A Note about Sugarbush Draft Horses

I see it over and over again, and no matter how many times it's said, it's still wrong. "Sugarbush Drafts are just an Appaloosa Draft Cross". Uh.... no. The Sugarbush Draft Horse was a breed created many years ago in Ohio. While the initial cross was made using Percherons to Appaloosas, in the many generations following, the breed has been solidified into a consistent type. Saying these horses are "just" a draft cross makes as much sense as saying that AQHA horses are "just" a Thoroughbred cross, American Cream Drafts are "just" a dilute Belgian, or that Morgans are "just" a grade.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

How can it be a Breed if you allow Foundation Horses?

The Sugarbush Draft Horse is a breed that has been around a while.  About as long as the AQHA, APHA, ApHC, and even longer then breeds like the Missouri Fox Trotter, Rocky Mountain Horse, and Gypsy Vanner/Cob.

Unfortunately though, the SBDH has not exactly had the same promotional work done with it.  The people who were involved with the SDHR back in the day, were more interested in the HORSE then the money.  Everett Smith worked hard to build an amazing carriage breed, ended up with a draft horse perfectly suited to riding (a nice side effect, I'd say!) and didn't spend nearly as much time trying to solicit money, or recruit sponsors to advertise for these horses.

He also pushed responsible breeding back before it was in vogue.  Breeders of SBDHs tended to only breed what they would use themselves, or could care for until they sold.  When the anti-draft sentiment in the 80s hit, the number of horses bred declined rapidly.  Many people got out of the breed (there weren't that many to start with) and many horses who were sold have been lost to the registry.  We are of course always still looking for them.

So today, we have a handful of these horses left.  The purebred SBDHs that we have mostly come from Everett's lines, and those he personally kept track of.  Unfortunately, many of them are related to each other, and that makes it really hard to breed forward.  We have 2 options.  We could give up, or we can introduce some new blood to the lines.

We of course chose the later.

Now, I am a geneticist by education.  This means that I tend to look at things a bit "backwards" from most hose people. My goals are not bragging rights, but purity of genetics.  I could care less about fluff, but get hyped about consistency of production.

With this type of mentality, and a BOD who supports my point of view (even if they don't always get it, and keep asking me to explain it again) the SDHR decided to throw open the books, and recruit Foundation horses who have the proper traits to bring this breed back.

What confuses people though, is why we're accepting "grade" drafts into the registry.  Well, that's what I hope to explain. 

You see, we COULD have allowed outcrossing.  Simply require that all SBDH be bred to Percherons only, as Percherons are the breed most favored by Everett Smith.  There's a glaring flaw with that line of thinking though.  While to most horse people, this sounds like a great idea - you get to maintain known pedigrees, and have clear and consistent registration rules - the reality is a bit different genetically.

After 50 years of putting together the right sire with the right dam, Mr. Smith got a horse which looks nothing like any other draft, even with out the spots.  Standing a Sugarbush next to a Percheron makes it easy to say "oh, well those aren't the same" just as standing a bay Arab next to a bay quarter horse would.  Sure, both might have prety heads, big eyes, and all, but they just overall look different.

So, if we started breeding back to Percherons (as an example) each foal would get 50% percheron DNA.  Its offspring bred back would get another 50% Percheron DNA, and in a very short time, we'd have colored Percherons.  While that might be nice, it also means we lose half of the amazing work that Mr. Smith did, and the qualities that we love in OUR breed of horses.

So, instead, we decided to allow Foundation horses who have the ideal conformation.  Notice here that color has not been mentioned!  Yeah, color is nothing more then hair, and hair sure doesn't make the horse.  Also, color is the easiest thing to add back in.  A good horse under the hair isn't. 

Each Foundation horse has to apply for acceptance.  This means sending me pictures, and I start drawing lines on them.  I take the ideal SBDH, which currently is O, and compare their angles, shape, and musculature to him, and to the breed standard.  Horses who are scored 70% toward the ideal, or higher, are offered Foundation Registration.  The "flaws" could be such things as heavier boned, longer backed, shorter necked, but it has to be within a range.  A horse that's perfect except for being so severely pigeon toed that it can't walk, would of course not pass the inspection.

What amuses me though, is how many people are "sure" that the Sugarbush Draft Horse is not a "breed" but just an Appaloosa Draft Cross.  The irony to me, is that according to the scientific theory, the SDHR is as much as breed as the AQHA or APHA, and even more of a "breed" then FHANA (Friesians).  Scientifically speaking of course. 

Lets look at a couple of horses that have been accepted:



Sugarbush Harley's Classic O

Percheron Stallion

The Percheron's image was "stolen" from the web as an example of a typical nice Percheron.

