by Samantha Mattocks
The Pyramid Society has a long history of hosting educational events across the United States – weekend seminars that explore the magical Straight Egyptian Arabian and celebrate different breeding programs. Having held many successful events in the US, the decision was made to hold a Breeders’ Conference in Europe. With the generous support and patronage of Bait Al Arab, Kuwait State Stud, October saw a number of international delegates descend on the picturesque town of Assisi in Umbria, Italy, for a World Conference. The focus was the Art of Breeding Straight Egyptian Horses, and over the following two days, a wealth of information was shared.
Set on a steep hill located in central Umbria, the town of Assisi is, of course, the birthplace of St Francis of Assisi. The first glimpse of Assisi takes your breath away. Flanked by medieval castles, as well as the famed Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi, the town literally rises up out of nowhere. The streets within twist and turn, and, at every new corner, you get a glimpse of something magical viewed through the ancient Roman town walls. There is history everywhere, and with the incredible light for which Italy is famed, it was almost impossible not to stop with every step and photograph what was before you.
The conference was set at the Grand Assisi Hotel, located above the famed town and with panoramic views out over the countryside; it truly was breathtaking. The hotel was set up very well for conferences, with a dedicated conference center on the lower levels, as well as a separate area for delegates to lunch. Nothing was too much trouble for any of the staff at the hotel, and everyone enjoyed their stay there.
On the late afternoon of Thursday, the 5th of October, the conference opened with a rooftop reception at the hotel. Delegates arrived to be greeted by the spectacular views below, and were able to watch the sun set during the reception. As the rooftop garden filled, there were plenty of smiles all around as people greeted each other. There were delegates from Australia, Switzerland, Egypt, Kuwait, the UK, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and the US, emphasizing that this was indeed an international event.
As the sun finished setting, we made our way outside the hotel and boarded buses to the historic restaurant La Locanda del Cardinale – The Cardinal’s Inn. Before we went upstairs to dine, we were invited into a special room on the ground floor, which had reinforced glass in place of floorboards. Underneath, in full view, were beautiful mosaics and parts of the original Roman foundations, dating back to 75BC. It was quite spectacular. Upstairs, in the restaurant, were 16th century frescoes on the walls and ceilings, and all in all, it was a very dramatic setting for our first night.
The conference programme was very clear, with three speakers on the first morning followed by a case study, which would run for the Friday afternoon, and most of Saturday.
The speakers were Judith Forbis, Perspectives on Horse Breeding and the Power of Love; Karen Kasper, Conformation through the Eyes of an Artist; and Ernest Bailey PhD, Equine Genetics and the Art of Selective Breeding. The case studies, led by Omar Sakr, were supported by a panel of experts, including Klaus Beste of Bait Al Arab, Kuwait; Judith Forbis of Ansata Arabian Stud, USA; Marion Richmond of Simeon Stud, Australia; Rebecca Rogers of Kehilan Arabians, USA, and President of The Pyramid Society; Dr Francesco Santoro of La Frasera, Italy; and Omar Sakr of Sakr Arabians, Egypt. Sadly, however, Judith was unable to make the conference due to illness, so historical expert and breeder Cynthia Culbertson stepped in to both do a talk and to join the panellists.
Friday morning saw all the delegates making their way to the conference centre, and Rebecca Rogers, in her role as President, welcomed us all to the event, saying that it was “love and the common bond of the Arabian horse” that had brought us all together. Having introduced the programme for the conference, she then shared Marcel Proust’s famous quote “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” Rebecca concluded her welcome by thanking attendees for their passion, enthusiasm and dedication, all of which ensures that the Straight Egyptian Arabian thrives throughout the world today
Perspectives on Horse Breeding and the Power of Love
The first speaker was Cynthia, who expressed that she wanted to do a talk worthy of Judith’s intended theme. Cynthia made comparisons with the story of St Francis of Assisi and our own journey in the modern day with the Arabian horse, reminding everyone that love and respect for the breed is reflected throughout the history of the Arabian horse.
