What it takes to breed horses:

Well-bred, ath­letic horses are the back­bone of the equine in­dus­try, but the sac­ri­fices made by the peo­ple who pro­duce them are some­times over­looked.

EQUUS - - Contents - By Sarah Steuck

Well-bred, ath­letic horses are the back­bone of the equine in­dus­try, but the sac­ri­fices made by the peo­ple who pro­duce them are some­times over­looked.

The fo­cus these days on the prob­lem of un­wanted horses has been a net pos­i­tive, help­ing many horses find good homes and rais­ing aware­ness about the toll of ir­re­spon­si­ble breed­ing. But of­ten lost in the dis­cus­sion are the very real con­tri­bu­tions that pro­fes­sional breed­ers make to the horse in­dus­try.

I’ve met many horsepeo­ple who, if they think about horse breed­ers at all, tend to as­sume that we just put a mare and stal­lion to­gether, and 11 months later a healthy foal is born. Of course, the re­al­ity is that very of­ten things hap­pen. The list of what can go wrong ---with the mares, the stal­lions, the preg­nan­cies and the foals---is prac­ti­cally end­less. And there are many costs. Most horsepeo­ple, I find, have no idea how ex­pen­sive it can be to man­age breed­ing mares and stal­lions.

Not that I’m com­plain­ing. My hus­band and I have owned a small breed­ing farm---Sun­set Sands Quar­ter Horses in Mon­tello, Wis­con­sin---for more than 30 years. We spe­cial­ize in all-around Quar­ter Horses who can show in a va­ri­ety of dis­ci­plines. Cur­rently, we own three breed­ing stal­lions and six mares, and in ad­di­tion to the foal­ing ser­vices we of­fer to oth­ers, we raise four to six foals of our own each year. We work hard to find the per­fect fit be­tween our young horses and their new own­ers, and we of­ten con­tinue to re­ceive pos­i­tive feed­back for years after the sale--which means we’ve done our job right. It’s very sat­is­fy­ing to know that our ef­forts have given some­one such joy.

The con­tri­bu­tions made to the horse in­dus­try by ded­i­cated breed­ers---healthy, ath­letic, use­ful horses---are easy to see, but the time and re­sources their op­er­a­tions re­quire is of­ten much less ob­vi­ous. And, truth be told, these things can be dif­fi­cult to quan­tify. That’s why it’s worth con­sid­er­ing the fac­tors that can make or break breed­ing op­er­a­tions---as well as some of the costs in­volved. My hope is that, as you’re en­joy­ing the com­pan­ion­ship of your horse, oc­ca­sion­ally you take a mo­ment to ap­pre­ci­ate the breeder who made your part­ner­ship pos­si­ble.

Here is a brief look at some of the in­vest­ments breed­ers make and the pit­falls they en­counter when pro­duc­ing the next gen­er­a­tion of horses.

Ac­qui­si­tion and man­age­ment of breed­ing stock

The cost of buy­ing high-qual­ity mares and stal­lions varies widely by breed and re­gion of the coun­try, but an ed­u­cated horseper­son can prob­a­bly guess at the in­vest­ment a breeder has

in his stock. For stock horse breeds here in the Mid­west, prices per horse are in the thou­sands or tens of thou­sands of dol­lars. Some breeds are much more ex­pen­sive. With this kind of in­vest­ment, many breed­ers choose to in­sure their stock. Ba­sic in­sur­ance is about 4 per­cent of the value of the horse, so the cost is about $400 per year on a $10,000 horse for a mor­tal­ity pol­icy that does not cover vet­eri­nary expenses.

Keep­ing stal­lions isn’t for ev­ery­one, so some breed­ers choose to own only mares. They se­lect the best out­side stal­lions to cross with their mares each year. Stud fees can range from $500 to $1,500 and up. If a mare goes to a lo­cal stal­lion for breed­ing, add the costs of a min­i­mum of seven days of care plus travel expenses. Us­ing shipped se­men in­cludes the costs of col­lec­tion fees ($150 to $500 for each), at least two to three ul­tra­sounds ($75 each), and a $125 in­sem­i­na­tion charge. If the mare doesn’t be­come preg­nant on the first try, all of this must be re­peated.

