Wilmington, IL – Turn the drive through the green gate and there’s the pink crabapple tree, in bloom against the white-and-gray siding of the barn. To the left is the front pasture, soon to be home to a group of mares and foals. To the right is the approximately 100-year-old farmhouse – from its kitchen window is a grand view of the comings and goings of horses, people and the farm’s six dogs.
Surrounding the front garden, anchored by the crabapple, is the main barn – two parallel aisles of stalls connected by the middle building which houses the breeding-stock area and, behind it, the viewing room.
Welcome to Little Bit Farm.
When Ken Borden, Jr.’s, family started operating this farm in 1990, they had a “little bit” of money. And back then, Borden opted for mild bits (and still does). And, he said, “We did, and had, a little bit of this and a little bit of that.”
Although the name of the farm - Little Bit - is in many ways perfect, its owner has become one of the top dressage breeders in the country. In fact, since 2006 he has been a leading dressage breeder for both the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF) and the United States Dressage Federation (USDF).
“Our foals keep increasing in quality every year,” Borden said. “We currently have at least seven to 12 international quality youngsters at our farm from our last two foal crops, mainly by our homebred stallions. I have not seen better, more consistent quality foals anywhere. Of course, you can’t tell that I am proud!”
Borden even brought his horses to college, and while he earned his master’s degree, he lived 60 miles from school so he could spend time with them at the barn.
Along with acting and theatre, genetics was his favorite class. And he knew that by breeding, he could afford the quality of horse he wanted. In college he purchased his first broodmare. The first foal arrived in 1990, the year Little Bit Farm also was born, about 60 miles southwest of Chicago.
Those who know of Little Bit Farm probably know of Rashka, who is currently ranked the No. 1 stallion in the U.S. Dressage Federation (USDF) standings. “Rashka is in a class by himself – one in a million,” Borden said. “Everything comes so easily for him. He is so honest, and I can count on him to be the same virtually every ride. He is well beyond his years in his work ethic.”
The other top stallions at Little Bit Farm are Masterpiece – the highest conformation in-hand horse ever for the USDF – and Opus, the farm’s foundation stallion. “I can count on Opus to get problem mares in their later 20s in foal. Plus, he consistently throws his uphill neck, lovely type, and most importantly, his great, confident brain and ridability.”
More than half of Opus’s foal crops have been USDF Horse of the Year winners, IHF winners, and/or stallion test winners.
Masterpiece “stamps his foals with his elegant 9 type and 9-or-10 walk,” Borden said. “He has such a free shoulder and presence, much like Opus. Yes, he can be the bad boy. He is hot and cold at times, being half Thoroughbred, but he is the most comfortable horse I have ever ridden. I think his piaffe and lateral work may be some of the best.”
Borden’s greatest breeding heartbreak came in February, with the sudden, unexpected death of Tiamo Trocadero, his Hanoverian grand prix stallion. “It was a great loss for the future of our program,” he said. “He was so solid, sound, and elastic.” The farm does, however, have a limited supply of his frozen semen that it plans to use.
When looking for future stallions, Borden looks first at ridability. “I look at what I want to ride and what will sell. I want that first and foremost.”
Then, long-term soundness. “Everyone wants the freak mover with incredible, elastic gaits; however, due to poor leg conformation many of these trendy stallions are destined for short-lived greatness.”
Then, after temperament and smarts, comes conformation: “I will not breed to club feet, low heels or short, upright pasterns. Conformation of the legs is a major pet peeve.”
Free and correct movement also is significant. “Especially the canter,” he said. “The trot can be developed. Most people want to buy the expensive trot that they can’t sit anyway.”
And, lastly, along with some jumping ability, is some Thoroughbred blood. “I want only stallions with a minimum of one-quarter to one-third Thoroughbred blood. That is where, generally, the good canter and heart come from.”
Type, color and size are last on Borden’s needs list. “I couldn’t care less what is modern or old-fashioned. I think type should be taken off stallion evaluations. I consider it personal taste. I see many judges who like the refined type whereas others like the larger, older-style type. I judge each horse based on his balance overall. Of course, I try to avoid the extremes. I often see soundness issues and roaring problems come with larger horses with exceptionally long necks. And although I love many of the smaller horses, most buyers often believe bigger is better and don’t see the value in the athletic smaller mounts. This is not as much the case in the hunter/jumper world, but sadly I often find with dressage riders: the smaller the rider, the larger the horse they desire.”
Color, he said, should not be an issue when buying or breeding. “Yes, I love dark bays, but I have paint, grey, black and the dreaded chestnut mares. I have them solely based on their talent. I look past color; however, color markings can be a concern. One white leg often appears slightly lame to judges, and crooked blazes often make horses appear not to be straight when viewed from the front.”
Borden also does some specialty breeding. “I breed several just for jumping and others for dressage. But generally I look for an athletic individual that complements my mare. I would love to have an all-around horse, like our Rashka, who won both the jumping and dressage portions of his stallion testing.”
And the mare?
“Pedigree is No. 1,” he said. “Genotype is far more important than phenotype. Too many breeders look at how pretty the mare is and don’t seriously consider at least the last four generations in the pedigree. The mares often will produce more of their pedigree than their phenotype. Years ago, I was at a seminar by Hilda Gurnee who said in her successful breeding program, her stallion at the time loved the ugliest, big-headed mare in the field.”
Borden hopes that one day, his breeding successes will bring him to the Olympics.
“I have sold horses or trained horses that have gone on to different Olympic teams, but now I want one of my own homegrown horses to represent the U.S. in the Olympics and/or the World Championships,” he said.
But whether or not that dream comes true, Borden knows he’s in the right place. “I love riding and showing horses both in-hand and under saddle,” he said. “I do not need to do the Olympics to value my horses or myself. I just need to improve daily to feel good.”