Why breed?

Who doesn't melt when they see the wide, wondering eyes of a fuzzy-headed newborn foal? Who doesn't turn to mush when hearing the first soft nicker? And whose heart doesn't fly as this long-legged, wobbly creature races across the field for the first time?

Foals are adorable creatures; a blessing, and a miracle to behold. But it's not all fun and frolic. Foals are most definitely a big responsibility for the horse owner. When the urge to raise a foal strikes, consider your reasons for wanting to do so, and the sacrifices that will need be necessary in the future, before thinking about breeding. Each year, many foals are brought into the world only to live ill-fated lives by being born into incapable hands or into circumstances which are much less than optimal.

Is it another horse you want for yourself, perhaps for a certain riding discipline? Do you want something that will be years in the making, or one already of riding age? Finding everything you want in a horse is worlds easier than making it. It is a much better bet that what you want already exists, right now. Hoping you will be able to produce what you want may be unrealistic. Remember you will have to care for and nurture this foal until it is of riding age.

If it is your mare that you want to breed, take a good, objective look at her to see if she is a suitable prospect, and if she can serve the purpose of your desired outcome. If you don't like something about your mare, will you want that in your foal? If not, perhaps she shouldn't be bred at all, because chances are good that the foal will be just like its mother.

When considering a mare for breeding, it is best to choose one who has proven her usefulness, and has the temperament, intelligence, and soundness to do her job. She should be reproductively normal, with functioning organs and a properly situated anus and vulva. If the anus tilts forward positioning it above but slightly in front of the vulva, manure will constantly fall onto the vulva increasing the chances of infections. Mares can be sewn up (known as Caslick's surgery) to minimize infection, but this type of conformation is considered a fault. Breeding soundness and conformation are important; in nature, these mares would not conceive, thus eliminating the problem. Look also for a good reproductive history, if there is one, and good mothering ability.

The broodmare should be free from hereditary faults and unsoundness, including any defects in either the jaws or teeth. Good basic bone structure and soundness, conformation, and a healthy genetic background are important. Any shortcomings on the mare's part should be countered by strong features in the stallion. Be selective; teaming up your mare with the neighbor's stallion will most likely not produce a good quality foal.

The broodmare should be free from vices and disease, including venereal disease. Chronic problems or signs of underlying imbalances should be dealt with completely, well before breeding. Adding the burden of childbearing to an already compromised mare is inhumane.

Cleanliness is important, but it is equally as important not to over-disinfect the stallion's penis or the mare's vulva, as it will destroy the beneficial bacteria needed to maintain good genital health. Both mare and stallion must be tolerant of having their genitals washed, and must be well-mannered enough to permit handlers to remain in charge, no matter what.

A mare is never too old to breed, if she is in good health, and as long as she is bred for a foal of a reasonable size. Foaling is easier on younger mares who have more flexible cartilage in the pelvis, however, breeding too young can take away from the normal growth and development of the broodmare. It is best to wait until a mare is at least three years of age before breeding her, so she has her first foal after reaching age four.

Spring and summer are the natural breeding seasons of the horse. The chances of getting a mare in foal are the greatest in May and June. During the fall and winter, mares cease to exhibit signs of reproductive cycling.

Attempts to control the natural cycling of the mares, by artificially lengthening the daylight or using hormones, have proven to be successful in producing earlier foals, though they do not serve the best interests of the animals. Lengthening the daylight hours has an effect on the stallions, too. But increasing the daylight hours may cause mares to undergo erratic cycling, and it also stimulates shedding. Depending on the climate, it may be advisable to supply added nutrition and better shelter.

The estrous cycle

The estrous cycle is the mare's reproductive cycle. It varies in length, intensity, and regularity, depending on the season. The mare cycles continuously throughout the breeding season, with the heat period recurring about every 21 days. The heat period, also referred to as estrus, is the time in the cycle when the mare is fertile, and most receptive to the stallion. It is the most easily recognized phase of the estrous cycle, generally lasting about 6 days.

Telltale signs are urinating small amounts frequently, raising the tail and winking the vulva, teasing of other mares, relaxation of the vulva, and a slight discharge from the vagina. Another indicator is the appearance of the membranes just inside the vulva. Pale pink (the color of a healthy horse's gums) means the mare is not in heat. The closer to ovulation the mare is, the more bright red and flushed the membranes look.

Receptivity to the stallion is the key signal of estrus, or readiness to be bred. Some mares do not show signs of heat until a stallion is around. Being introduced to a stallion, however, can bring most mares into heat within 48 hours. The stretching out and curling upward of the upper lip, or the Flehmen response, by the stallion shows that he is interested, but may not be a true indicator of the readiness of the mare.

Conception rates are highest when the mare is bred one to two days before ovulation (release of the egg from the ovary). A skilled veterinarian can usually predict the time of ovulation by ultrasound, or by rectally palpating the ovary. Otherwise, it's not easy to tell. Ovulation usually occurs 24 to 48 hours before the end of estrus.

Fertilization, when the sperm unites with the egg, takes place in the oviduct, the tubular portion of the reproductive tract. The fertilized egg migrates to the uterus, where it continues to grow for about six weeks, before attaching itself to the wall of the uterus for nourishment. The gestation period, during which the fetus grows and develops, is approximately 340 days, and may vary by as much as a month more or less.