Breed­ers who own stal­lions of­ten do on-farm ar­ti­fi­cial breed­ing. One rea­son for this is to max­i­mize the safety of the stal­lion, the mare and the han­dlers. An­other plus is that the stal­lion’s col­lec­tion can be split to in­sem­i­nate mul­ti­ple mares so the num­ber of times se­men needs to be col­lected can be lim­ited and his sperm counts do not be­come de­pleted. Also, ar­ti­fi­cial col­lec­tion is the only way to of­fer shipped se­men. Fi­nally, a rep­utable breeder takes each col­lec­tion and eval­u­ates it un­der a mi­cro­scope so he can tell you the qual­ity and num­ber of sperm. If a mare doesn’t con­ceive, this eval­u­a­tion can help take the stal­lion out of the equa­tion if some­thing is wrong.

Per­form­ing se­men col­lec­tions and ar­ti­fi­cial in­sem­i­na­tions re­quires many ex­pen­sive sup­plies. A phan­tom---the de­vice the stal­lion mounts after be­ing teased by a mare---costs a min­i­mum of $1,500. Add an­other $300 to $500 for the ac­tual col­lec­tion de­vice used with the phan­tom, then add the costs of the mi­cro­scope, in­cu­ba­tor, cen­trifuge, fil­ters, gloves, lube, sy­ringes, pipettes, straws, slides, ship­ping con­tain­ers, and most of all, a spot­less lab to do the work in. Many breed­ers have thou­sands of dol­lars tied up in this equip­ment.

Ba­sic care and feed­ing

Any­one who keeps a horse knows it isn’t cheap---mul­ti­ply the cost of your hay, feed, sup­plies and other bills by the size of a larger breed­ing herd. It might seem like those who have farms large enough to grow their own hay are get­ting away with cheap feed, but they’ve made a huge in­vest­ment in land, equip­ment and time. And they have to hope that it doesn’t rain at the wrong time and they haven’t spent the en­tire sum­mer mak­ing hay they’ll have to sell off to cat­tle farm­ers.

In ad­di­tion to buy­ing hay and other feeds, preg­nant mares and breed­ing stal­lions need vi­ta­min and min­eral sup­ple­ments, all of which adds up to about $1,700 to main­tain one horse per year. And that’s be­fore we add in the de­worm­ing, hoof care, vac­ci­na­tions and the an­nual den­tal ex­ams for each horse. We also need to con­sider ge­netic test­ing for each horse, to elim­i­nate the pos­si­bil­ity of con­gen­i­tal dis­eases, and of­ten ad­di­tional tests for fac­tors such as coat color or pat­tern so that the po­ten­tial client is fully in­formed on what genes the sire or dam might carry.

Breed­ing com­pli­ca­tions

Count­less fac­tors go into pick­ing the right stal­lion for the right mare. A re­spon­si­ble breeder takes the time to research pedi­grees, show or race records, pro­duce records, con­for­ma­tion faults, color patterns, dis­po­si­tions and ge­netic dis­eases. Once a mare has been bred, a breeder in­curs vet­eri­nary bills to con­firm she is in foal with a sin­gle, vi­able em­bryo. Of­ten, mares abort early in preg­nancy so

A re­spon­si­ble breeder re­searches pedi­grees, show or race records, pro­duce records, con­for­ma­tion faults, color patterns, dis­po­si­tions and ge­netic dis­eases.

a fol­low-up re-check or two is needed to en­sure she is in­deed still in foal. If she comes up open, the in­vest­ment is lost.

Some­times a mare will do just fine on her first checks, then at her next exam 45 days later, the preg­nancy is gone. But now she also has flu­ids and in­fec­tion that need to be cleaned up, which can cost a cou­ple hun­dred dol­lars. If this cleanup is suc­cess­ful, you may be able to breed her again. If not, costs could sky­rocket to $1,000 or more just to find out what’s wrong and get her ready for an­other breed­ing.

If we’re lucky, we’ll only miss one or two cy­cles to get her back to a healthy breed­ing state. Of­ten, how­ever, too much time will go by, and breed­ing sea­son is over, so we’ve lost the en­tire year.

