Thursday, May 12, 2011

Federico Tesio, Burchard Von Oettingen, Animal Kingdom: Environment Key To Wellbeing Of Equine Athlete

All of the great owners, breeders and trainers of Thoroughbred race horses – Federico Tesio, Burchard Von Oettingen, H. H. Aga Khan and John E. Madden to name a few – knew that the environment was key to producing a healthy, happy horse.

And it appears that the environment was also a key to the success of Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom.

In his recent column, turf writer Steve Haskin beautifully illustrates how the environment was a key element in how Team Valor International prepared Animal Kingdom for the rigors of the Triple Crown trail:

Gently rolling hills and wide open spaces. Winding horse paths that rise and dip ever so slightly. Forest trails that lead to expansive fields. The singing of the birds the only sound.

Welcome to the idyllic horse heaven known as Fair Hill, located just a few miles from the Maryland--Delaware border. Nestled away in a quiet corner of this equine paradise, against a tree-lined backdrop is Team Valor’s private barn that is now home to the 2011 Kentucky Derby winner, Animal Kingdom.

H. Graham Motion, the trainer of Animal Kingdom, noted that the idyllic environment was a factor in their success:

I have to give a lot of credit to Barry [Irwin]. A lot of this is because of him. This horse [Animal Kingdom] won at Keeneland going a mile and an eighth last October. A lot of people would have gotten caught up with getting down to Florida. But he sent the horse to the farm in Ocala just to give him a break. There was nothing wrong with him. He just wanted to give him some time off and let him be a horse. Not many people do that this day and age and I think that’s a big factor why we are where we are.

Haskin continues in his column paint the picture of Animal Kingdom’s environment:

Irwin has spared no expense. In addition to the round pens and large paddocks that were there, they have installed or are in the process of installing an equine salt water spa, a vibrating floor, and a horse scale, where the horses are weighed every week. A new annex also is in the process of being completed. A short distance from the barn, there is a large round barn with an automatic horse walking machine encompassing 10 stalls and an office.

Indeed, the environment is the most important element in producing healthy, happy horses.

Kerry Thomas, founder of the Thomas Herding Technique, and I wrote about the importance of the environment in our book (scheduled to be published by Trafalgar Square Books in the spring of 2012). Creating a natural environment, in contrast to keeping horses cooped in stalls, is the foundation on which all great stables are made and it is a key element in nurturing the natural herd dynamic in an artificial, domestic environment.

(The following is an excerpt from our book.)

One of my favorite authors on the benefits of making the farm environment as natural as possible for the horse is Burchard Von Oettingen who was Director of Germany’s Royal Trakehnen Stud from 1895 to 1911 and a world renowned expert on horse care. In his book, Horse Breeding in Theory And Practice, published in 1909 by Sampson Low, Marston & Co., Oettingen outlined the benefits of pasturing horses. Although written over 100 years ago, the universality of his writing, extolling the benefits of nature nurturing the horse, bears repeating here:

Medicago sativa, or common Lucerne [Alfalfa]…is the most nourishing and healthiest food for horses, and most suitable to produce strong and hard bones.

The thriving of Lucerne is one of the surest indications that the soil is good for horse breeding. …Where Lucerne thrives well, it can be taken for granted that there will be found good pasture and meadow land, or that they can be laid out. Good meadows and grazing are amongst the most important conditions for the thriving of horse breeding. Although horses have a great power of resistance against heat and cold, wind and weather, yet there is no doubt that they prosper better in dry and high-lying districts than in damp and low-lying ones, because the food which grows on the former is more nutritive. Moreover, on high-lying plains the lungs of the horses develop better on account of the thinner air, which causes the horse to breathe more often and deep. …

When choosing a ground suitable for a stud for horses, one must further take into consideration that the hay of higher lying meadows (especially mountainous and Alp meadows) is superior as far as taste and nutritive value are concerned. The hay of lower lying valley meadows, and still more that of irrigated meadows and marshes, is, all things being equal, inferior to the hay of higher lying regions, on account of less taste and greater quantity of woody fibres, even if these same grasses should prevail here as well as there. Mostly on higher meadows less weed will be found, and less grasses of inferior value, or even dangerous...

