Horst Hackemer: American Champion
Part Two: Stock and Breeding
by Gene Yoes
You may recall that Horst is a third generation pigeon flyer, but nevertheless, after World War II, his own start in the sport was with gift birds from Chicago fanciers. His father, a German soldier, had lost all of his stock in the war.
Horst's first club was the Portage Club. He was the only kid, 14 years old. And he was a full member-no junior member stuff there. Portage flew with the Northwest Concourse.
"Four different concourses made up the city of Chicago. You had the Northwest, Northside, Southside, and the Westside. Within those, there usually was two to three or four clubs. But you could not belong to a club without belonging to the concourse.
"I was fortunate to get very good pigeons from the very start. What really happened early - the first two years of my "pigeoneering," I had odds and ends. And once I got together with George Spannenberg, I got rid of everything, and just had those pigeons.
"I have never had bad pigeons since I was 14 on, because of George Spannenberg. Now, I see new people starting out with culls, and they often get discouraged and, eventually, leave the sport. I never had that frustration."
Horst still speaks reverently about Spannenberg, who no longer flys pigeons. "I don't ever remember a visit to George at his loft when I didn't have a bird in my hand while he talked to me. Any time George won a race, that winner would be the first bird he would hand me, and then most likely, the parents. When we would go to visit another loft, he would always ask to see any outstanding flyer or breeder that fancier owned. Of course, he always handed these birds to me, to look over, too.
"Over the years, I have followed a similar practice with new flyers in my club. I usually hand my 'pick' bird for the week to a new flyer and tell him, 'This is my pick bird,' and have him basket it. I give no explanations, but it does not take too long for a pigeon person to be able to pick birds in condition, when they select their own race entries. This is the quickest way I know to teach condition. Let's face it - good pigeons come in all shapes and sizes."
Horst won his first race the first year he competed, circa 1954. "I was fortunate, because I was flying against very big competition. I always had one good race a year. But never more than one. I just started out with super pigeons from the best in Chicago, and the birds were carrying me. My whole thing in those days was, "Why can't I be consistent like George Spannenberg?"
"I finally figured it out. I think it was a matter of not making basic mistakes. I think everyone goes through a period of thinking that there are secrets, some secret potion, some shortcut. Once you get past that - that it's just taking care of animals in a sensible way - then you're on your way."
Horst still flys those Spannenbergs, but they are now known as Hackspans, because of Horst's special cultivation of the family. "Those were the best pigeons Chicago had to offer," says Hackemer. "They evolved from the old Ghesquiere stock. Ghesquiere was a Belgian janitor in Chicago, who's brother lived in Detroit. That brother's daughter married Paul Veegate. Veegate was 'the importer' of pigeons in those days, and he sent them to Chicago.
"Ghesquiere was a legendary flyer with those pigeons. And Ghesquiere's stock is where Spannenberg's pigeons came from. Ghesquiere sold out, in 1952. In those days the cheapest bird was $40, and they went up to $280 per bird. Everybody wanted to buy Ghesquiere pigeons, but no one could afford to buy a lot of them. They then started to exchange these pigeons."
Ghesquiere did not give pedigrees in those days. George Spannenberg put the pedigrees together. As people died or got out of the game, George Spannenberg was the recipient of many of these pigeons.
"And eventually, in 1977, I got that whole family. For about two years before George Spannenberg sold out, he made sure that I had every important bloodline there was of the birds. When it came time for him to sell out, I bought all the rest of the birds. It happened at a tough time.
"In 1977, I had a fire that destroyed my loft. I lost everything but thirteen pigeons. Luckily, that was at the same time that I had just bought out George Spannenberg. I hadn't moved all the birds here, yet. Only thirteen of my birds survived the fire, and with the 28 left in Chicago, I started building the family, again.
"They won from the 100 to the 500. Our emphasis in those days was the distance. A good pigeon in the 50's was a pigeon that won from the 100 to the 500. The all around bird was the bird that was most sought after. We did not have specialty pigeons in those days."
Note that Horst said, "Back in those days." Does that mean that today he believes in specialty pigeons?