So fi­nally a mare is safely in foal, and as the months go by, she gets big­ger and the ex­cite­ment builds as foal­ing time ap­proaches. Then, after only eight months, she starts to show signs that she’s ready to give birth. She’s de­vel­op­ing the dreaded pla­cen­ti­tis, an in­fec­tion that de­vel­ops when bac­te­ria en­ter the re­pro­duc­tive tract. If we’ve caught it early enough, we might be able to get her safely to an ac­cept­able foal­ing date by ad­min­is­ter­ing daily doses of an­tibi­otics and Regu-Mate, a syn­thetic hor­mone. Un­for­tu­nately, pla­cen­ti­tis of­ten goes un­de­tected un­til mares abort at seven to nine months. There goes your en­tire year’s worth of work, along with your hopes and dreams.

Fol­low-up care for foals

Fi­nally, after a 340-day preg­nancy, the foal is born. But the po­ten­tial for pit­falls is far from over. In the decades that I have been breed­ing horses, I have seen a num­ber of dev­as­tat­ing ail­ments in our new­borns: fail­ure of pas­sive trans­fer, sep­ticemia, dummy foal syn­drome, rup­tured blad­ders, pneu­mo­nia…. If we’re lucky, we may be able to pro­vide in­ten­sive care at home. Oth­er­wise, we have to send the mare and foal off to the hos­pi­tal.

New­born foals nat­u­rally have crooked, wob­bly legs---but only for a few hours. Some­times ba­bies are born with flex­u­ral leg de­for­mi­ties or con­tracted ten­dons. In more se­vere cases, the young­ster may need surgery, to the tune of $400 to $1,200, de­pend­ing on what spe­cific pro­ce­dure is used.

Some foals are born with lax ten­dons, which are too loose to fully sup­port their weight. They will quickly de­velop sores from walk­ing on their heels, so they re­quire ban­dages and splints. We will spend count­less hours wash­ing sores, dress­ing, wrap­ping, un­wrap­ping, rewrap­ping, again and again, sev­eral times a day for weeks or even months. This is not a one-per­son job. Your part­ner does the wrap­ping while you hold the lit­tle one down on the stall floor, dream­ing of the day when this will all

I have seen a num­ber of dev­as­tat­ing ail­ments in our new­borns. If we’re lucky, we may be able to pro­vide in­ten­sive care at home.

be worth it and your baby will be able to grow into a happy, healthy horse.

Prob­lems like these are much more than fi­nan­cial set­backs---they take an emo­tional toll, too. Some­times we reach a point where, no mat­ter what we’ve done, it’s time to ask the ques­tion: Is this horse go­ing to lead a healthy life? If the an­swer is “no,” we need to make the gut-wrench­ing de­ci­sion to let him go now vs. al­low­ing him to suf­fer longer. We try to main­tain our com­po­sure as the vet­eri­nar­ian lays the foal to rest near his mother, then we take the baby away from her. We’ll try our best to con­sole her as she con­tin­ues to call for her baby for days. Then, as we’re clean­ing the stall each day, we’ll stare at the floor and re­mem­ber the baby ly­ing there with his head on our lap.

When ev­ery­thing goes right, at the end of the year we have a healthy, grow­ing young horse who will in­cur his own fair share of expenses. We’ll have to pay his regis­tra­tion fees to our breed as­so­ci­a­tion, plus any needed ge­netic disease test­ing. And the baby is now eat­ing his own hay and feed, and he re­quires hoof trims, de­worm­ing, vac­ci­na­tions, etc. We can only hope he re­mains safe and healthy as he grows up.

As­sum­ing ev­ery­thing went by the book with no com­pli­ca­tions, it cost a min­i­mum of $2,000 to $3,000 to bring that baby into the world. Un­for­tu­nately we don’t live in a per­fect world and it’s the breeder who takes on the chal­lenges, the costs, the headaches and the heartaches all to pro­duce the horses we do so love. Once the foal is born, it all starts over again for the breeder. It’s time to get the mare ready for the next breed­ing sea­son, with all its toils, tri­umphs and tears.

So next time you are lucky enough to bring a new horse into your life, please take a mo­ment to ap­pre­ci­ate what some­one has gone through for you to re­al­ize this dream. And if you ever have the op­por­tu­nity, thank a breeder.

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