Who’s Your Daddy?

Dec 17, 2012 - 12:21 PM

A quick and dirty guide for making the best breeding decisions.

So you want to breed your mare. Before you introduce your mare to her baby-daddy, there are several important questions to ask.

Should you breed your mare? Is she healthy enough/a good candidate for breeding? What is your purpose in breeding? Is it emotional (You just want to have a “mini-me” in the back yard)? Do you want to breed something for your own use and discipline? Or do you want to sell the foal? And finally, what’s the best stud for your mare?

To Breed Or Not To Breed

When you breed, you can never be 100 percent sure of what you’ll get, whereas with even a weanling, you can see the likely potential. And it’s often more costly to breed than to purchase a young horse already on the ground. Can you afford the risk and the cost to breed and raise a foal? By the time you’ve paid the veterinarian, the breeding fee and cost of the semen, the possible extra maintenance on the mare (Regumate, for example), you still may not have a foal. You may need several attempts to get the mare in foal (more veterinary expense), and mares often lose a pregnancy.

I’m not trying to discourage anyone from breeding as much as to remind them to go into it with open eyes and a clear vision.

The Mare’s The Thing

Even if you can afford the financial risk, you must consider the health of your mare including her age, history and body conditioning. If a mare has a soundness problem, it not only affects her ability to be a riding horse, but also may affect her conception rate as well as the potential athleticism of her foal.

We try to get our mares, even older mares and those with mild lameness issues, fully sound prior to breeding. A lame pregnant mare will suffer increased stress and inflammation, and pain may result in abortion.

Conception can also be more difficult for mares that are too thin or overweight. The ideal body score for breeding is in the 5-7 range.

The common wisdom is that first foals are smaller, as are foals produced near the end of a broodmare’s career. I have found it to be only intermittently the case with our maiden mares, but if you want a large offspring, the chances are better if it’s not the mare’s first foal or one of her last.

Pre-breeding reproduction examinations are a good idea in general, but especially with maiden and older mares since fertility declines greatly with age. Up to the age of 12, according to an article I once read, 25 percent of mares lose their pregnancy, and then that likelihood increases rapidly to 40 percent by the age of 15. Other breeders have told me that it continues to be an additional 5-10 percent increase each year thereafter, although my farm’s numbers, overall, have been lower. All other things being equal, the ideal age for breeding is around 7.

Your reason for breeding your mare will inform your choices. If you’re breeding to replicate your equine BFF, you still want, as Johnny Mercer said, to “accentuate the positive” and “eliminate the negative,” so a thoughtful selection of the stud is in order. Keep in mind, however: The foal is not an exact 50/50 mix of sire and dam. Some stallions and mares are very dominant, both with their good and their bad qualities.

If you’re breeding for your own use, something to train and campaign, or to get a quality that you might not otherwise be able to afford, the right stallion can make a big difference.

If you’re breeding to sell, keep in mind that most adult amateurs (the bulk of horse owners in this country) are looking for a horse that’s already going, one that has some training and potential, and one that has a high degree of rideability, so your investment is more long-term.

Professional breeders seem to be breeding less right now because of the economy, so we need to think about raising the stakes and producing better quality. And we should be breeding for an athlete rather than a specialty freak that no one but an Olympian can ride.

This is as good a time as any for my perennial (and parenthetical) pitch to “Buy/Breed American.” Importing a horse isn’t a guarantee of better quality, nor is importing frozen semen. We have great stallions here. I have too many clients who’ve imported horses, and I’m sad to tell them they could’ve found the same horse here, with better soundness.

Whew, that feels better!

Studly Is As Studly Does

Now that you have a healthy mare, and you know your breeding goals, it’s time for the BIG decision: Who will be the daddy? It basically costs the same to raise an average foal as to raise a great one, so just as with buying a horse to ride, Polonius’ advice—“costly … as thy purse can buy”—is the best: Breed your mare to the best stallion you can afford.

Of course, the best stallion isn’t necessarily the most popular or the flavor of the month; it’s the one who will have the greatest chance of improving your mare’s weaknesses and giving you the potential you desire. Start with an honest evaluation of your mare’s weaknesses/traits that could be improved, e.g., long back, toed out or toed in, too straight hind leg angles, low set neck, etc. Rank each of her gaits with a score, as well as assessing her rideability, temperament and elasticity. For jumpers, evaluate her form, scope, honesty and length of canter stride.

Evaluate potential stallions in the same way. Make a list of pros and cons for each, and if you are very thorough you will list the potential pluses and minuses of each cross.

Looking at the stallion’s get may give you a sense of what he throws. I’ve bred to many great stallions based on what I saw in their offspring out of different mares. It’s more important what the sire produces than what he has done himself.

Nonetheless, I most often assume that the mare is the more important parent. The foal is with her not only through gestation but until weaned, and it often inherits more of the mare’s ability than the sire’s pedigree.

In evaluating the stallion’s pedigree, the first two generations will affect the foal the most. The third and fourth generations are not that important in the amount they will affect the progeny.

Consider all the variables. The best jumper crossed with the best jumper doesn’t always produce the best jumping foal. The same is even truer for dressage. Jumping talent seems to be more hereditary, but no matter what the discipline, all breeding is a major gamble. (The stock market has better odds of success unless your definition of success is simply a live, healthy foal despite its specific athletic potential.)