“How many things in all of human history have been treasured for thousands of years?” she asked. “Few. But the Arabian horse has been kept in recognisable form by an unbroken chain of breeders, despite cultural differences, wars, modernisation and centuries of dynamic human change.”
Cynthia also spoke, not only of love, but of respect for the horse. She explained that there was a long tradition of respect for the Arabian horse among its Bedouin breeders. “The Bedouin had a true tradition of compassion, love and respect for the noble Arabian horse,” Cynthia explained as she presented multiple examples. “But what would they think of how horses are treated in the modern show-ring? What would Saint Francis, with his legacy of respect for all animal life think?” Food for thought, indeed, and something that continues to affect us all.
Cynthia then introduced a concept that Judith had planned to share through her talk, as seen in the new Ansata Hejazi - Born to Rule book, launched earlier this year. “Judith came up with an innovative way to construct a pedigree, a way that gives a new perspective,” Cynthia explained. “When we look at the standard pedigree, we feel we are looking back at ancestors of the past,” she noted. She then showed Judith’s concept of the ‘power of three’ with the sire, dam and offspring forming a pyramid, and then continued to build a pedigree, using the pyramids, from the bottom up, with the final horse at the top of the pyramid, using the ancestry of Ansata Hejazi as an example. “To me, the reason Judith’s concept is so revolutionary is that by looking at a pedigree this way, we instinctively see that a great horse must be built on a solid foundation,” said Cynthia. “While some of the building blocks may be stronger than others, if too many are weak, the structure will crumble. The pyramid pedigree makes the term ‘foundation’ horse come alive. So next time you are planning a breeding, or viewing a pedigree, it might be fun to use Judith’s concept to turn your pedigree and your mind from horizontal to vertical, aiming for the top.”
Equine Genetics and the Art of Selective Breeding
The next speaker was equine geneticist Dr. Ernest Bailey, PhD, from the Gluck Equine Research Center, University of Kentucky, in Lexington and a member of the Equine Hall of Fame since 2014.
Dr. Bailey’s subject was Equine Genetics and the Art of Selective Breeding, and he began by saying that ‘knowledge begins with intuition’. “What is intuition?” he asked. “A scientist will run tests to see if the intuition is true. If we look at a picture, for example, it is all down to interpretation since you can interpret it one way and leave things out. We are all creative – but there are rules about how to express what we are doing. It is the same with genetics – a genetics paint box, if you will, made up of the different branches of genetics such as Mendelian genetics, qualitative genetics, epigenetics and so on.”
Dr. Bailey went back to the basics of a foal taking 50% from each parent. “Full siblings can be profoundly different from each other because they represent a random combination of half of the genes from each parent,” he explained. “Even so, siblings, parents and offspring are more like each other than any other horse in the population; predictions of performance and genetics using siblings and parents is fairly good. However, the value of family information decreases further back in pedigrees. A gene present in one of the grandparents has only a 25% chance of showing up in a foal, and then only because it was present in the parent. The bottom line is to pay attention to the characteristics of the parents.”
“Inbreeding – when the individual appears on both the sire and dam side – is a valuable tool for breed development because its practice with intense selection can increase the number of good genes and eliminate deleterious genes. When inbreeding to a foundation horse with traits that one wishes in the breed, those genes contributing to the trait can be increased rapidly. However, inbreeding also carries the risk of inadvertently enriching for deleterious genes that occur in the foundation horse and result in production of non-competitive or unhealthy offspring.
“Molecular genetics brings a new tool for the evaluation of inbreeding. Horses and horse populations can be assessed for diversity at the DNA level. Breeding decisions might be made in context of practicing inbreeding with selection for traits of interest, and also to maintain overall diversity. But this approach has not yet been applied outside of research studies.”
Dr. Bailey concluded his fascinating talk, saying: “When looking to pedigree studies, intuition is the key. Co-dominance is used when breeders breed a high-quality mare with a perceived conformation defect to a stallion whose expression of that conformation trait is desirable. As scientists, we don’t actually know the genetics of tail-set, neck length, or definition of the head, for example, because the experiments are difficult and expensive. However, many breeders have lots of experience and believe they recognise a pattern of inheritance for such traits, and that pattern will be dominant, recessive or co-dominant. These are aspects of pattern recognition that breeders need to share – this is their art.”
