Investing in the Future: Responsible BreedingJanuary 25, 2021
Breeding a horse is an exciting adventure, and many horse owners may dream of raising their own sporthorse prospect or of establishing a small breeding program. But breeding also requires significant time, financial, and emotional investments. As a result, it’s not a decision to take lightly. Responsible breeding can help ensure a foal’s successful future, but any breeder needs to be prepared for the work that comes with the decision to breed.
Meghan deGaray, the breeding manager at Iron Spring Farm in Coatesville, Penn., encourages mare owners to take a careful look at a mare’s suitability before deciding to breed her. “Take conformation photos of your mare and look for her faults,” suggests deGaray. “Will her faults cause unsound offspring? If you are unsure, get your veterinarian, or someone knowledgeable about conformation, to look at your mare in person or via photos and videos.”
DeGaray also suggests that owners have their mares inspected by a breed registry prior to breeding so they have a linear score sheet to work with. “The inspection gives you professional feedback from an unbiased source who has evaluated a lot of horses’ conformation and movement,” she explains. “Linear score sheets are a really important tool.”
Breeders should also start with a mare who has the physical and mental characteristics that they want to reproduce in a foal. Susan Worthington, a breeder for 60 years and owner of Rainbow Equus Meadows in Lincoln, Cali., explains that a breeder should choose a mare with good character, since the foal will be learning from the mare. “If your mare is out in the pasture and she sees you and nickers and trots over, the foal will learn that,” Worthington explains. “If you have a mare with a bad attitude and she walks away, she’s teaching that to the foal.”
A mare also needs to be athletically suited to the foal’s desired discipline. “Be happy with a mare’s looks and her type, but also look for a mare with the athletic ability that you want your foal to have,” says Worthington. DeGaray encourages breeders to look for a mare or a mare line that has performed at, or has produced upper-level offspring. If a breeder is considering a young mare, look for competition horses in that mare’s bloodlines. “Winning sport bloodlines produce winning sport bloodlines,” she says.
DeGaray recommends investing in a breeding soundness exam and uterine culture for the mare before making the decision to breed. “Talk to your veterinarian about the process and logistics of having your mare checked to determine when she will be ready to be bred and how to order semen on time,” she suggests. “Some breeds have genetic problems that can be tested for before breeding. In Friesians, we test for dwarfism and hydrocephalus. We test our warmbloods for Warmblood Fragile Foal Syndrome. You can do your research and any testing ahead of time so you don’t breed a carrier to a carrier.”
Choosing an appropriate stallion requires the same level of attention to detail. Breeders should look at a stallion’s offspring and consider the type of horse that the stallion tends to produce. DeGaray encourages clients to consider whether a stallion sires foals that are suitable for amateurs or professionals, and whether the offspring are sound. “Even if you’re breeding a horse for yourself, consider the salability of his offspring,” she advises.
Worthington notes that reviewing the inspections that a stallion’s foals have had can provide insight into the qualities a stallion tends to pass on to his offspring. “One of the reasons I chose my stallions was because most of them had successful breeding or performance careers,” says Worthington. “Relevantus won the 2008 Beijing Olympics with the Mexican team. When you can offer people that type of gene pool, they’re more apt to get a successful performance foal.”
A stallion also needs to be well-paired with the mare. Worthington often asks mare owners to send her conformation photos of the mares so she can help identify a stallion that will best improve on any of the mare’s conformational faults. “If a mare is long-backed, you want to go with a short-backed stallion to help correct that. If a mare is long-necked, then look for a shorter-necked stallion,” she explains.
While plenty of planning goes into the breeding, planning for the foaling and the foal’s care and safety afterward are equally as important. Worthington urges breeders to make sure that they have a place where they can safely foal out and then care for the foal. “To reduce risks and have a proper birthing, you need to have a continuous, 24-hour watch,” she says. “You might have a foal born that can’t get out of the amniotic sac, or a red bag delivery. Making sure that a birth goes smoothly takes dedication.”
Worthington recommends having three people on hand for any birth. “I like to assist with the birth, and it’s necessary to have someone in the stall to hand me towels and enemas, and a third person there to help with anything that might be needed,” she explains.
