THE STUD BOOK OF MESSERS. WEATHERBY, THE OFFICIAL AGENTS OF THE JOCKEY CLUB.           

In publishing that definition, the lords of the turf displayed little aptitude in the field of semantics, a field usually reserved for Mr. Webster. Their definition seems to make of Thoroughbred an hereditary membership list in an exclusive club, rather than a breed of horses. Certainly, a native of Timbuktu, who never had seen or heard of a Thoroughbred, would not get much of a picture of same by reading the above official description. About all he would know would be that the Thoroughbred is a horse, and horse, whose name has been recorded and printed in a book in England.

The looseness of the definition of the word as well as the belated recognition and acceptance of Thoroughbred as a name, both are characteristic of the haphazard history of the breed. It began as an accidental by-product of England’s early commercial activities and grew without plan—or specification—or objective. The original mares and stallions, that are recognized as the founders of the breed, were of every conceivable kind, size, shape, color, temperament, and capability. The descendants of those mixed and varied foundation animals have been interbred willy-nilly without any pretense of selection on any basis or in accordance with any standard.

Talan is a distance-racing type of Thoroughbred.
Talan is a distance-racing type of Thoroughbred, as well as the type of horse used as a hunter.

Any thinking stockman must wonder how any breed of anything can survive, much less grow and prosper, while carrying such a numerous drag of the race within its ranks as does the Thoroughbred. Many tell us that the race course is the adequate testing ground that insures the “improvement of the breed.” That, of course, is a myth for just about every Thoroughbred mare—no matter how inferior as an individual or as a performer—is given a chance as a broodmare and her offspring, no matter how inferior, are welcomed into the book of registry.

To supporters of other breeds, keenly intent on breeding to a specified type or to a definite standard of performance, the Thoroughbred seems to be a biological hodgepodge rather than a breed of horses. The moot question is would standardization, based on rigid selection, improve the Thoroughbred situation? Would changes in the ground rules, designed to bring more control of the future development of the breed, be desirable? Probably not. Any breed of livestock that can produce individuals that sell for a million dollars or more each and that can produce occasional individuals with a lifetime earning capacity of two or three million dollars, has very little to worry about, currently at least. And, so long as racing flourishes and so long as the Thoroughbred continues to produce millionaire horses for the headlines.

Because the sum total of the horse characteristics carried by the breed as a whole are so varied, there is a delightful aura of uncertainty that surrounds Thoroughbred breeding. The permutations and combinations of inherent characteristics are limitless in every mating. Horses of great commercial value may come from humble parents. Worthless offspring may come from a mating of the famous. Because the Thoroughbred is used so extensively in competitive sport, where the unexpected adds zest to the game, the surprises that come with the foaling of every generation are all to the good. If there could be an established formula—based on the experience of selective breeding—for producing Derby winners, there would be a little point in running the Derby.

The Versatile Thoroughbred

Aside from racing, this uncertainty, this mixture, this variety within the Thoroughbred breed is both an asset and a liability. Because Thoroughbreds are so different in every way, one from another, the breed as a whole is a very versatile one. No matter how demanding a riding horse task may be, somewhere there is a Thoroughbred that can perform that task just a little better than can any horse of any other breed, with the possible exception of tasks requiring artificial gaits. The most honest Thoroughbred enthusiasm is to be found among those who have had the good fortune to ride a really good Thoroughbred hunter; a topnotch TB polo pony; a comfortable TB hack, or a really smart Thoroughbred stock horse. Unfortunately, not all horsemen have had such a pleasant experience.

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