Conformation through the Eyes of an Artist
The final speaker of the first day was the brilliant Karen Kasper. Hers was the talk during which we all sat, spellbound, hanging on every word. Rather than rush Karen’s very hands-on and visual presentation, the organisers decided to continue her lecture after lunch, and I honestly think that we could have listened to her artistic perspectives all day.
Over the course of her career, Karen has sculpted many Arabian horses, and to date Karen she has portrayed more than 80 Straight Egyptian horses, including many legends of the breed, both past and present. Over the following hour or so, we would understand just how and why she is able to create such life-like sculptures, and how she understands the conformation of the horse.
Karen’s talk began with pieces of sculpting clay on our tables, one for each of us. Karen talked us through simple processes of modelling the clay, from making a small ball to making a horse head, and some of the results showed that there were some very talented people in the room! But more than just being hands-on fun, Karen used this to illustrate aspects that we may not have noticed before, such as how light and shade define the form of the horse. “If you want to study a horse from photographs, first convert it to black and white,” she tells us. “You can then more easily see how the light articulates the horse’s conformation.”
Clays put aside, Karen began her talk. “One of the things that helped me early on was an understanding of the European scoring system,” she explained. “It helped me isolate different aspects of the Arabian horse. As a sculptor, I found that you can entirely change a horse by changing just one thing, sometimes with only a small piece of clay in a certain place.”
Karen then concealed part of the sculpture with her hand. “If the sculpture does not look right, by covering part of it you can then see what is wrong. You can do the same with magazine photographs of horses to see what it is about the horse that you do and do not like. Cover different parts of the horse until you define it; this exercise refines your eye. As a breeder, this helps you identify strengths of breeding stock, and what areas you need to work on.”
During her talk, Karen showed famous works of the Arabian horse in art from over the years. “Artists in centuries past didn’t exaggerate the facial dish, but they learned to depict the Arabian horse’s head slightly turned to accentuate the illusion of a dish,” she explained as we look at the famous painting by Landseer, The Arab Tent. “In those days, people didn’t breed for the dish, and I am not sure that they should be breeding for it now.”
Karen went on to note that in her artistic observations, nature seems to have perfected a certain balance of proportions in the horse. Most well-balanced Arabians come very close to consistent natural proportions in skeletal ratios, based on the length of its skull and fractions thereof. Surprisingly, Karen finds only slight variations from these natural proportions among the many different subjects that she has measured, sometimes by only a centimetre or two.
“While I sculpt in clay,” Karen explained, “you as breeders sculpt with genetics. Just a little bit of clay can make a huge difference. So look at where you need to add and where you need to subtract clay to improve the form of your horse sculpture. You can do the same visual analysis in living horses as a breeder.”
To demonstrate what she means, Karen slices some clay from her horse model’s neck and puts it on the withers, moves clay from the hip, and moves the skeletal touch points to completely change the conformation. This was a fascinating and dynamic presentation, visually underlining the importance of correct conformation and balance of the Arabian horse.
“It is a great privilege for me to have seen many of these well-known horses, “ Karen concluded, “and to get to know them in a very personal way through my life studies. I am sure that many of you feel the same, and learn something from all the horses you look at – you all have an artist’s eye as breeders!”
With the talks over, it was time for the workshops to begin. These were led by Omar Sakr, owner and founder of Sakr Arabians in Egypt. Omar’s decision in 1989 to return some of the best Egyptian bloodlines back to his homeland had a profound effect on his life and the future of Egyptian Arabian horse breeding in Egypt. Omar developed the innovative ‘simulation method’ for educating breeders on developing a breeding programme. In addition, he was instrumental in publishing The Pyramid Society Studbook for Straight Egyptian Arabian Horses, and is Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Egyptian Arabian Horse Pyramids Foundation in Egypt, as well as being Treasurer of The Pyramid Society Board of Directors. With his panel of specialists to assist, we were set for an interesting workshop.
