HORSES AND HEROES: AFIRE BEY V
On a normal day at Shea Stables in St. Clair, Michigan, you'd have to check and make sure that Afire Bey V is there. Maroon Fire Arabians' powerhouse stallion, a resident of the training and breeding facility since he was a 3-year-old, is so quiet that employees have to see an empty stall to know he's gone. Perhaps he realizes that, as once a day or so, he'll bellow out a masculine call - and then return to peace and quiet.
It's not, however, that he has no idea of who he is. "He's very self-assured," Tim Shea explains, "just not aggressive."
So there's no squalling, no whinnying at mares, no constant bids for attention. Just a calm individual who views his domain like a benevolent monarch. And royalty he is, both in his bloodlines and his accomplishments.
Just the factsAfire Bey V is the #1 Leading Sire of Halter and Performance and Performance for the 12th consecutive year at the US Nationals and for the 11th consecutive year at the Canadian Nationals.
Put in context, Afire Bey V's statistics paint a picture of what you might get if you combined the force of Lasma at its best, back in the old days, with the thorough depth and presence of today's Varian Arabians ... which, of course, is what Afire Bey's pedigree represents: Huckleberry Bey on the topside, with *Bask on the distaff. And not just any version of *Bask, but the dynamic mare Autumn Fire, who during her lifetime was the leading producer of national winners.
Ironically, despite his pedigree and outstanding physical attributes - a commanding 15.1 hands, he offers a refined head, a long, arched neck set on high, lofty tail carriage, and long, straight legs, among other attributes - he was not an instant success in the show ring.
That elusive Lady Luck
"For a horse to be a national champion, no matter how good or how talented he is, Lady Luck has to shine down on him," Tim Shea says with a wry smile. "And for Afire Bey in the show ring, she never did. The breaks didn't go his way."
Tim and Marty Shea took Afire Bey V in training for breeder Sheila Varian when the colt was a late 3-year-old. The following summer, they won the Junior English Pleasure Championship at Region XIII, an indication of his potential. But a minor injury soon afterward sidelined him, and in retrospect, Tim says Afire Bey V was never quite the same after that - although his performance career, which lasted until he was 7, was not inconsequential. Among his titles were the English Pleasure Championship at the Buckeye and a U.S. National
Top Ten in Park.
But in the meantime, clients Dave and Gail Liniger had seen Afire Bey V and were charting another course for him.
"It took about five seconds of looking at him and I absolutely loved him," recalls Liniger. "I'd looked at 75 to 100 stallions over a period of several months. I was looking for a foundation stallion who could do what I wanted to do, and I was very taken with him. When I went up to him, he was very gentle; I felt very comfortable standing side by side, without a halter on him. Here's this stud who had been all puffed up and snorting and carrying on and the next minute I'm standing there with my arms around him, and I thought, 'this is way cool.'"
Liniger had done his homework; one of his primary fascinations in the Arabian breed was pedigree research, and he knew the value of Afire Bey V's ancestors. Within 10 minutes, he and Gail had made an offer on the stallion, who was 4 at the time.
Once Afire Bey V had embarked on a serious breeding career, Lady Luck came out of hiding. And she's been doing encores ever since.
The anatomy of a superstar
Nearly anyone who's followed Afire Bey's career notes that the stallion always has enjoyed a consistent advertising and marketing campaign. As a successful real estate executive (he's the co-founder and chairman of Re/Max International), Dave Liniger knew when to spend money. But he set up their Arabian venture as a business, and he also is very familiar with cutting losses; he candidly admits that if Afire Bey V hadn't shown that he was worth it very quickly, it all would have stopped. But the issue never arose.
"You could have taken a lot of other stallions and done the same promotion," Tim Shea observes, "and you would have gotten a lot of mares. But the bottom line is, they have to produce quality foals."
"There are very few superstar breeding stallions in the industry," Shea reflects. But by the turn of the millennium, Afire Bey V had proven that he was one.
The record is one thing. But what is it in practice? What's most important?
"The thing about Afire Bey V is that so many of his foals make it," Tim says. "The chances of being disappointed with a foal of his are just so small."
"It's the continuity and consistency," Marty elaborates. "Afire Bey has had continuity in his management, and he's been consistent in what he breeds."
"With the first foal, we knew we had something special," Tim recalls. "They had an extreme Huckleberry Bey/*Bask look about them. Their heads and necks were gorgeous, and you could see right away the kind of carriage and motion they would have. There are a lot of sires who sire beautiful babies, but along the trail from zero to three, something happens. Afire Bey's are beautiful when they're young and they're beautiful when they grow up."