"Absolutely. Today, you're not going to win, in major competition, without specialization. The whole country, today, is going to the middle distance pigeon, because of the young bird emphasis. And the long distance pigeons really can do little on the young bird side. They can not compete at the short and middle distance.
"If you ever want to see the difference in the different types for different distances, go to a track meet and see the kid who runs the hundred yard dashes versus the kid who runs the one or two mile. They're two different individuals physically. You can not have the sprint person be a competitor at the long distance and vice versa. That might be over-broad. It can happen, but it's very rare. Sure, if you have a super athlete, if you have Michael Jordan, it can happen.
"The American families of birds, the old families, have turned out to be long distance pigeons. I have a whole theory on how that happened. I thoroughly believe that we eliminate the short distance pigeon because of our progressive distances. It takes a special pigeon to fly those quick races. So we go to Belgium (for our birds).
"There are countries that have a lot more pigeons than Belgium. You take England, Germany, Holland - they all have large numbers of pigeons. The whole world, however, goes to Belgium to restock. The only thing that Belgium does which is unique is that they fly entire schedules of sprint races and middle distance races and long distance races. They specialize. In other words, a loft does not take a pigeon to all the distances.
"Yet, when we buy those short-distance or middle-distance pigeons, we immediately want to make them long distance pigeons. We want a tougher bird. We don't really give the short distance pigeons much credit.
"I think that's what makes Belgium unique. Why are we going to these little towns in Belgium - they're not any smarter than we are? But we're constantly going back to restock with their short-distance pigeons. That's where the pure speed is.
"But we bring in the speed birds, and then try them for too long a distance and, basically, sort of destroy what we brought in. And we're not the only ones. The Germans do the same thing. The Germans fly the all-around pigeons, like we used to, years ago. The English do the same thing. Every country goes for the total spectrum, except Belgium. And today, I don't think that total spectrum is attainable."
Horst says the reason Americans have a preference for middle-distance pigeons is because they have more speed and also more distance. Referring to one of his current families, Horst notes, "I used to send my Meulemans to the 400s. Now I'm sending them to the 500s. That's the result of selection. Some birds in the family have a little more distance in them than the others. It is up to you to find out which can and can't go further. You start selecting those that can handle it, and you basically evolve a sub-family, refining what is already there.
"But you need to know when to back off. The shorter distance birds can be destroyed by giving them more than they can handle. If you put them into impossible situation a couple of times, then they become just a homer. You take the spirit right out of them. I've seen short distance champs shrivel up after they hit heat and humidity. The Janssen type of bird will plow right into it. If you are not smart enough to see it early, and protect them, they are going to be ruined.
"You will not burn up a long distance pigeon; they can handle it. They don't go as fast, so they don't kill themselves, battling the difficult conditions."
This revelation was the result of many trips to Europe, which began after the 1977 fire. "I went with three people - Ken Wetzel, now in California, Dr. Burt Iannone, from Iowa and Marlon Reid, from Illinois. Everyone was hunting for pigeons.
"My intent was to come back with one pigeon only. I never brought in a lot of pigeons. I would bring one pigeon in four or five years. My pigeons have no reds in them and I went looking for a red pigeon or a red factored bird. My son was getting active in birds, and he liked reds. I was going to spend, what I thought was a lot of money - $1000, for one pigeon. I also went to see how their lofts were built, because I was going to rebuild my loft.
"Of course, I was looking for a real pigeon. By that, I mean a long distance pigeon. I didn't want those wimpy short distance pigeons. Well, instead of a long-distance pigeon, I came home with a Janssen. I was told, over and over again, that Janssens are the thing. Wulfmeyer, in Germany, sold me what was an excellent pigeon, a pigeon I named "The Golden Vos," a real impact pigeon.
"And while I went to buy one pigeon, I came back with 13. They weren't all Janssens, but they were all speed birds. The Janssens stuck. The impact those pigeons made was phenomenal, but you could never do this, in this day and age. It's like when Piet DeWeerd came into this country. He was a good pigeon man, but he made an impact, that was way out of proportion. We were concentrating with the all-around longer distance type pigeon at the time, and Piet brought the sprint pigeon into this country. He came with racehorses when we still had plow horses.