“Now for the fun part!” Omar began. “You have learned about love and respect from Cynthia, balance and proportion and Karen, and genetics from Ernest. You have all the tools you need to go and create your own breeding programme!
Omar explained the case study to the participants, telling them, “You have to do your own research as a group. Agree on an archetype to produce for the first generation. You have five foundation mares – and they all produce fillies – so you can then build on your second generation based on the results of the first generation. As well as looking at photographs and videos, and researching on the internet, you have panellists here with a wealth of experience; use them.”
Omar then asked each panellist to give a piece of advice, and they were as follows:
- “Breed what you love.” – Klaus
- “Look to the horse, not the paper.” – Marion
- “If you have a vision, your vision, don’t be afraid to take a chance to go the road less travelled at some point; those horses may be very valuable to someone else. Quality is very hard to breed – always choose quality.” – Becky
- “Please, before you buy horses, look at books, visit breeders, many studs. Don’t form the goal of all breeders – each programme should be different. Before you start, what is your programme? Don’t follow rumours – it is killing a lot in the world, especially Egyptian horses. Follow your own goals or you lose time – and money!” – Francesco
Omar concluded by saying: “Breeding is a journey. You cannot evaluate intuition. Breed for yourself. Sometimes you are fortunate, sometimes you are not – that’s breeding. You want to have something that people can identify as yours. So my advice is – enjoy the journey. Take risks. Don’t be a conformist, you’ll just be a part of the pack. Be different!”
With that, it was time for us to join our groups and begin. The conference pack contained information on seven stallions and five mares. Video loops played of the mares, including their sire, dam, and grandsire/dam where possible, and then the stallions. There were also photographs of the mares, and stallions, available, as well as countless online reference tools. Everyone made use of the panellists and discussion was often lengthy.
On the Saturday morning, the groups announced their breeding and the results of the first generation and after lunch, the second generation was discussed. It would not be fair to share here the breeding decisions taken, as I know that this is an exercise used regularly by The Pyramid Society – and with good reason. It really makes you look at the mare, and its parents as far back as you can, the traits that pass down, and the areas that you would like to change. And then, the stallions – what desirable and less desirable traits they may have, and where they may be able to improve the mare. All the groups made their presentations with humour, flair and panache!
As well as sitting learning about horses, we were also lucky enough to be able to visit two nearby training centres. On the Friday night, we dodged traffic jams and thunderstorms to visit Giacomo Capacci Arabians in Cortona, and we were treated to a beautiful presentation of straight Egyptians. Sadly, the weather caught us up – it was like Armageddon, with wind, rain, thunder and lightning – but spirits were high and all braved the elements to experience these spectacular horses. Afterwards Giacomo hosted a wonderful dinner for all conference attendees in the picturesque hilltop town.
A post-conference tour at Paolo Cappeci’s Cappeci Arabian Training Center fared better weather-wise on Sunday. As well as showing an array of straight Egyptian stallions and mares, Paolo also presented two current All Nations’ Cup Champions along with a former World and All Nations Cup Silver Champion.
Writing this now, back in Greenwich Mean Time and weeks after I left Assisi, I am still smiling about the conference – it was wonderful to be a part of something so positive and so special. The energy and thirst for knowledge in the room was second to none, and grateful thanks must be paid to Bait Al Arab for so generously sponsoring such an event. In addition, The Pyramid Society Europe sponsored the afternoon coffee break refreshments, and also a cocktail at dinner on the last night, while the Friends of the Straight Egyptian Arabian Horse sponsored the bus transportation to outside events, as well as contributing to our memorable dinners.
The Pyramid Society is to be applauded for their varied and detailed education programme. Next time they hold a World Conference, I strongly suggest that you attend; you will make wonderful friends, you will see some of the culture and beauty of a different city and, most of all, your eyes will be opened to new ways of looking at your own breeding programme.
Visiting Assisi, for Mastering the Art of Breeding Straight Egyptian Arabian Horses really has been one of the highlights of my year; thank you.