In fact, he is an answer for an industry. "For so many years, Lasma tried to find the best way to breed *Bask daughters," Tim says. "History is proving that the best cross was Huckleberry Bey."
Translating talent to training
What is in the pedigree that is so vital? All that performance ability, of course, with a generous dose of beauty (Afire's sire line of Bay-Abi, Bay El Bey and Huckleberry Bey, along with his dam's sire *Bask, were all halter and performance national champions or reserve) - and, crucially, a pleasing blend of temperaments.
"Sometimes the *Bask horses could be a little hot," Marty remembers, "but I think Huckleberry Bey tempered that."
The resulting foals like to work and take direction well, a factor Tim and Marty Shea find important in the stallion's success, and one reason they can be secure in claiming that so many foals progress to useful and often highly-publicized careers.
"As a group, Lady Luck shines down on them," Tim says. "They all train well. They don't break down in training - you don't have to overwork them. They finish, they get to the horse show, they haul good, they eat and sleep well while they're there, and you don't have to school them hard at the show. They go in the ring, they get their prizes, and they go home healthy, ready to go to another horse show. I can't think of any that wouldn't make some kind of a performance horse."
"Everybody's getting along with them," Marty concurs. "That's one of the reasons for our success, that horses are coming from every part of the country." She reaches back into Afire Bey V's bloodlines for an explanation. "It's very much a *Bask and Huckleberry Bey trait - a trait of spirit, almost emotional. Huckleberry Bey was very much that way; he was such a light-hearted horse, happy about things. Sheila didn't have to ride him hard."
And not only have Afire Bey Vs make performance candidates, but many have found success in the halter ranks as well.
"He is one of the few performance sires who can do that. His sire did as well," Tim Shea says. While halter may not have been an initial objective in planning Afire Bey's breeding career, the Sheas and the Linigers are pleased with what apparently has been a simple case of the quality of his bloodlines showing through.
"He enhances the mare," Tim says. "Usually he lengthens the leg, lengthens and heightens the neck, and puts on a high tail carriage. The heads are always as good or better than the mares', and he puts on very nice markings."
The bottom line is that Afire Bey V's breeding record and pedigree offer a mare owner a better idea of what to expect than is normally found in a breeding situation. One reason his ability became apparent relatively quickly (as stud careers go) is that Dave and Gail Liniger purchased mares to support him. Working with Don DeLong, Gordon Potts, Sheila Varian and the Sheas at the time, the Linigers distributed mares across the country, and with the diverse but knowledgeable guidance, gave the stallion the chance to demonstrate his worth from the beginning. That gave outside breeders a clear database with which to evaluate Afire Bey's prepotency at stud.
"So many people look back now and say, 'If only I'd bred to *Bask, or Bay El Bey, or Huckleberry Bey," Tim muses. "Well, Afire Bey V is in good health now."
IXL Noble Express: the next step
For Afire Bey V's connections, the question in recent years has been, where do we go from here? What's the next step in the breeding program? In January 2002, that question was answered with the purchase of MHR Nobility son, IXL Noble Express, out of RY Fire Ghazi, an *El Ghazi daughter from the Le Fire mare RL Rah Fire. The pedigree is a blueprint of performance ability: MHR Nobility was a three-time U.S. National Champion in Park; RY Fire Ghazi a Scottsdale Champion in English Pleasure; El Ghazi was a U.S. National Reserve Champion in English Pleasure; and RL Rah Fire was a U.S. National Reserve Champion in English Pleasure.
Having bred English Pleasure National Champion The Nobelest (MHR Nobility x Bey Aperitif V), Marty and Tim were familiar with the cross of Nobility and Huckleberry Bey - and they had loved his athleticism. They also liked 2001 U.S. National Champion in Park Apollopolooza, another example of the Huckleberry Bey (through his son AA Apollo Bey) and Nobility cross.
In Noble Express, Nobility offered two crosses to the famed Polish stallion Witraz through Celebes and *Bask, while RY Fire Ghazi offered even more *Bask, with the heavy-duty refinement of *Bandos and the champion mare Susecion thrown in. One of the most successful crosses with *Bask in history, Susecion was the dam of U.S. National Champion Mare Fire Music, who was also U.S. National Champion in English Pleasure; U.S. National Champion Mare Bask Melody; and three of *Bask's most successful stallion sons, Le Fire, Cal-O-Bask and Fire Alert.