You can definitely see similarities between all those horses, but check out the differences.  The Percheron looks like a more stretched out version of the Sugarbush.  Well, or the other way around.  But when you see a line up like that, the top 2 horses look more like "O" then the bottom one.

The first 2 horses, Nazar and Godiva, are Foundation mares.  They were bred on PMU ranches (both of them actually, from different ranches) and both have the traits we want to maintain in the breed.  These mares are perfect examples of what we're looking for.  They aren't "quite" like the common draft breeds, yet are lovely horses.

Now, to maintain type, color, and riding ability, we do allow crossing to Stonewall Sport Horses.  These are the lighter cousins to the Sugarbush Draft Horse, being 50% draft or less.  While the Stonewall Sport Horse is a "type" of horse, and not a breed per se, it is similar to saying that you allow crossing to "cutting horses" to improve your ranch horse.  You want horses designed for the task at hand.  Stonewall Sport Horses give us this. 

And yet, a Stonewall Sport Horse still has the ideal angles and shape, just in a more "petite" form.  (Hard to call them petite when you're talking about a horse that is 16 hands, and probably 1400 pounds or more).  We recognize that allowing light horse breednig back in will set us back a few generations, but for us, it is the lesser of the evils we had to face when left with too few horses to properly breed forward.

Look at the horses above.  You can see that their conformation is so close to what we have in the SDHR.  While they are smaller and lighter boned, it's hard to tell the difference in an image.  This is an example of the consistency of type we're going for.  These Stonewall Sport Horses have all of the traits, including the color, that we want in the breed.  Our job is to simply make "bigger" versions, while keeping the best there is to offer.  And you can't tell me that any of those horses (Owned by Mike Muir of Access Adventure) would be something to be ashamed of in your horse's pedigree!

Now, lets compare all of this to commonly accepted breeds.  I'm going to pick on the Quarter Horse today, because we can all accept that it is a breed.  AQHA allows crossing to Thoroughbreds for genetic diversity (not sure why they need to diversify in the largest horse breed in the world, but arguments can be made both ways).

A Typical Quarter Horse looks like this:
Or maybe this:
or this:
Or it could be this:

My point being that the consistency of type is rather varied, and few of them resemble the "ideal" horse as drawn in the AQHA's early days (the painting up there).

So, then you have that AQHA allows crossing to Thoroughbreds, which look like:
(An aside here, this horse is the sire of my lesson horse Diesel... cool!)

But, those Thoroughbreds don't really look all that much like those Quarter Horses.  There are some minor similarities, just as there are between the Sugarbush Draft horse and the Percheron, but all in all, there's very little consistency of type being shown in the AQHA. 

Now, that's not a bad thing, but it is something to be aware of when you are working with animals, and breeding forward.  The AQHA put more focus on performance then appearance.  This is why horses tend to specialize in a discipline, and as they get better, the "types' grow further apart.  Few people would cross a halter horse to a cutting horse in today's world, because the diversity has made the AQHA almost a few breeds within the breed (Similar to the Welsh ponies/horses).

And that is what we at the SDHR hope to avoid.  We want to keep the Sugarbush Draft on track with the vision that Mr. Smith had.  To do that, we must make a few unconventional decisions, in order to achieve the conventional results.

And in a few months, I'll be able to tell you how we're doing.  The first foal crop from Foundation mares is expected in April 2012.


  1. I'm looking forward to this year's foals, especially Nazar, Jinx, Dream & Dove. Should be a big bunch of pretty.

  2. I like how you think on this!!  I think this is the best method to get an ideal type of horse!!  Thanks for being so dedicated to SDHR to stick to the original breed standard!

  3. I would like to see the results you are getting and see the foal crop you created. Very interesting on the gentetics.

  4. Not much longer.  Mares are due around April (with 2 SDHR foals for me) and later for the other breeders I believe.  We're all very excited to see the breed growing, even if a "huge" foal crop for the breed is around 6 babies this year.

  5. ::shudders:: I love QH's, but  can't STAND the "saggy diaper butt" that's the fad now (4th photo down of QH's).  Sure they're supposed to have a good sized caboose, but it shouldn't look like it's falling off their rear end! 

  6. I just found your site. I find it interesting that you say your not looking to the Percheron for forward
    breeding and yet your ideal stallion is 87.25% Percheron in DNA and that the last outcross of blood
    is 4 generations back. Apparently your Mr. Smith felt that crossing back to Percheron was an ideal
    type otherwise he could have used any number of other draft/light horses and yet didn't. To me it appears
    that he was trying to breed a colored (draft) Percheron to stand out in the crowd. I find that you say
    you want to breed like Stonewall Sport Horses only bigger (bigger than 16h./1400lb.)and that seems to be what Mr. Smith started with and kept adding back Percheron to gain the "bigger". Now I agree
    that the modern 18H hitch type of Percheron doesn't look like your stallion O, but there is still alot of older
    less modern hitch lines out there that are the spitting image of O just without the blanket and mottling
    You yourself just said that your going backwards and loosing generations, my quandary being why
    you think that is the lesser of evils to add unknown DNA to the mix in your grade PMU mares as
    foundation blood?