Natural breeding or hand breeding?

Turning mares loose in a large pasture with a stallion may be the ideal way to breed. This natural method is used more in the western states, where a good range stallion will have the sense and experience to know when and how to do it. This method may not be feasible if the stallion needs to service a maximum number of mares or is too valuable to risk injury from a mare's kick. In such cases, hand breeding and artificial insemination are preferred.

Lif and Paul Strand, owners and operators of Strand Enterprises, breeders of Arabian horses in Quemado, New Mexico, share their experience. Users of both hand breeding methods and pasture breeding, the Strands have found pasture breeding to be more successful, by far producing the highest number of pregnancies.

"There are many advantages to pasture breeding, providing the stallion is experienced," Lif explains. "The stallion and the mare pick the optimum time. No palpating and no hand teasing are needed. The stallion, if he's healthy, will breed the mare every 45 minutes or so while she is cooperative, generally 24 hours to several days of breeding depending on how many mares there are to breed," Lif says. "They also lose a lot of weight!"

The mare's cooperativeness coincides with her optimum fertility. If there is more than one mare to breed, generally the stallion can tell which one is closer to ovulation, and will focus on that mare.

"We've had our stallion breed 5 mares at a time. The mares all foaled within 6 weeks of each other, so some may have missed getting pregnant on the first heat. There was a large range of ages, however, 5 years to over 20 years old, which could also account for the 6-week range, but some foaled within 24 hours of each other," Lif says.

"With hand breeding," Lif continues, "there is less likelihood of the stallion and mare getting hurt. However, hand breeding is definitely more risky for the humans involved. The other four stallions we've bred were all hand-bred, because we didn't own them. Also, when you have more than just a few mares to breed, you can get more coverage using hand breeding. Of course, you have to tease each mare individually or palpate them, which takes lots of time and risk; however, you have a better chance of making sure a certain mare gets pregnant on that heat, if you have lots to breed.

"Pasture breeding in an established herd is also very safe," adds Lif. "I definitely would not want to pasture breed horses that were not established herd members (hand breeding is safer for horses that are not established herd members, even for repeat breedings), and I never would put a strange mare into an established herd. We have put our stallion in a good-sized pen with an outside mare to be bred. They were given a couple weeks time in adjacent pens to get to know each other, were kept away from the main herd, and were hand bred twice, before we allowed them to live together.

"Mares have a lot to say about who gets bred and when. Even in our own herds, with mares who have lived together for almost all their lives, when they first start cycling in late winter, the more dominant mares sometimes will not allow the less dominant ones to be bred, even if the dominant ones are not in heat or pregnant. Our mares would certainly attack an outside mare who was put into the herd."

Another interesting consideration is that a stallion might not want to leave a herd he is breeding. Lif explains, "While we were actively endurance racing our stallion, we mostly hand bred, but we would sometimes put the mare in with him (not him into the herd). He had been shown before he was endurance raced, and he was okay with leaving his mares, but not thrilled with it. Some stallions, especially if they are usually in with the herd, might not be so accepting about it. Also, unless they have daily contact and handling, stallions can get aggressive toward humans when they are running with the herd.

"Our stallion is now 21 and infertile," Lif says, "which is not surprising for his bloodlines. He is totally uninterested in breeding. When a young mare is in heat, she pesters him, not understanding (or believing) that he won't do anything! The old mares ignore him. We have a coming 2-year-old son who has been living with a few older mares who won't allow him near them. However, the young mares who have never been bred flirt outrageously. Because he 'came of age' during this past winter, and was just fooling around last year (testicles didn't drop until late fall), until lately he has been running with the full herd (including Dad) learning manners. His father thinks he's just wonderful, and they eat off the same hay pile, however I don't know if that would have been the case while Daddy was still breeding - or if it will stay this way when junior starts!"

Breeding contracts

Written breeding contracts are important to avoid misunderstandings between owners and breeders, and doubts about responsibilities. The contract should include:

  • amount of the stud fee
  • necessary tests for disease
  • conditions such as the number of services (it is routine practice to breed the mare every other day while she is in heat)
  • return to re-breed privileges, or live foal guarantee (definitely worthwhile)
  • boarding charges and responsibilities
  • veterinarian and farrier services (may require shoes to be pulled)
  • financial agreement
  • other pertinent information.

Planning for breeding begins months ahead of time. One must pick a stallion early for booking, arrange finances, and arrange transportation (is your mare taught to load and trailer?) There may be a need to get the mare's weight to a normal or ideal weight (fat mares have lower conception rates). The registration and pedigree papers must be in order, and veterinary exams for reproductive ability or tests for disease may also be required.

Natural Horse Magazine thanks Lif and Paul Strand of Strand Enterprises for their help in preparing this article. The Strands live in the middle of nowhere, New Mexico. They have been endurance racing (three Tevis buckles between them) and breeding Arabian horses for endurance for around 20 years. The Strands' herd has numbered up to 47 horses, and they have stood as many as 4 stallions at stud in one season. Lif and Paul found that by adapting the natural ways of wild horse herds, which Paul, an artist, had spent a number of years observing in Nevada, they have been able to manage their horses alone or with just one helper. The Strands say that happy, relaxed, naturally raised horses are healthy and quick to learn - they make the most dependable and fun horses to ride.

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