Of all domestic animals, the horse is the most sensitive to bad drinking water. Unclean, surface or stagnant water is the most injurious. Even vapours arising from the stagnant waters are very unhealthy for horses, especially young foals, since they cause an increase of troublesome flies. Continually running water containing lime, which is colourless and without smell, is best for horses. It has often been observed that glanders breaks out in a milder form after the horses are given better water from fresh springs newly bored.

The growth of beeches is generally and rightly considered a favourable sign as regards a good soil for horse breeding. As oaks grow best in wet, low-lying countries, or in countries with much rain, and as such countries are not favourable for horse breeding, the idea has arisen that horses do not prosper where oaks prosper. Oaks grow, nevertheless on high-lying ground, and thrive well on strong clay soil, which is also suitable for horse breeding. On the other hand, limes especially the small-leaved ones, as well as all kinds of barberries, are undesirable in a stud, because they are the most popular carriers of rust parasites, which are especially unfavourable for Lucerne, and also for clover, as well as other grasses. Furthermore, wheat straw suffers mostly from rust, as in a lesser degree do also oat and barley straw.

Even the best soil requires, in order to derive any benefit from its advantages for breeding good, capable and sound horses, two very important factors, i.e., paddocks and permanent pastures. …But the method of rearing in the stable without paddocks and permanent pastures, which is still so widespread in Germany for all kinds of breeds, threatens to ruin many breedings. … Paddocks and permanent pastures serve, therefore, as a contrast to the method of rearing in the stable, to keep the breeding material as long as possible outside the stable and in conformity with nature, to nourish same. The following advantages thus arise: -

1. The influence of Light. The recently well recognized beneficial influences of light consist principally in destroying many very dangerous microbes, especially tuberculosis bacilli, and in increasing the energy of life by multiplying the red corpusculli and the haemoglobis.

2. The influence of good air. The air rich in oxygen in the open is a primary condition of every healthy development. The continuous remaining out in the open increases the need of oxygen, and in order to satisfy their needs, horses must, by deep breathing, make a greater use of the lungs. Accordingly, the lungs will be extended and strengthened, and also the energy of life increased.

3. The influence of wind and weather. The constant skin massage by wind and weather strengthens the whole nervous system. As a matter of fact, wind and weather preserves the whole animal organism in a continuous and beneficial training through frequent and sudden changes, and forces it to get accustomed to outside circumstances for the sake of self-preservation. In conjunction with the beneficial influence of light and air, wind and weather, owing to a normal and strengthening development of the nervous system, favour the health in such a good and energetic way altogether impossible in the horses are brought up in the stable.

4. The influence of exercise. A voluntary, continuous and mostly slow excerise on the meadows is necessary when seeking their food. By this means the sinews, muscles and bones are under the influence of a favourable slow, continuous and effective training quite impossible outside of the meadows. The longer grazing is possible, …and especially night grazing, the more distinctly is to be observed a favourable development of the formation of the body, especially of the shape of the limbs, as well as that so important to correct walk. The voluntary desire of the horses to visit distinct parts of the meadows, the possibility of their moving about as they please, and so noticing all that is going on around them, the attention which is required for observing changes, the many chances to caper and play with their companions – all these strengthen the intellect and senses, and are the best and only preventives against timidity.

5. Food grazing. The advantages of grazing on the meadow, as against green food in the stable, lie, firstly, in the fact that the horses never get as much in their mouth in the meadow as in the stable, and that, therefore, sudden overloading of the stomach is avoided; secondly, many and just the best and youngest grasses lose their taste between the time of being mowed and eaten; thirdly, the useful combination of amids are, for the most part, in the younger plants, and these are the most difficult to mow, but the horses whilst on the meadow get them easily. For the good preservation of pastures it is very important that they should be grazed alternately, as far as possible, by horses, cows or oxen (but not by sheep).

From the strengthening of bones and tendons as well as the heart, lungs and limbs by exercise over varying terrain, to the continuous beneficial nurturing provided by environmental stimuli that the casual observer, man, long ago ceased to rely on for survival, indeed, there is no better nurturing process than that provided the horse by Mother Nature. It is not practical to breed or train the equine athlete without fully understanding a view from the hoof and the necessity of nature’s beneficial nurturing of the horse. Only then can one hope to grasp the reality of the horse and the Equine Circle from the vantage point of man.