Noble Express represented an outcross from Huckleberry Bey, while reemphasizing the strong Polish blood farther back in the pedigree. He seemed like a natural for the classy Afire Bey V daughters, and all eight of the Linigers' Afire mares have been scheduled for him this year.
"He's a very pretty horse," Tim says, "without losing any correctness of conformation. He has extraordinary front legs - straight as a stick. His hind leg is unusual for Arabians; it has a low-set hock, way underneath him. He has an extreme shoulder, a beautiful croup, with some angulation for performance, and a high, perfectly straight tail set ... a beautiful neck, very long with an extreme throatlatch ... a beautiful head ... beautiful muscling through the shoulders ..."
"There was no question that the horse was extremely athletic," Dave Liniger agrees. "He is stronger in the hind end than Afire Bey is, but he complements very much the beauty and the grace and the personality of Afire Bey."
A similar personality? Yes, they say. "He has that same component in his personality of being very calm, but when you get on him, he is extremely ambitious and sensitive," says Tim. "Very *Bask-like. And he's very honest and ambitious, like Nobility was."
Dave Liniger is straight to the point. "I won't be around a mean horse. I won't tolerate it. There's hardly a horse I've ever gotten on that can't throw me-I'm not a horseman. I can go backpacking in Alaska, or something like that, and be competent, but I don't show. I'm not that good. The most important aspect of a horse I'm around is 'Is he gentle? Is he safe?'"
He puts the two stallions into perspective. "You can walk Afire Bey to the breeding shed and back without being an experienced horseman. Noble Express has the same characteristics. Out in the ring, he's young, a little bit green, a little skittish and a little afraid, but willing to try. He's a very, very aggressive horse that even though he's green, he' s very willing to put his heart into it and try. But then, the moment you get off of him, a normal person can walk right up to him, put his arm around his neck, and he's gentle as can be.
"Afire Bey V has always thrown off good size, a great neck, and good motion," Liniger concludes. "This horse is a bit more athletic, and has everything else we want."
The package, from the Afire Bey V offspring on the ground now to the next generation, expected from the cross to Noble Express, is an impressive one. And with an annual book of approximately 150 mares, Afire Bey V shows no signs of slowing down. His fertility remains high, a typical feature of Varian-bred stallions, and he ships extremely well. The demand, which has escalated over the years, remains strong. His life, like his breeding career, remains a reliable constant. Quietly, efficiently, he goes about his chores, casually the centerpiece of Shea Stables and the Linigers' Maroon Fire Arabians breeding program.
As the statistics earn his place in the record books, so too does his personality earn his place in the hearts of those who know him.
"The blacksmith says he's a Sunday horse," Tim Shea relates. "When he shoes on Sundays, there are no employees here to help. Afire Bey never has to be held."
"When I started working here, my youngest daughter was about 9 and she rode him," says Betty Gaide, Afire Bey V's caretaker of eight years. "She'd never ridden an English horse in her life. Tim worked with her for a bit in the end of the arena - yes, she sort of took a lesson on Afire Bey - and she was fine. She still comes in and exercises him sometimes."
That temperament is not such a mystery, Sheila Varian says. It's the pedigree, of course, but it's also a result of the way he was raised. "He was raised out, as all of ours are. We breed good temperament, but we allow them to grow up as horses. They don't get confused as to whether they are a person or a horse. They know what they are, they like what they are, and they're not trying to be something they aren't. They're not after you, they're not biting you, because you're not a horse, and they are."
If it begins to sound as if he doesn't care about humans, that's the wrong impression, according to Betty Gaide. "He's a very personable horse; he likes to be groomed, he likes the attention ... He knows who he is and I sometimes think he knows how important he is. He's king and he knows it. When you bring him out of the stall to show to people, you see it. He arches his neck and pricks his ears, and stands himself right up and says, 'I'm great.'"
Given Afire Bey V's success - both as an Arabian sire and as a business entity - it remains for Dave Liniger to describe the sensation of hitting a homerun in the horse industry. "The truth of the matter is, they are not pets to me," he says, "but I do have my favorites. Afire Bey is a magic thing. I can go in his stall, stand there for hours, feed him carrots, turn my back on him and never worry about it ... It's a business, but there are some benefits to the business that are very hard to explain to the person who's looking only at the bottom line."
It's a simple formula - just one that is seldom achieved. Beauty, athletic ability, temperament, trainability, longevity, prepotency ... six elusive components that when they come together, have an incredible allure. Everyone looks for it, and therein lies Afire Bey V's value.
"Breeding is all about percentages," Marty Shea reflects, "and his percentage of quality foals is extraordinary."