"It seems like the judges don't even notice you unless you're on a warmblood," was the word circulating among riders at a recent horse show.
It may not be fair, but it is increasingly true. European warmbloods have become the "in" horse on the U.S. show scene, and Orange County is no exception. With warmbloods being imported on a large-scale basis at Newport Farms in Costa Mesa--and with warmbloods winning last weekend's $50,000 Oaks Grandprix in San Juan Capistrano and the Olympic dressage screening trials at Coto de Caza last month--these European horses have clearly established themselves as the "in" sport horse.
Why? The reasons vary somewhat from one equestrian discipline to another. But be it dressage, eventing, jumping or driving, the bottom line seems to be gaits and temperament.
According to Gen. Jonathan Burton, who judged the 1984 Olympic equestrian events at the Los Angeles Olympic Games, warmbloods especially tend to outscore other breeds in dressage competitions. Given a test ride of equal quality by a warmblood and a thoroughbred, the retired Army general says, the warmblood will probably score higher.
"When the judge sees a warmblood with a lovely, long gait and an 8- or 10-inch overstep, of course he is going to reward that with more points than he would give a shorter-strided horse.
"When you consider that warmbloods were designed (bred) for dressage, it makes sense that they tend to score better in it. Thoroughbreds, on the other hand, were designed to gallop around a race track."
Just a few years ago, Burton says, warmbloods were definitely outnumbered on the show circuit by thoroughbreds. But as warmbloods began to dominate the placings, more riders began buying and importing European horses.
Dorothy Morkis, bronze medalist in the 1976 Olympics, reached the upper levels of competition aboard Monaco, a Hanoverian gelding. The German-imported horse was the first warmblood she owned, to be followed by many others over the years.
"When I look for a horse, I like to buy temperament," she says. "It doesn't much matter the make or the model, but it's probably going to be some type of warmblood."
Lendon Gray, who has also competed for the U.S. Equestrian Team, has mixed feelings about warmbloods. She competes on several Hanoverians of her own but says her favorite breed is still the thoroughbred.
"If somebody offered to buy me a personal horse and said I could have any one I wanted," Gray says, "I'd take the thoroughbred. They are by far the best athletes and have more heart than other breeds."
She has trained several half-thoroughbreds (including the legendary Beppo and Seldom Seen) to grandprix dressage.
Why, then, is she competing on Hanoverians? "Because I haven't been able to find a thoroughbred that I like and can afford. The kind I am looking for is hard to come by. The way I see it, a good horse is a good horse, period, and I don't care if it has a brand on its hip,"--a warmblood trademark.
Joan Irvine Smith owns two dozen thoroughbred jumpers at the Oaks in San Juan Capistrano--and she plans to keep it that way.
"Don't even talk to me about warmbloods," she says with a wave of her hand. "I don't know what everyone sees in them. If it's not a thoroughbred, it's not for me."