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Pigeons, Horses & Breeding to Win - With Shane Plummer as seen on QHN

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I’ve been contacted a lot over the past week since the last issue of the Quarter Horse News (QHN) Insider came out with the article written by Stacy Pigott titled “Breeding to Win.” Stacy originally wrote that article for the Dec. 15, 2014 issue of QHN. In it, we discussed numerous mating theories put into practice by some legendary horse breeders. Due to the inquires I’ve received over the past 10 days, I’ll share a little bit more on this topic today.

I’ll be honest, I have learned far more breeding my pigeons than I ever will with horses. Gestation is a mere 18 days with pigeons versus 11 months with horses. I can have a dozen babies out of a hen during a breeding season; a mare, of course, is limited to one or a few with multiple embryo transfers. Breeding costs are zero with the pigeons, and we all know horses are very expensive. It costs me about $20 a year to care for a pigeon, whereas a horse can cost that much in a single day! Pigeons are in use early, meaning I know what I have just a few months after they are born. Horses don’t start in use until they are 2 years old and, for performance horses, you really don’t know what you’ve got until well into their 3-year-old year. So fundamentally, I can afford to experiment with my pigeons. Horses, not so much.

Did you know that Charles Darwin was a pigeon fancier? He did extensive research and selective mating with pigeons over the course of 13 years before his historic trip to the Galapagos Islands and eventual writing of “Origin of Species.” Geneticists today are using fruit flies and amebae for their research, which seems rather boring to me.

I got my love for pigeons from my father. He started in that hobby as a Boy Scout project when he was 13. He and I have enjoyed pigeons together for more than 20 years.

David-Nathan-Nick-Doreen webDavid Plummer proudly displays one of his pigeons in this picture taken with his father, Nathan, and twin siblings Doreen and Nick, on Oahu, Hawaii in 1962.

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We’ve had a lot of success with pigeons, both in racing pigeons and showing fancy pigeons. Racing pigeons is a performance-based sport (the only problem with it is finding the right size jockeys) and show pigeons is kind of like breeding a show dog or halter horse, it is a judged event based on a standard.

image002 webShane at the 2016 National in Boston, Massachusetts, being congratulated for winning Best of Show Schietti.

DSCN0446 webShane and his daughter, Molly, are pictured with the Best of Show Schietti.

image003 webA judged National Modena Club show, held at SDP Buffalo Ranch

So what does all this have to do with performance horses? Well, absolutely nothing and, of course, everything! My intellectual side tells me to always be learning. Be humble and know that I know nothing. In animal husbandry, I have learned so much from great cattle breeders, dog breeders, pigeons and of course the most important one of all for me – horses. Out of all of them, horses are the toughest, as there are some biological and economical limitations. Cows are easy to breed, and if you don’t like the outcome, you can enjoy a very nice meal! Dogs, pigeons, etc., … well, they give you a lot of numbers for a relatively low cost. Lots to learn from them. Horses, when you make a mistake, it costs.

So with horses, we need to be smart and we must take calculated risks. Everything I do with breeding horses has market considerations involved. It’s that way just because it has to be. It is the world we live in. The horse business is how I feed my kids (I have a lot of kids, too!) So knowing the bloodlines that are in demand is vitally important. Everyone must know the market. If you don’t know the market, find a good adviser you can trust.

image004 webUnderstanding the market is vitally important when it comes to breeding horses.

Do you know the most expensive breeding fee in the world?? Well my friend, it’s not what you think. The most expensive breeding fee in the world is the free one. Why is that? The simple fact is, if someone isn’t willing to pay for a breeding, then why would anyone want to buy the resulting foal? It gets even worse when you factor in the costs in horses in general. After all the money spent and time invested, it is best to start out with stock that is in demand. If you don’t heed this advice, your time in horses will be as brief as the money in your pocketbook was.

As with all breeding stock, what we analyze comes down to two factors: genotype and phenotype. If we were to put them in a mathematical equation, they would be 50/50.

Genotype is the genetics and family tree of the individual. It is everything that you cannot see, so knowing the individuals within the pedigree and what traits they are prepotent for is key. Making good genotype decisions can, in honesty, have various methods, but in the world of breeding for performance, statistical results trump all. We breed to win in the show pen, so analyzing the genotype by stats is how I operate. I always look at five generations or more. Knowing the inbreeding is vital to know what to best cross on.

There are three proven ways of improving our chances of producing superior athletes:

  1. Bloodlines that cross together to produce hybrid vigor. Hybrid vigor occurs when uniting different families through mating selection.
  2. The Rasmussen Factor – Line breeding to superior female(s) through her different offspring
  3. Proven nicks, which history tells us produce success. A nick is a term also known as a “magic cross.”

Phenotype is everything that the individual “shows” us, or is tangible – conformation, temperament, performance, produce, etc. Becoming an expert in understanding these traits takes time, but is crucial. My friend Phil Rapp (the all-time leading cutting rider) has given many very sound advice in mating selection by saying, “Breed for the correct form to function.”

If breeding horses where strictly a science, it would be easy. After making the best decisions in genotype and phenotype, the simple fact is all we are doing is giving ourselves the best probabilities for success. The genetics from the sire and dam are 50 percent each. When the sperm enters the egg, mitosis occurs. Through mitosis, half of the genetic material from sire and half from dam disappear – poof, gone.

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So what is leftover is what makes up the foal. From there, the genes are laid down dominant and recessive. To put it another way, full siblings can have as much as 100 percent the same genes. That occurs when an embryo splits in two and they are copies of each other (identical twins). But because of mitosis and the dropping of genetic code, 50/50 between sire and dam, full siblings at bare minimum only have 25 percent of the same genes. That is a huge 75 perceny variance. So knowing crosses and prepotency is huge. Breeding horses is both a science and an art form. We can do much in the decision-making process, but it is still up to God to put in the heart and soul of a champion.

To sum it up, phenotype is what we are breeding for and genotype is what gets us there!

My true passion lies in animal husbandry. I’m deadly serious about my horse business, my livelihood and profession. My hobby is pigeons and, well, I’m not so serious. I experiment and do so many things that I just can’t afford to do with horses. I’ll tell you this – I sure love what I do. I know I’m blessed and I’m grateful for every day.

If you’ve read all this, the real question is… Are you ready to get some pigeons? Just kidding, just kidding. If I can ever be of help with mating selection for your horses, know that I’m only a phone call away!


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