Kees van den Oetelaar: "I want to chart the British breeding"

"I want to chart the British breeding"

Kees van den Oetelaar
Recently Kees van den Oetelaar has become the director of the Anglo European Studbook. He and his brand new team will keep the same eye on a horse, but the management is modernising a lot. Kees van den Oetelaar: "We want to do things much more different and efficient, but the horse remains in the center." It may be very clear that the Dutch horse dealer Kees van den Oetelaar is the best qualified man to lead British breeding to the top of the World Breeding Rankings. He’s a real expert in breeding. He discovered stallions like Concorde, Lord Z, Verdi, Spartacus, Marius Claudius, Cannabis Z, Guccio, Warrant and many others. 

We visit Kees at his home in Schijndel, The Netherlands. Horses come and go, and a lot of other horses he shares with colleagues. For example VDL Groep Verdi (Maikel van der Vleuten), Spartacus (Marco Kutscher) and Eldorado vd Zeshoek (Hanno Ellermann). Kees became famous as a dealer. He exported thousands of horses, but recently he has focused on top jumpers. At the Olympics in Beijing his references collected gold, silver and bronze medals. At the World Equestrian Games in Aachen, eleven horses that he exported, competed in the championship.

Let’s start with the beginning. When did you first fall in love with a horse?
I’m born between horses. My parents and uncles were dealers as well. I learned a lot from them. I picked up the good aspects but also noticed things I would do different.

I suppose they didn’t only sell show jumpers in those days…
In the beginning when I started dealing horses, everything was business. I just tried to buy the horse in front of me as cheap as possible. I bought ponies, draught horses, foals and sport horses. I was only seventeen when I sold 24 horses to Italy. Transporting horses was very primitive. I had to find out everything myself. Only a bit later, I shipped the first horses to Great-Britain. Business was completely different when I started.

Dealers and breeders usually are two different people. You are both. 
I’ve always been interested in breeding. My father started breeding with a French mare which he took away from the German army during World War II. My father was far ahead of his time. Fifty years ago he already liked blood horses. Most other breeders only used the heavy Belgium horses those days. That French mare would still be a beautiful mare today. My father also performed brilliantly in cross country with that mare. He won the Dutch championship, but never was handed out the medal. Only officers, rich and noble people were allowed to have good horses and win medals. That’s why my father had to hide his mare always. Luckily times have changed.

So you were in one line with your father regarding breeding theories? 
Indeed, he knew what he had to breed. He was the man who introduced the modern jumping style with hind legs up in the air. Before, horses jumped with the hind legs under their body, but my dad realized the hind end had to go up to clear the fences. He emphasized a horse had to be built horizontally to be able to jump round and smooth. Hind legs may not have a big angle, the canter must be adjustable. Things like that I picked up from him.

All this knowledge made of you a key judge in the AES stallion commission. Now you lead the studbook. 
I’ve been judging for AES since it was founded, almost twenty years ago. First time I was on the inspection just as a visitor. Henk Minderman, the founder and former director of the studbook, asked me to judge. I did it and kept on doing it until today. I’m very passionate about judging. I go to every single stallion selection in Europe.

How come two Dutchmen have influenced this British studbook over the years?
Henk Minderman already lived in Great-Britain, and has done so for several decades. I have done business with England since the start. I know maybe fifty percent of the horse people in the country. For many years I sold thousands of horses over the sea. It started in 1978 and I have still the same clients as in the beginning. Sometimes I watched a class in Great-Britain with fifty horses. Twenty of them came from me. Another reason why we were maybe best placed to lead the studbook is as Dutchmen we were much more into the breeding than the British people. English people talk about riders, Dutch people talk about horses. That’s the difference. We need to make British people aware of the sense of the studbook.

AES was the first big studbook for sport horses in Great-Britain. How is breeding progressing in the country?
From the first year, we had a lot of people interested in what we did, because there was no professional studbook. Because of a lack of structure the bloodlines of many horses have been lost. Now we want to try to get back all this information about good breeding lines in Great Britain. One time our breeder Charlie Edwards had four horses at the Olympic Games, but nobody new. Today nobody can answer me when I ask which are the five best mares of Great-Britain. I also don’t know, because there is no information on that. We need to work on that in this country.

How come a country like this has never had a decent studbook? 
Please don’t think Britain is not a breeding country, because that is not true. I’m sure there’s no other country with more interest in the breeding, than Great-Britain, but there is a lack of structure right now. If you see the horse mania at Hickstead, it’s unbelievable. Only everybody has to realize more how important the mother line of a horse is. The breeders are never told how to breed, so they cannot know. We want to be the guide for them now. I tried that for several years, but never really had the opportunity. Now that I’m the director of the studbook, I am the determined to in that direction.