The facility will also need to have proper pasture and fencing for foals. Worthington advocates raising foals with plenty of access to pastures and space to run. “I like to do it as close to nature as possible,” she says. Regardless of whether a foal is raised at its owner’s barn or the mare is boarded out at a facility while the foal is young, it’s essential that the facility have safe pastures with fencing that is appropriate for young foals.
DeGaray recommends that a mare owner evaluate whether they’re able to safely handle a young horse. “You may need a professional young horse trainer to work with your foal, so it’s good to gather recommendations,” she says. “Belonging to your breed organization and attending keurings and other events is a great way to meet knowledgeable people and get referrals to appropriate professionals.”
Anyone considering starting a breeding program will need to be prepared for the behind-the-scenes work that goes into a successful operation. “We’ve been breeding sporthorses for 45 years and are continually learning,” says deGaray. She highlights the importance of a consistent, high-quality sporthorse management program that includes a nutrition plan individualized to each horse and preventive health care. “As part of our preventive health care, we do radiographs of all of our stallions, mares, and young sporthorses to make sure they are free from OCD lesions.”
A breeder will need to invest plenty of time into handling and training foals and young horses. “I’m in with new foals their whole first day,” says Worthington. She uses handmade soft halters of elastic and Velcro to expose the foals to new things. “When the foals are two days old, I’ll walk into the stall with clippers running, let the foal see and feel them, and then walk out. My goal is to get them comfortable seeing and hearing things.”
DeGaray also focuses on exposing young horses to situations to prepare them for their futures. “We have a daily handling and training program in place so that the youngsters will have exposure to a variety of situations and develop life experience before they go to shows or to new owners,” she says.
That preparation is also important for breed inspections. Worthington recommends that a breeder identify where their nearest applicable breed inspections are and find out the dates of the inspections so they can appropriately prepare the foal. Work with the goal of having the foal walk and lead beside you. “These inspections give you a score that won’t necessarily affect your foal’s career, but that’s more of a courtesy score. Hanoverian inspections have a high-scoring foal, which is exciting,” she notes. “When your foal is a year, you can attend Hanoverian futurities for yearlings and two-year-olds. The more you can expose your foals, the better horses they’ll be.”
It’s important for a breeder to understand the financial investment that breeding a single mare can require. “In most cases, the stud fee is the least of your expenses,” says deGaray. “You have to consider vet bills and shipping for the semen as part of your initial outlay. Down the road you’re doubling your board and feed, veterinary expenses, and more. That all said, it’s pretty exciting to experience a foal being born and watch him or her develop.”
Even if an owner plans on breeding just one mare per year, a tremendous amount of work goes into the process. “Breeding has to be your life,” says Worthington. “It took dedication when my night watch called me at 2:00 a.m. I had two kids and I excitedly ran out to the barn with the kids, then still had to be up to make lunches and get the kids to school. You live and breathe it.”
But that dedication can also pay off. Done responsibly, breeding a horse can be a life-changing experience, but you also need to be fully invested in the process. “Don’t do it as a job – do it as a passion,” says Worthington. “It becomes your life. It is one of the most rewarding and fulfilling experiences. Then once you have a few babies, it’s a full-time job to raise them to maturity. You have to love it.”
Sidebar: Investing in Your Foal’s Future
A breeder’s responsibility doesn’t end once the foal is born. Instead, it’s essential to continue to invest in that foal to ensure it has a promising and safe future.
The economic strain resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic is one example of how quickly a horse owner’s situation may change, prompting them to have to sell a horse. It also highlights how important it is for a horse owner to only breed a mare when they’re certain they can financially support the mare and foal both during the pregnancy and after the foal is born.
There are many ways to invest in a foal’s future and to raise a foal to have value, increasing its chances of being well-cared for and sought after during its life. Breeding a well-matched and quality mare and stallion, registering the foal and attending breed inspections, and training the foal to be well-mannered in hand and under saddle can all become the foundation to a promising future.
But a breeder can take all of the necessary steps to raise a foal that has resale value only to have injuries or other career-ending issues still occur while the foal is still in the breeder’s possession or after it has been sold. A breeder will need to financially plan for those situations. Being able to always welcome home foals even years after they have been sold can help to ensure their safety, especially during difficult economic times.
By Paige Cerulli