"When they brought in these Belgian sprint pigeons, the impact was immediate. They devastated the competition, and everybody else started doing the same thing. And so, the whole emphasis was taken away from American distance racing, something we were famous for, and fell to the short and middle."
After realizing the impact these imported pigeons could make, Horst began an annual ritual of visiting Europe to bring in new pigeons. "Since 1977, until the present time, I have gone to Europe at least once a year, minimum. And I always come back with birds. It's a disease. It's like a virus. You're always looking for a better pigeon.
"The Meulemans, now are the backbone of my loft. I was the first one to bring them in. What happened is when I was looking for Janssens, every so often, I would run across a pigeon that I really liked, and when I went to buy the bird I'd find out that it wasn't a straight Janssen. But they did have something in common-they were all the same type of cross. They were what would come to be known as Meulemans.
"The Meulemans did not go by the name of Meulemans, originally. They went by Janssen- Van de Bosch or they went by Wouters, because he signed all the pedigrees. Their eye color was different, their body was somewhat different. Meulemans have a lot of unique characteristics in them. So I gave them a try.
"I've run through every bloodline there is in the Meulemans. I had the best Muelemans that ever came to this country, Schoondonker, off the "Golden Couple." I actually had three off the Golden Couple, at one time.
"I bought a Schoondonker hen at the time when she was not laying anymore. I had to have that pigeon. She was so spectacular that I paid a thousand dollars for that pigeon when she was barren.
"Well, when I brought her to this country, she did lay three eggs. I gave her calcium gluconate; it sometimes extends a hen's ability to lay eggs. When I brought her here, she had two good eggs. And it got very hot where I kept her - upstairs in the attic under the roof, so I moved the eggs outside. They were about two days from hatching and the foster pair left them - one of those major mistakes!
"When I came back to Europe the following year, I went to see Karel (Meuleman) and the first thing that he asked me was, 'How is Schoondonker Hen?' I said that she looked beautiful but there were no youngsters, no eggs, and I told him the story. That set up a very good friendship with him. Why? I found out why he wanted the thousand dollars for a pigeon that would not lay eggs? He was convinced that I was buying the pedigree of the hen, so that I would, like so many people, say that I was getting youngsters when in fact there were none. So when I came back, I said, 'Karel, I had two eggs, but I lost them.' He said, 'You're an honest person.' It set up a good relationship with him. So, it was probably well worth the thousand dollars for that.
"With the Meulemans, I began to focus on the pedigreed ones thinking I had to have the best pedigreed ones. I found out that a lot of those were not the best pigeons. They were not the performance birds. I found out that the pedigreed ones aren't the ones we should be looking for.
"Right now, it is very difficult to buy Meulemans because the Meulemans are destroying themselves overseas. They're probably the best pigeon to use as a cross - both to the short distance and to the long distance. However, European lofts are strictly performance and are not perpetuating 'Meulemans.' They are looking for what will make them win today, and that is usually by crossing.
"I was fortunate when I bought my Meulemans, and then I bought a son of the 'Kadet' that turned out to be a very good breeder. I also had a grand son of the "Kadet," which I call "The Captain." His bloodlines are across the country - one of those magic breeders. Then, I had a cock called the "Bonte." Each is a key breeder. Right now, I have a cock called "176 Frill." I sold 12 youngsters off this cock in two years, and 12 different people bred first place winners off those 12 youngsters. When you get that kind of pigeon, then you're set for 10 years.
"I really cultivate these birds. I love breeding pigeons close, which is not the way the world is doing, nowadays."
Why does Horst enjoy inbreeding? "Because I grew up that way. I did this all 20 or 30 years. You bought one new bird into the family every four or five years. There was an American pride, if there is such a thing, that we had families of birds. We developed our own family of pigeons. We didn't use a shotgun approach. That really stuck with me. Even now, every year I consider crossing the family, and every year, I don't.