Okay, but it has improved a lot already since the start of the studbook twenty years ago. 
Of course. Otherwise you are not on ninth spot in the World Breeding ranking. In the beginning there was only one inspection in Great-Britain. Later on we started organizing gradings in Europe as well. Now we are going to organise approvals in Ireland, Germany, France, The Netherlands, Croatia, Scandinavia and Italy. Some breeders in Britain are very ambitious. I think about Donall Barnwell & William Funnell, family Light, Mark Evans, but I forget to mention a lot other names. Now my ambition is to convince every breeder in Great Britain to raise the standard. Also breeders with two or three mares can be very interesting for us. In the Netherlands and Belgium those small breeders have delivered most of the international jumpers over the years.

What things do you want to change precisely?
I want more registrations of foals. I see mainly in Europe many stallions are AES approved, but their offspring were entered in foreign studbooks. That’s the only reason why we are not higher on the World rankings yet. Stallions like Arko III, Plot Blue, Hickstead, Vangelis S were not used enough in their younger years. I hope the status ‘Approved’ will get more appreciation from the breeders in the future. Tripple X wins the Grand Prix at Hickstead and he doesn’t cover one more mare because of that. If the KWPN stallion Verdi would win the Grand Prix at Hickstead, he covers ten more mares the day after. We need better marketing. Therefore we need to modernise a lot and bring breeders closer to the studbook. We have opened our new headquarters in Rusper, West-Sussex managed by Steve Lamb. We work with all new capable people. Everything is more efficient right now. We changed the lay-out of the passports. We even have individual QR codes on the passports so you can open the horse’s pedigree via a app. We have a new website with a database in which everybody can look up all details of our horses. We are also planning on making a new AES app for competition results. And we are going to offer more information for example of the mothers of approved stallions to our breeders. We are going to set up a medical database which will make it possible to enter digitally all medical history such as applied drugs and vaccinations and the veterinary exam. If a passport is lost, the medical history isn’t.

In the future I want to create a module in which the breeder can find where and when his horses are going to jump. We want to make things easier by using modern technology. My son is only one year and a half and he already knows how to switch on the Ipad. I’m not a technician, but I have an advanced mind. Standing still for one day is the same as running behind one year. To realise my dreams, I am helped by my co-Director Joris van den Oetelaar in all of this. Another example of what we want to change: to revalue licensed stallions, we want to let them jump the young horse series in England. AES has to stand close to the sport, that’s why we want to make alliances with the national federation. All together in one boat, we have to move up the British horse. We made already a huge progression, but the fame is missing until today.

Which evolution do you think AES will go through the next coming years?
I think we will become the best studbook in the world. AES is the studbook with most real horsemen. We also have the space to breed in England. We also are determined to exclusively go for the sport. We keep on working internationally, but in the end my main goal is to support British breeding. If today a non-European investor wants to buy a young horse, he goes to Germany, France, Holland or Belgium. I want to make them also consider British breeding.

Last year, after twenty years with Henk Minderman leading the studbook, you became director. How did that go?
Henk Minderman kept only twenty percent of the shares. The time had come to bring new energy in the studbook. I was chosen as the new director. Afterwards I bought the shares of the other shareholders. Now there is much more room to do everything necessary to raise the level. I already wanted to spend more money in young horse competitions, in new passports and in technology, but I was blocked all the time.

How do you think breeding in general will progress the next years and decades?
I’m convinced that the sport horse has to change every ten years. So I’m convinced it will happen also in the future. I’m sure sport horses need to become more modern in the future. It’s just the same as with cars. Every year they launch new models, new skills. Horses are the same. We have to breed more horses that everybody can ride. Horses must be adapted to the people. More and more amateur riders want to jump high courses and they need horses for that. That’s why we need to breed horses that jump technical courses easily, without need to put pressure, without spook, without complexes. A four-year-old has to help his rider yet when a distance is not right or when the turn was not ridden very well. We also need faster horses, because the time allowed is much shorter these days.  I think the quality of our studbook is that we work with capable people who judge the natural skills of young horses. We detect quality without the horses being prepared. We also are more tolerant than most of the other studbooks, because we don’t want to miss one top stallion. Plot Blue for example was presented at KWPN gradings, but didn’t get the chance to jump. Afterwards he came to AES. We saw him in poor condition. He looked like a yearling, but we noticed the skills. Time has learned who had it right. Same with Big Star, Montender, Copin vd Broy, Marius Claudius, Presley Boy, Arko III and many others.

Since you started judging for AES, you didn’t miss any approvals. So that all of the stallions mentioned above were graded, is also thanks to you. How did you become an expert in judging horses?
I go to every stallion grading in the world, so I have trained myself until now. I learned a lot from my father. It’s hard to say how exactly I judge. I am guided by a certain feeling. The first thing I look at, is the head of a horse. I see intelligence in the eyes. When I see the conformation of a horse, I can see if he’s a good mover or jumper and if he has good balance. Noticing that Big Star is a top horse right now, is not difficult at all. Discovering him as a three-year-old is much more difficult, and I hope we will find many more stallions like him in the future. 

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