The proof is in the figures. In 2020, Flanders was home to nearly 200,000 equines. That’s 14 equines per square meter or 30 per 1,000 people – one of the highest densities per capita in Europe. In that same year, the sector exported nearly 3,500 registered living horses worth a total value of EUR 65 million.
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Flanders’ equine sector is galloping forward at full speed
Zooming in on the impact of this important socioeconomic factor and the sector’s international allure, Jan De Boitselier, manager at umbrella organization PaardenPunt Vlaanderen, explains the how and why behind Flanders’ position as a prominent equine region.
The success of the equine industry in Flanders hasn’t come out of the blue. The region has a centuries-old tradition of breeding horses. “Initially, Flanders focused on breeding draft horses,” Jan De Boitselier explains. “Between the two World Wars, the region’s economy was quite literally pulled forward by draft horses, with more than 40,000 foals per year being bred in that period of time. In the 1950s, the focus started shifting toward riding and sport horses. At the time, many quality animals were imported from countries such as France, Germany and the Netherlands, and various equine bloodlines were combined in Flanders. Because of this tradition, the region has accumulated a huge amount of knowledge about horse breeding.”
The majority of Flanders’ breeding farms are small: about 93% of foals are born to breeders producing only up to three foals per year. This proves that Flanders really focuses on quality and flexibility. “Moreover,” Jan De Boitselier continues, “the region is perfectly located between the breeding areas of France, Germany, and the Netherlands. Besides that, horses are perfectly adapted to our mild and relatively wet climate. Consequently, they can run outside as much as possible here. This is especially a plus in the equestrian world, where each day spent in a stable is one too many and puts a mortgage on a horse’s sporting career.”
IVF for top horses: R&D from Flanders in the saddle
Horse breeding in Flanders is not just big, but also an innovative business. Using IVF techniques, for example, breeders grow embryos containing the genes of successful horses. Some of these embryos are frozen and sold all around the world. In Flanders, horse breeder Mares of Macha specializes in this technique. But there’s much, much more. Flanders-based player Keros, for instance, has built an impressive and innovative track record in horse embryo transplantation, having brought forth Olympic champs such as Big Star, Verdi, Taloubet and more.
To top it all off, some of the world’s leading forces in artificial insemination (AI) and embryo transfer (ET) for horses come from Flanders. Stallion owner and veterinarian Joris De Brabander doesn’t need much introduction in this regard. His ‘de Muze’ breeding farm – complete with cutting-edge AI and ET Center – is a global reference for show jumping horses. Meanwhile, he himself is considered one of the world’s best horse breeders and a pioneer when it comes to applying the intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI) technique. “When we started with embryo transfers in the 1990s, we were – in fact – the first generation of modern breeding farms,” De Brabander explained in a 2020 interview with breeding platform Equ.Breeding.
Flanders’ golden combination of location, climate, and a focus on quality ensures healthy horses that perform brilliantly by all accounts. But the region focuses on one discipline in particular. “We specialize in show jumpers,” Jan De Boitselier clarifies. “Ours are among the world’s best.”
“Take the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, for example,” he continues. “There, King Edward, a Belgian horse, was the only one to complete six rounds without jumping faults or penalty points. That made him the best jumper of the competition. What’s more, he’s also one of just two horses to pull off such a feat in Olympic history since World War II, the other one – fittingly called ‘All In’ – having Belgian origins as well.”
It doesn’t stop there, though. That same All In shone alongside King Edward and other horses with Belgian roots on the 2020 Olympic stage in the equestrian team jumping category. Out of the nine riders that won gold, silver, or bronze medals, five competed with Belgian horses. These included the steeds of the three Swedish equestrians, all riding their team to Olympic gold. Meanwhile, in the individual jumping category, all but one of the top five riders had a Belgian horse. And the success isn’t limited to the Olympics. Both at the 2021 Jumping European Championship and the 2021 CHIO Aachen, Belgian breeds dominated the winners’ stage as well.