"When you go to Europe you can see them destroying the Meulemans, because they're crossing constantly. I want to retain a group of pigeons. Unforunately, it's much easier to cross them, than just to inbreed them."
Does it produce the desired results, other than pride for accomplishing something? Horst was asked.
"I think so. I think a purebred animal, a genetically closer bred animal, is more consistent when it comes to breeding. But in the wrong hands, it's disaster. People tell you how to linebreed and inbreed and take the best daughter to the father. It spells disaster because the people who are doing it don't necessarily have the animal sense or the knowledge. They don't race the animals they produce. They try to use it as one shortcut. And it doesn't work-they get trouble. But if done properly, you can have very good results."
"When some fanciers attempt to use the tool of inbreeding, they start with average birds. Their best results, therefore, can only be average.
"The new slogan that is popular now is 'performance.' We are flip-flopping away from the earlier standards of physical features to judge a bird, such as a wide strong back, vent bones that are close together, or perhaps a wide, serrated inner circle in the eye.
"Are we now saying that we knew very little, at best, as we judged birds in previous years? I guess 'performance' is definitely a better standard and whole lot more honest.
"If there is some knowledge in selection and breeding, then it is derived from years of experience and observation. It comes from being successful and also from failing, as attempts are made through trial and error. There is also the factor of "animal sense." But the final judge of all we think we know is the race basket.
"But, perhaps, the number one criteria for the birds a fancier chooses to keep must be that he likes them - that they are pleasing to him for whatever criteria he selects. Only then can they be a relief from the daily stress our way of life puts us under and only then are they a hobby. If that means you like white pigeons then that is what you should keep. If you like show standard birds with nice round heads, than that's what you should have. If inner circles turn you on, then by all means, stock the loft with birds with that kind of eye.
"But when you do so, don't be too critical of your race results. You are trading off what you like for a pure performance based evaluation."
Horst is always experimenting with other strains. He has tried the Jan Aardens, but has few left. "I have some very good Aardens, but I don't like the Aardens. They're very beautiful pigeons, but Aardens are too specialized toward the long distances. That only covers 20% of our races. And if you're going to keep a family of birds in the United States, you want something that can compete as a young bird. You don't necessarily want some that only handle the distance. They're excellent as a cross. They are there to produce the stamina element. A quarter Aarden does wonders."
Nevertheless, Hackemer's Aardens have bred excellent young bird racers. The colony is anchored by "Arnold" and a BC hen NL 85-8577890. Arnold is a grandson of the world-famous Dolle, basketed 17 times, winning 17 prizes in national races. This pair bred the winner of the 1990 Gulfcoast Classic. The very next year, the same pair bred the third place winner in the same race. In 1992, the hen bred the second place winner in the very same event.
Hackemer has also tried Imbrechts. "The problem with the Imbrechts, like so many of the long distance pigeons, is that you have a lot of average ones for the few good ones. There are a lot of 'B' pigeons - and very few 'A' pigeons. Yes, the 'A' pigeons existed, but not in numbers that we want, especially when we fly young birds. Again, I was fortunate. I had one super pair of Imbrechts."
Horst was asked if, when he goes to Europe, is he trying to buy proven breeders, or just trying to buy birds that are off of proven breeders?
"Proven breeders are seldom for sale. The proven breeder that I'm looking for is the super breeder, and it will not be for sale.
"I buy individual birds just as much as anybody. Like the last Mueleman I brought in. I got very excited when there was a Mueleman overseas that was very close bred and had a very good racing record. I paid a premium price to get that pigeon. I paid more than what the bird was worth, but I saw the "Golden Couple" locked into this pigeon five times in the pedigree. The pigeon was the 4th best pigeon of all in Holland at the middle distance. And it won first, against good numbers, like 12,000 birds.
"I'm stacking the deck when I get a closely bred bird like that that flys good. Had that pigeon been a mixture, yes, he could be very good, but I think my percentage is better, going this way. I'd much rather buy a bird like that, than most record pigeons which are a cross or hybrid.