  7.  We're not "not" looking at them either.  Rather, what we are looking at are horses who have similar lines and angles as the horses left in the Sugarbush Draft Horse today. While the Percheron may look similar in conformation, they also may not.  Since it is our goal to close the books completely, we made the hard decision to allow enough horses in as Foundations who meet the conformation criteria, and then no more.

    The problem is the rules.  If you make a rule that says "all Percherons" then you have to accept all Percherons, even the bad ones.  As we developed the current ruleset for Foundation horses, we noticed that the vast majority of horses who were conformationally what we wanted were from similar breeding styles - mostly draft with a hint of light horse.  The PMU industry evidently capitalized on this style of breeding, and many PMU horses, or their offspring have been exactly the conformation we're looking for.

    Now keep in mind, we do not allow ALL PMU horses.  I would say that on average, we're accepting 10% of the horses submitted for approval.  Horses that are accepted are reviewed, and in many cases we can find their ancestry.  If there are any concerns, the horse owner is required to run DNA tests for genetic diseases before papers are issued.  Our goal is not to just add "any" horse to the gene pool, but rather to keep the breed as Mr. Smith made it over so many years.

    So, rather then accept horses by their papers, we are accepting horses by their conformation. 

    And yes, we are going backwards and losing generations no matter which way we move, because we can not breed O to his close relatives.  Whether that is full sisters, or his daughters, the only way we have to move forward currently, with out the outside influence yet maintaining the breed as it is (not as a colored Percheron) is to give some where.

    After many discussions with many breeds, we chose to mimic the methods of the Cleveland Bay.  Those horses all have a very obvious appearance, with little genetic defects.  Other breeds who use outcrossing - such as AQHA, ApHC, APHA - all have complaints that their breed looks more like the allowed outcross, then it does the original breed.

    Friesians tried to do it without outcrossing, and suffered genetic complications, from coefficient of inbreeding to increased dystocias.  We want to avoid that option as well.

    Now, many of our Foundation horses are Percherons.  Others are "Belgerons" (Half percheron, half Belgian) and still others are 3/4 draft 1/4 app/knabstrupper.  So, very similar to the breeding that Everett used.  A few horses have been from PMU farms, from mixed lineage, but often we're able to track most of it.  We take these Foundation horses seriously.  Adding a new horse is not just taking money and writing up papers, but includes weeks and hours of research into that horse.  Once we have enough bloodlines (more then 20 unrelated mare lines, we have the minimum stallions already, and 10 mare lines now) we will begin closing the books.  It's not like this program will be available for ever.  Rather, we just need it long enough to prevent inbreeding now, and give us the options to limit outcrossing in the future.

    It is our goal to one day close the books completely.  At the current rate, we see that happening in 5 to 10 years.

  8. Can't wait to see this year's foals!

  9. Awwww! It's Blanche, Stella and Scarlette in a unicorn hitch!! Blanche is the unicorn and Stella is the left wheel horse. 

    Blanche is actually 17 hh and Stella was 16.2hh, and both were about 1550 lbs. 

  10. I am 64 yrs. old and working with gypsy vanners and now bought a gypsian 50%gypsy and 50% friesian (spotted full blanket) only one in the world.  I would love to find a harley (total spotted) with black feathers on all four and breed to (her) I love the look but...mine has excellent confirmation and disposition, sooo important. He should mature at 16. h he also has 4 blk feathers.  Please reply to me regarding this, would be much appreciated. I am very excited about seeing these horses=(SBDH) My ph.# is 651-308-0400  Do you have pics of the new foals? Would love to have a totally spotted with black feathers.Sincerely Victoria

  11. Victoria_stratton2002October 4, 2012 at 9:07 PM

    I have owned a purebred Gypsy Vanner with excellent blood lines for 6 yrs since he was 2. He has top confirmation and the sweetest boy with a bonus of so much hair, double mane down to knees, 21 in. tail across and feathers galore. He is 14'3" piebald. Now purchasing a gypsian as i commented earlier. Would love to breed to a mare with total spotted body and black feet.  Please call or e-mail on suggestions. Thanks for your time. Victoria

  12. Can I inquire the name of the horse who is "diesel's " sire. Thank you