Coloradan Hugh Nevins brought a souvenir back from Europe in 1957 — 1,400 pounds of stallion.
By Gary Vorhes, originally published in the January 1990 issue of Western Horseman
When Hugh Nevins first got hooked on Germany’s Holsteiners, he was wearing a blue suit—Air Force blue. But before that suit, he’d worn the uniform of the U.S. Cavalry, and he had an eye for a horse that could jump.
“I went to the Schleswig-Holstein province,” he recalls, “and virtually every farmer has a great big, bloodbay, registered Holsteiner mare. She pulls the plow, she pulls the wagon, she pulls the buggy into town, and they unharness her and put a jumping saddle on her. …
“A little village of maybe 200 people has a show of Olympic proportions— 2-meter (6 ½ feet) jumps, 16 obstacles. And these great big mares hopped over these jumps like big rabbits. A 2-meter jump, for one of our horse cavalry Thoroughbreds, well, we were just frantic trying to make it.
“So I mortgaged the ranch and bought one.”
Of course, it wasn’t quite that simple. He explains:
“The Germans as a people are regimented and disciplined. And that’s why their breeding programs are really excellent.” By law, the male horses are evaluated (by the government) and only the best are allowed to be used for breeding. In 1957, Nevins was lucky in that the government, which claims the best horse of the 2-year-olds, chose a long-barreled colt above Nevins’ choice-Hero, who stood just under 18 hands. Nevins designed a shipping crate/stall to transport his 1,400-pound horse to his Red Rock Ranch at Monument, near Colorado Springs.
“I bred him to every type of mare that you can think of,” he says. “They came from the western states and from western Canada. They were owned by people essentially looking for stadium jumpers and heavyweight hunters.”
He has watched the recent surge of European warmblood imports with mixed feelings.
“The (coming of the) warmbloods— Holsteiners, Trakehners, the Hanoverians, the Dutch warmbloods— is what I thought I could trigger in the ’50s,” Nevins says. “These horses are tremendous stadium jumpers, and they’re also great in dressage, and they’re driving horses, too. The Holsteiner, in particular, is a great driving horse.”
Nevins says Hero was one of two Holsteiner stallions brought to the United States in the late ’50s, but that the other one had to be destroyed due to injury shortly after he arrived. Hero, then, was the only Holsteiner stallion in the country for some time. The horse lived until 1983.
“I started his stud fee at $200 and I went to $250,” Nevins says. “I never had high stud fees because I was anxious to have people breed to my horses. I really wasn’t interested in making a lot of money. That was a very low stud fee even at that time. My stud fee now on the Roy horse (a son of Hero) is only $500.”
The reasoning was that the low stud fee would bring more mares and that more foals would make more people aware of the horse. There are Nevinsbred horses in Washington state, Saskatchewan, Wyoming, California, Arizona, Idaho … most of them west of Colorado.
Looking back, the Coloradan, who is still riding and recently resumed playing polo, thinks the horses have treated him well.
“I’d get $1,500 for a weanling and $2,500 for a yearling and $3,500 for an older horse. It was only in the last 15 years that I was willing to sell any females. At one time I had about 25 mares, but since then I’ve gotten very selective.”
In 1989, he decided that 31 years in the Holsteiner business was enough. He has other demands on his time, the main one being a program that teaches blind people to ski. Part of this entails his skiing backward as he guides them down the slopes around Vail, Colorado.
“Mary Lou (Mrs. Nevins) and I started the blind-skiing program in 1975, and at first we had three blind kids from Denver,” he says. The program has evolved into what he describes as a $400,000-a-year operation that he runs for about $40,000. “But, it consumes 6 months of our year . . . and it either was the blind-skier program or the Holsteiner project. I worry myself sick in the wintertime about the horses (he’s in Vail and the horses are in Monument). So I made the decision I’m going to sell all of the females and keep Roy and Rodeo (a yearling stud) and one sentimental mare that I handraised on the bottle. I’ll stand the studs to outside mares.”
One of his few regrets about the horse business is that he didn’t discover line breeding sooner. In fact, when he imported Hero, the plan was to exchange him after 5 years with the Holsteiner stud that had to be destroyed.
“I put Hero down in 1983; I started line breeding about 7 years before that. I finally, on impulse, bred him to one of his daughters, Fraulein. And she had an outstanding baby. I bred him back to Fraulein and then to a couple of daughters of Fraulein, and they came out absolutely outstanding.
“Because, I suppose, the outstanding genes combined and the recessive genes didn’t. Being a breeder, you take that chance when you line breed like that. I’ve now bred his son, Roy, to his (Roy’s) sisters, and got the same result.
“I was reluctant to try line-breeding at first, because you do run a big risk. But I wound up with a very select group of Holsteiner mares that are all related.”
When asked if he had accomplished anything in Colorado that the Germans hadn’t, he had a quick answer.
“Yes: elegance. I think I’ve got elegance. I wanted very big, very large, but elegant horses. And I chose the heads. You look at these heads (on my horses). These are Holsteiner heads but they’ re extremely elegant, extremely breedy. They (the Germans) went in for massiveness.
“See, the Holsteiner was the knights’ charger of northern Europe, just like the Percheron was. These horses were pretty coarse, but the Germans went to the Mediterranean and bought the reject horses from the Arabs. The Arabs wanted small horses that fit them and that would fit into their tents. They culled the ones that were too big .
“The Germans brought the big Arabs back, and crossed them with the Holsteiner, and refined the breed. That’s why this horse has an Arab head. I took it a step farther in selecting this breediness and elegance.
“I think my Holsteiners are breedier and more elegant than any that you see today. None of my horses are totally purebred. They are three-quarter Holsteiner and one-quarter Thoroughbred (French and English), and I have one Quarter Horse mare.”
At 74, he says it’s all been great fun. “The thing I’ll miss is having the babies every year. Because they’re all eyes and legs and velvet.”