Hackemer's Breeding Program
Horst keeps basically three strains: Janssens, Meulemans and Hackspans (Hackemer Spannenbergs). The Janssens are the speed birds, the Hackspans the distance birds, and the Meulemans do it all, according to Horst, flying more and more in the longer races.
He maintains a huge breeding team because he is one of the few professional pigeon breeders in the country. There are 51 pairs of breeders and 12 "polygamous" cocks. From this stable his own young bird race team starts with about 80 birds, and he normally flys 65.
The polygamous cocks are usually mated, in rotation, to three hens, one at a time. Then the eggs are switched and the next hen is brought in. Therefore, each of the three hens will only lay once a month, maximum.
The standing rule is: "If I decide to make a cock polygamous, and one of the fifty pairs has eggs that match up, they always lose their eggs. Once a cock gets to that status, he basically trumps any other pair in there. I have had a new pair that has raised nothing for two years. It's sad sometimes." The fifty pairs will breed five rounds.
Why polygamous breeding?
"Breeding is where it all starts. And key pigeons are impact pigeons. I'm trying to get more youngsters off my proven breeders by switching their eggs under the experimental or non-proven matings. It gives me an edge over a guy who isn't maximizing his best birds.
"Don't change your super pairs, but after they lay a set of eggs, switch the eggs, let the hen rest and while she is resting, use a new hen. The only way you can identify that he is a potent breeder, is to see if he can breed with more than just that one hen."
How does Horst select his polygamous cocks?
"They have to produce with more than one hen before they ever get into a polygamous mating. If I suspect a cock to be very good, then I start rotating hens in the regular loft, but not more than two, at the most. A cock that doesn't breed anything in two years is gone."
What is a successful offspring?
"I don't judge a pigeon unless it can handle a headwind race. I will never use an easy or tailwind race to judge a pigeon. If you do, you are just kidding yourself. When I tell you a pigeon goes to the 400, it means against a headwind of 15-20 miles per hour."
But Horst is not a male chauvinist pig because he is a polygamous breeder. "I keep all kinds of extra hens. Hens are the key to your breeding program. You must have hens in excellent condition to breed. You cannot breed good racing pigeons, with worn out or sickly hens. The hen has to be absolutely perfect.
"That is why so many people are only breeding from young hens - because they are more likely to be healthy, and have vitality. If a hen is not perfect in health, I will not breed from it. That is a super key to breeding. I do use old hens, but they are only used to breed breeding stock, not racing stock. They are usually bred in June and July."
Horst has other breeding strategies. "I, for instance, fly my pigeons off my new matings, my young matings. The reason that I do this is because I'm looking for my new breeders. That's the only way I'm going to find them. As soon as I establish a pigeon to be a good breeder, meaning that the youngsters have flown well and have bred well for people, I don't take any more youngsters for myself. Because I'm going with their children, I want to find the new ones. That strengthens my breeding loft. Once you get to that level, it's easy. It takes a while to get there.
"If I have an exceptional pair of breeders, or if people have purchased birds from me that turn out to be exceptional, I attempt to duplicate the breeding pair by putting additional brothers and sisters or close relatives together for similar pairs. Over the years this method has worked very well for me!
"To get additional good results, duplicate mate a pair, instead of inbreeding to the pair. If your good pair is a cross of two completely different families, so be it. Try to breed brothers and sisters of the two birds together. if the pair is closely related and produces excellent birds, I like it even better.
"For example, in 1987, I bred two youngsters from a pair of Meulemans, Atlas and Agnes. Half their grandparents were the same. Both youngsters were first combine at 300 miles the same year. I immediately went to Willi van Berendonck, where I purchased Atlas and Agnes, and bought three more birds the same as the hen of the pair, and two birds that were half-brothers to the cock of the pair. Not only did the two new pairs go on to be excellent breeders, but the "176 Frill," a half-brother of Atlas, has turned out to be our most potent Mueleman.