It should come as no surprise that many international riders want to join the craze, competing with horses from Belgium and Flanders as a region, and even spending much time there to train. American show jumping champion and Olympic medalist Jessica Springsteen – daughter of musician Bruce Springsteen – is just one example. So is German Olympic medalist Daniel Deusser. Even American business magnate Bill Gates is aware of Flanders’ quality equines and equestrian circuit, gifting his daughter Jennifer with a stud farm in Flanders to support her horseback riding career.
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In addition to show jumping, Flanders also enjoys an excellent reputation when it comes to other breeds and equestrian sports disciplines. “To highlight just a few examples,” Jan De Boitselier points out, “The Arabian stallion QR Marc was bred in Flanders and received the title of world champion in Dubai in 2012. Meanwhile, Bernard Fonck, an equestrian from Flanders, was the first European and second non-American ever to be crowned world champion in individual reining at the 2018 FEI World Equestrian Games.”
The cherry on the cake: Flanders’ long-standing history in successful horse breeding is reflected in its studbooks’ track records. Jan De Boitselier: “We have some of the best studbooks. In 2021, the Belgian Warmblood got the first place in the WBFSH Jumping Ranking, out of 55 studbooks. The breed made it to first place in previous editions of the ranking as well – and so did the Zangersheide studbook.”
Recent prize money statistics only add to these track records. Jan De Boitselier: “In 2021, horses from Belgium ranked second worldwide in terms of collected prize money, totaling over EUR 19.3 million by October. Looking at which mares produce the best-performing pedigree, the global top three includes two Belgian matrons: Derly Chin de Muze in first place and Diva ter Elzen in third. In 2021, their offspring had already collected EUR 759,756 and EUR 539,689 in prize money by October. At the same time, the world’s most lucrative horse was none other than Belgian pride Killer Queen, while nearly half of the top ten was a Belgian breed.”
We have some of best studbooks. In 2021, the Belgian Warmblood got the first place in the WBFSH Jumping Ranking, out of 55 studbooks.
Apart from top-notch and innovating breeding, Flanders also excels in producing equestrian champions. “Belgium and Flanders as a region have some excellent riders, some of which coach foreign equestrians and country teams themselves,” Jan De Boitselier clarifies. “Highlighting just two famous examples: in 2010, Philippe Lejeune became world champion with Vigo d’Arsouille, and in 2021, Pieter Devos, Jerome Guery and Gregory Wathelet won bronze at the Summer Olympics in Tokyo. One of the main reasons behind these and other sports successes shouldn’t be surprising… Horses that are well cared for perform better. In Flanders, this is an understatement!”
Flanders has some excellent riders. Some of them coach foreign equestrians and country teams themselves.
Indeed, various institutions in Flanders check all the right boxes in the animal health field. Take, for example, the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine at the university of Ghent (UGent). Every year, hundreds of animals are treated in its 50,000-m² stables and clinics. Almost 2,000 students, more than a quarter of whom come from abroad, follow the top-notch training program to become veterinarians. The animals also come from far away at times. This should come as no surprise, as the faculty has an outstanding reputation. For example, in 2017, UGent’s veterinary research program ranked number one in the Shanghai Ranking of Academic Subjects and continued to do so for five consecutive years.
Also in Flanders, the university of Leuven (KU Leuven) has a strong reputation in this field as well. A specific division of its Faculty of Bio-engineering focuses on pet genetics, including those of horses. Based on various studies, their main goal is to develop ‘breeding value estimates’ of sport horses.
Overall, there are eight highly specialized horse clinics in Flanders, where over 130 employees go all out to provide the best possible care. One example is Equitom in Lummen, near the city of Hasselt. This internationally renowned, cutting-edge equine clinic specializes in surgery and offers a wide range of medical services, from internal and sports medicine to rehabilitation and medical imaging.