Perhaps, the greatest master who understood that and agreed with Oettingen about the importance of making farm life as natural as possible in order to produce healthy, happy horses was Federico Tesio. Australian bloodstock agent and author Ken McLean, in his book Tesio, Master of Matings, wrote that Tesio viewed Oettingen’s Breeding in Theory and Practice as a “marvelous stimulant” noting that Tesio “gleaned many inspirational ideas” from its pages.

And when one reads Edward Spinola’s introduction to Tesio’s book, Breeding the Racehorse, it seems quite obvious that Tesio agreed with Oettingen about the benefits of making farm life as natural as possible in order to raise healthy, happy horses. According to Spinola, Tesio’s Thoroughbred farm Dormello, which was located on the banks of Lake Miaggiore in Northern Italy, had the appearance of an Italian Villa and it was actually divided into several mini farms complete with their own paddocks and pastures nestled among the hills overlooking the lake.

In 1933, pedigree authority Friedrich Becker visited several stud farms in Italy, including Tesio’s, and in his book, The Breed of the Racehorse, Becker elaborated on Tesio’s method of raising bloodstock:

[Tesio] ascribes the successes of his mares mainly to the change of climate and environment to which he is exposing them as many times as it is possible during their stud career. …His stud is situated at the banks of the Lago Maggiore, one of the picturesque lakes at the foot of the Alpes, and consists of three parts, the first at level with the lake, the second some hundred yards above that level, and the third still higher up in the mountains. According to the time of the year the mares, upon their return from other studs and abroad, are transferred from one part to the other and provisions made for a cold winter when they would be sent south to Mr. Tesio’s second stud near Rome. No
mare is kept longer than a few months on the same paddock and thus absorbs fresh impressions during the whole time of pregnancy...

“I am taking a philosophical aspect of matters,” Mr. Tesio observed. “Supposing mankind would be wiped off from the earth by a terrestrial upheaval and horses stay back, do you think mine would remain in the north during the cold season? Certainly not! They would migrate to milder zones and when the weather there becomes too hot, wander northward again. Anyhow, they would keep on changing quarters the whole year round as their prototypes have done. I have come to appreciate the blessings of such changes from the earliest days of my activity as a breeder of racehorses and mainly ascribe my success to the principles of keeping my mares on the move. That’s the natural way.”

Indeed, Tesio knew that nurturing the natural herd dynamic in an artificial, domestic environment was important for the wellbeing of his horses and he went to great lengths to make Dormello as natural as possible. His practice of sending weanlings south for the winter to enjoy an extended grazing season produced two of his greatest champion thoroughbreds – Donatello and Nearco. And during his lifetime, Tesio bred and trained at Dormello an incredible 22 Derby Italiano winners.


  1. That was most interesting As someone who lived in Md for 60 yrs and heard often of Tesio because of the race that bears his name I didn't know about him Thanks for the education

  2. darlene,

    Thanks for the compliment and for following the blog.

  3. Very nicely written, Calvin.

    In reading the importance for environmental surrounding in the maturing of yearling's, would you consider, smaller breeding establishments and training facilities at a disadvantage in the readiness for a longer career in Thoroughbred Racing ? I'm thinking there are economic and social environments, which fosters racing classification, in poor, middle, upper class.

    We see, different classification of racing, claiming, allowance, stakes, and "World Beaters."

    How do these classification form, and, are they directly associated with the yearling, breeding environment and social class.

    Are there trends to these status ?

    Where there is money, there are class distinctions. I see no reason why, these distinction, are not evident in the "Sport of Kings."

    Your thoughts are extremely welcome as always.

  4. Barry,

    Of course one can always do more with more money but whether someone has a stable of one or 100 horses, the environment is the most important element in promoting the physical and emotional health of their horses – and that is a big factor in how they will perform on the racetrack.

    In regard to a racing career, I believe that a lot of horses, for one reason or another, are stereotyped in ranking (claiming, allowance, stakes) and that has much to do with the longevity of their career.

    That’s why Animal Kingdom was 20-1 and he had little chance to win the Kentucky Derby because he was a “grass horse.”

    Fortunately for us racing fans, Team Valor International did not see it that way and the rest is history. I did not see it that way either and that is why I made Animal Kingdom my Derby favorite last December.

    An Emotional Conformation Profile and pedigree analysis can give the horse owner a playbook on how to best train their horses for a racing career.