"I always want to eliminate possible undesirable traits from the birds. It became obvious that the 176 Frill was passing on his dominant frill characteristic in his offspring. I knew of six excellent pigeons that he had bred when I sold him to my friend Wally Tienprasid. I learned from a total of 12 people that they have bred first place winners from the Frill's children. Wally mated him to four different hens, over the next four years. Each of those matings produced at least one combine winner. Fortunately, we were able to bring him back home and, he now resides in Wisconsin, again.
"Another brother and sister to Atlas and Agnes produced the 1989 Great Lakes Classic winner for us. We banded the Paterson Air Derby winner for Pete Ciolino, from a sister of the Frill.
"I have done this type of duplicate mating breeding for the past 30 years. Recently, I may have found another very rare breeder. He comes from the loft of Leuris in Holland. I bought the Klak 172 in the summer of his yearling year. he was a son of Oude Klak, the key breeder in the loft. His half-brother, the "55" was the best flyer in the loft, with 14 first and 12 seconds. Klak 172 had been mated to his half-sister, a daughter of Oude Klak. They produced a daughter who became the Champion Hen of the region that fall. This year that champion hen bred a First Provincial and 4th National against 18,000 birds.
"Since this cock has been in our loft, he has produced a total of 6 pigeons, when mated to 5 different hens. Of these 6 pigeons, 4 are first place winners, the 5th one is a fourth place winner in a special race, and the 6th one has bred a first place winner. I consider it somewhat lucky that this summer I was able to acquire his mother, his sister, his half-sister, the mother of the Champion Hen, 3 half-brothers, and 3 nephews. The common denominator in all of these birds is the Oude Klak.
"When birds are this closely related with excellent performance, it's almost a sure thing they will reproduce themselves."
Horst, like the rest of us, is always looking for that diamond in the rough, that super pigeon every one hopes to breed every year. He was asked what he wants to see in a prospective "diamond."
"There is never a perfect pigeon. It is the bird with the least number of flaws. A diamond in the rough is always a joy to find."
What is a diamond in the rough to Horst? "First it has to have excellent muscle. It has to be elastic, it has to be moist. Second the pigeon cannot be heavy. It has to have buoyancy, which is the weight versus the size. Third it has to have a good short forearm. The distance from the armpit to the elbow cannot be long. Fourthly, it is an absolute must that the bird have good feather quality.
"Yes, I like a good looking eye, but I have given up on eyesign. I still like beautiful eyes on pigeons and if you come here, you will see every color eye in my lofts.
"Not too many years ago, at an eyesign show in Rochester Minnesota, the judge made a profound statement to someone wanting to debate his evaluation of a bird. He simply stated, "Because I like this one." At the time I thought this was kind of a cop-out answer, but maybe there was more truth to that statement than I first thought. With my present involvement in breeding pigeons, I do not give eye any special ratings, or follow any set criteria put forth by some of our eyesign theory people.
"That does not mean that I do not heavily rely on the eye as a tool in mating birds. I certainly do not allow a dull or inactive or washed-out eye to get into my breeding program. It goes without saying that I don't want a large pupil. A conscientious breeder will not consider a bird with such obvious flaws.
"I certainly like a strong eye with expression, excellent pigmentation, and often times characteristics that are passed on amongst related pigeons. These are great tools when putting pairs together.
"When people come to visit, they sometimes think they are in "eyesign heaven" at my house. Let's face it, we all like to see nice eyes. If I have a first combine winner and the bird has a green eye to boot, it's kind of like frosting on the cake. I, like most of the pigeon world, feel a real pride of ownership. Is the green eye necessary for the bird to win a first combine? Heck, no! Will a green eye breed a first combine winner? We hope so!
"The big handicap in a pigeon is a wide rump or back. It is a detriment to a pigeon. Every time you see an over pronounced back on a pigeon, you don't have a good pigeon. Nine out of ten times, champion pigeons have a narrow back, and sometimes, you will hear an owner apologize for the fact that the pigeon doesn't have a wider back."
In talking to Horst Hackemer, you realize that he is always striving to learn. Inquiring minds always want to know. And as a retired educator, he is also always willing to share what he has learned. It is one of the legacies he received from George Spannenberg.
For Horst, the joy of the sport is always being able to learn something new - and letting everybody else in on it!