“Animal health is a core priority in Flanders,” Jan De Boitselier continues. “Various organizations in the region are currently working on projects that focus on different topics related to horse welfare such as safety and housing for horses. Another important undertaking is the ‘Equilabel’, which gives high-quality riding schools and boarding stables a chance to distinguish themselves. In the assessment, several criteria are applied, including customer service, animal friendliness and compliance.”
Nutrition for champs
“The right nutrition + the best care = top performance”. This is the vision behind Nutriquine, a Flanders-based company that specializes in refined horse feeding. Peter Bollen and Lieselot Hamerlinck have joined forces to establish this successful enterprise. Today, the firm is a global player in its field and has some very impressive clients. On top of that, the firm was a partner and supplier of the Belgian and Saudi Arabian team at the 2012 London Olympics.
Furthermore, the equine sector in Flanders is supported by a comprehensive and professional ecosystem that developed and internationalized rapidly in tandem with the region’s long history of breeders. These niche players possess highly specific know-how, which is considered the cream of the crop within their respective markets.
Jan De Boitselier: “Think of Flanders’ excellent equine farriers, feed and transport players, as well as top-notch stable, track, arena, fence, and obstacle builders. Their services and expertise are called upon by equestrian players of all sorts and from around the globe. Or how about our local experts in scenography, whose skills make some of the most prestigious equestrian competitions a treat to the eyes and ears alike. Meanwhile, a variety of veterinary services providers support the equine industry with state-of-the-art equipment and knowledge.”
Even more, there is no lack of professional training: “At Landelijke Rijvereniging and Paardensport Vlaanderen, two well-known organizations within the horse business, you can gain an excellent basic education on the care and training of horses,” Jan De Boitselier guarantees. “This is very important for both horse and rider.”
Meanwhile, the level of professionalism in Flanders’ equine industry is also beneficial to society at large. Horses are even represented in human healthcare. Using hippotherapy, for instance, people can improve both their physical and mental health. “This kind of treatment has been gaining popularity in recent years,” Jan De Boitselier explains. “It requires additional training offered by several university colleges in Flanders, including Arteveldehogeschool in Ghent and Vives in Bruges.”
Adding to the local equine industry’s international allure, the export of horses from Flanders is on the rise. In 2020, more than 3,500 horses were exported, worth EUR 650 million in total. Countries such as France, Ireland, Germany, and Italy as well as more distant markets such as the US, Japan, and Brazil are among Flanders’ most important equine export destinations. But the socioeconomic relevance of the region’s equine industry goes beyond international trade.
For instance, the use of horses in sports and recreation is extremely popular in Flanders as well, generating around EUR 105 million in turnover in 2020 and resulting in well-attended horse races across the region.
What’s more, in 2020, Flanders’ 108 approved centers for equine reproductive activities, which employ around 100 full-time equivalents, generated a turnover of EUR 21 million. That’s an increase of 50% compared to 2014. Meanwhile, the 23 recognized studbook associations in Flanders realized a turnover of EUR 3.8 million.
Last but not least, horses also play a major role ecologically in Flanders. Jan De Boitselier: “The horse sector contributes to preservation of valuable permanent grassland, which is good for the welfare of people and environment.” On top of that, horse pastures and hay meadows are a real asset for the realization of the European Directives on conservation objectives.
“We can say without a doubt that the equine sector in Flanders brings added value in several socioeconomic areas,” Jan De Boitselier concludes. “The horse is a noble animal that deserves our attention and the best care!”
PaardenPunt Vlaanderen: an authority on horses
Jan De Boitselier is manager of policies and advice at PaardenPunt Vlaanderen. This institution aims to strengthen and expand Flanders’ horse sector in a sustainable way. It represents more than forty recognized equestrian associations with hundreds of thousands of members, and supports – as a recognized consultation partner – the government in the development and adaptation of regulations. Members also use their knowledge and expertise to help empower every horse enthusiast.
What’s in a name: the studbooks behind the horses
As a world-leading equine region, Flanders has a lot to offer for international companies specializing in horse trading, breeding, innovation, and more.
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