January 2015 - California Riding Magazine Interview: Natalie DiBerardinis
Written by Kim F. Miller
Wednesday, 31 December 2014 19:09
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Veteran of sporthorse breeding pioneer shares view on successes and challenges for American breeders.

Natalie

It’s not surprising that Natalie DiBerardinis uses young horse terms to describe where she sees the United States in its quest to become a bigger source for top sporthorses. “We are sort of in that in-between stage: like a 3- to 5-year old,” says the long time breeding manager for industry pioneer, Hilltop Farms, Inc., in Colora, MD. “We have some wonderful stallions that are here or available in the U.S. and really good broodmares and young horses. Now we need to cross that bridge between the babies and the performance side.”

How to build and cross that bridge is one of several topics Natalie is well prepared to address. She doesn’t have all the answers, but her many years of experience give her a unique perspective.

Nearing its 25th year of breeding and training horses, Hilltop Farm stallions have sired horses that have achieved the highest levels of success in the dressage, hunter/jumper and eventing disciplines. The farm currently represents 24 stallions, a mix of sires owned by Hilltop and by others. Some of these stallions reside at Hilltop and are available via cooled and frozen semen, while others live off-site in the U.S. and Europe and are available only via frozen semen.

Approximately half of Hilltop’s breeding clients each season are return customers, many of them returning to Hilltop year after year for their breeding needs. The program’s carefully curated stallion line-up allows clients to repeat a proven pairing or venture into new bloodlines and combinations. The stallions represent a wide spectrum of bloodlines, types, and athletic specialties to compliment a broad array of mares.

The star Holsteiner jumping sire, Riverman (Redfort), and the Hanoverian Contucci (Caprimond) put Hilltop on the map as a big-time sporthorse breeder in the mid-90s. The quality and quantity of horses produced and their show ring successes have kept Hilltop at the pinnacle of the industry ever since. Adding to that status are Hilltop’s contributions of guidance, knowledge, sponsorship and time, in ways intended to help the country’s breeding enterprise as a whole.

As breeding manager and general manager since 2007, Natalie has seen many ebbs and flows of the American sporthorse business. Editor Kim F. Miller enjoyed a wide-ranging conversation with her.

Kim: How did things go last year for Hilltop’s newest stallion, the gorgeous black Hanoverian Sternlicht? (Soliman de Hus – Rascalino – Wesley)

Natalie: Very good. This was Sternlicht’s first year competing under saddle. He easily qualified for the USEF Young Horse National Championships and finished in eighth place overall. He was also tied for first with the American Hanoverian Society  year-end awards for the 4-year old division. We didn’t show him after August as we had intended for him to attend the 70-day Stallion Performance Testing. Unfortunately, the testing was cancelled for this year .

Qredit. Photo: Pic of You

Kim: Was that a problem to have a relatively short show season when you’re introducing a new stallion to your line-up?

Natalie: Not really. We only like to show our young horses between three and six times a year anyway. With any stallion, it’s always a balance between training, breeding and showing demands.  The schedule and priorities for each vary from year to year.

Kim: You wrote a great article for the Chronicle of the Horse recently about the importance of connecting young horses with riders who can develop them for show ring success. How is that part of the American breeding puzzle coming along?

Natalie: One of the biggest challenges for breeders in selling horses is making the connection to riders and trainers. In the last 10 years, competitions including the Young Event Horse Series, FEI Young Dressage Horse program, and the Young Jumper Futurity have done a lot to create a higher profile for riders bringing young horses along. I see increasing interest in 4- to 6-year old horses from top riders who realize that one way to find their next top horse is to bring it along themselves. These programs are recognizing not only the horses’ and the riders’ accomplishments, but they are also doing a very good of recognizing the breeders and bloodlines of these horses.

Sternlicht

Kim: What about promoting American bred horses to those who might otherwise think first of going to Europe?

Natalie: I think the demand for US-bred offspring is improving and I love the conversations with trainers I’ve had recently – they want to partner with U.S. breeders. Horse prices for top prospects have gone through the roof, so we need to develop our talent here. Connecting the breeding and young horse events is a great start.

We are encouraged to see some overlap between breeding and young horse events being held concurrent with a performance show. The dressage and hunter/jumper shows at Devon are classic examples. It can be tricky from a staging standpoint and not every venue is well-suited for it, but it’s a great way to potentially connect the breeding and performance sides of our sport.

Horse show organizers that include bloodlines and breeders in their programs and results are doing a lot to generate interest in U.S.-bred horses. I hope one day they all do this for every show. Of course, that depends on exhibitors knowing that information, taking the time to fill in that information on the entry form, and the management software having a place for it. That information benefits everybody, even those who have no interest in breeding a horse, because an awareness of bloodlines can be a big help in the buying process. If you know the bloodlines of a horse you’ve seen competing and like, that’s a great place to start looking for your next horse.

Kim: What’s your general assessment of the quality in American-bred horses?

Natalie: We have some truly spectacular horses available in this country and the overall quality of U.S.-bred horses improves every year. Starting in 2008-2009, breeding numbers for the industry as a whole started to go down a little and I see that as a positive. The tougher economy made everybody look closely at each of the mares they were breeding and encouraged an emphasis on quality over quantity. Because of fewer foals being bred back then, there are fewer 4- and 5-year olds at the moment, affecting demand and, therefore, costs are going up on young prospects, which is also a positive for breeders and riders who develop young horses.

Kim: What are the challenges to “buying American?”

Natalie: The quality of horses is definitely here and you can end up paying less than if you went to Europe. Obviously, buying in North America, you don’t have the import costs and the risk of overseas travel is not a factor. But, our geography is problematic.

The big distances between American breeders/trainers are often cited as a disadvantage, but I think that can be addressed by better trip planning. I talk to people who start their horse shopping by looking everywhere in the States. Sooner or later, they’ve taken three or four trips, to Florida, Chicago, etc., and maybe still haven’t found the right thing. I’d suggest people identify that horse breeder/trainer you want to visit, then research other connections in the same area. Make the trip worth your time and see a number of available horses.

Even if you can’t screen them all ahead of time via video, etc, you’re already there in the area so you might as well go see them in person. Breeders can help market themselves by forming breeder groups in their area and working together to draw people in to their region.

Kim: You are a founding member of the U.S. Sporthorse Breeders Association. How are things going with that?

Natalie: The concept is to work across the different disciplines and registries to provide education and support for all sporthorse breeders in the U.S. It’s a relatively new group. We formed just over a year ago and just recently got our official non-profit status. The number of breeders in the U.S. is small, so to gain any kind of real voice on a national level and leverage those numbers, we need to be a collective unit. The organization has a lot of potential and I think will fill a vital role for breeders.

Kim: I understand that developing a system for tracking a horse’s identification and his performance throughout its life is a priority for the USSHBA. How is that going?

Natalie: The idea of “one horse, one number” has been a long time coming and has the support of many different groups. I believe it is getting closer and closer to reality. A database that really connects the sport records with the pedigree and bloodlines is a critical piece of the puzzle in my opinion.

Kim: Thank you, Natalie!

Natalie: You’re welcome.