Full siblings are rarely the same, even when raised by the dam rather than a recipient mare. Look at Donnerhall’s full brother, who few even know existed. He was quite average!

Be Realistic  

Long back with short back doesn’t mean you get a medium back. Breed like to like, but you’d better really like what you already have to begin with. Seventeen hands with 15 hands rarely make 16 hands. It might mean a 17-hand head and back with 15-hand front legs. (I think I’m just kidding, but you never know. That’s the point!)

Of course, if you want increased height, it makes sense to breed to a larger stallion or, more accurately, a stallion whose offspring are large. Keep in mind, however, that larger isn’t necessarily better. Long, uphill necks do help create jumping scope, but many larger horses become klutzy—Baby Hueys who can’t lift or even bend their legs over fences. There’s more evidence of OCDs and breathing issues (such as roaring) with larger equines, and in dressage, those 8-meter circles become harder to balance.

You may be breeding for a specific discipline: dressage, hunter/jumper or eventer. I breed for an athlete, regardless of discipline. Many horses are predisposed to jump or do dressage better, based solely on the pedigree cross, but the genotype is often quite different from the phenotype that presents itself in later years.

The horse should “decide” his or her own career based on temperament and ability. Select their path based on what they show you, not what their parents have done. Experienced parents of human children will be nodding their heads at this point!

Jumping ability, conformation and gait qualities of the stallion should be considered. But note that the correlation between good conformation and jumping ability is often the reverse. That’s especially true with the angles of the front shoulder and the hind legs. A horse with a more upright shoulder angle and sickle hocks can often have good form with their front legs. Straight, even sickle hocks, can often create a tripod effect with more pushing power. Galoubet A, who sired Rodrigo Pessoa’s famous three-time World Cup winner Baloubet du Rouet, had very straight hind legs.

To play the contrarian a bit further, some stallions are very dominant in what they stamp/produce. Go beyond what the stallion owner asserts and evaluate the stallion’s foals yourself. Talk to others who’ve bred to the stallion. Years ago I wanted to breed very early in the season to Art Deco, but his owner advised against it because mares often carried his foals for a full year as opposed to the normal gestation of 11 months 10 days. I was shocked and wondered if she was just trying to get out of letting us breed early, until I heard it from other breeders.

There is no perfect horse, but the better we stallion owners can be with providing accurate information to a mare owner, the better choices they can make in producing quality foals we’ll all want to brag about. But do your due diligence. Some stallion owners will tell you what they think you want to hear.

Although the pedigree and produce record will be the most important part of your stallion selection process, if possible you should see the stallion in person. Videos are a poor substitute as they can be deceptive. We rarely do videos of our stallions anymore. We encourage everyone to come to our farm if possible, see the stallions and even ride them. If you can’t ride a stallion, you (and your clients) will most likely not be able to ride the offspring. Find out what a stallion’s offspring are actually doing in the show ring, and mainly with junior and amateur riders, not just the incredible professionals.

Ride The Horses, Not The Brands

A word about the breed registry of your stallion. If you have a must-have registry, your choice of sires will be more limited. I personally don’t care about registry; I’m breeding for the best foal possible. I’ve been a member of most of the warmblood registries in the United States. I don’t care where the foal will be registered, with the exception of those registries that haven’t approved American-born stallions, or those that favor Thoroughbreds or imported horses.

We ride the horses, not the brands! I wish more people would recognize that most European foals are basically mutts anyway. It’s often where the foal is born that determines the registry in which it’s branded.

I rarely breed the same breeds together. I find the best crosses are a mix of different breeds. I personally like ¼ to Thoroughbred blood, Arabian blood, or a little Trakehner blood mixed with the others to create the ideal warmblood. Line or “closed” breedings create limited choices, and everyone else has already produced them.

Getting Down To Business

Although live cover is still used, especially in the Thoroughbred racing world, artificial insemination with fresh cooled or frozen semen is the norm. “One to two billion total sperm are typically included per dose of cooled semen,” whereas “a typical dose of frozen semen contains 800 to one billion total sperm,” according to a recent Select Breeders Services article, “The Economics of Cooled and Frozen Semen,” by Paul Loomis.

The per-cycle conception rate for cooled semen is generally 60

Pink Balloons Or Blue?

Breeders often want a colt or a filly, and you can try to sex select based on some pretty discrete timing on the breeding of your mare. Because the male sperm swims fast and dies off quickly, and the female sperm keep hanging on, the closer to the time of ovulation the mare is when she’s inseminated, the greater the odds that the result will be a colt. So you see, even at the cellular level, the men are finished when the women are just getting started. My experience has been, however, that this correlation does not work with frozen semen.

percent as compared to a rate of 50 percent for frozen. (But it only takes one good swimmer!) If you’re importing semen, you may not have a choice to use fresh cooled.

Fresh cooled requires everyone working together. I don’t breed to stallions from farms that collect only on certain days of the week or that have a fee for semen analysis. (To me, that should be included in the collection fee.) I believe fresh cooled yields the best results in producing foals.

Frozen semen might seem convenient, and it is in the sense that you can have the semen on hand, but the timing of the breeding must be more precise: within six hours of ovulation (and most mares seem to ovulate late at night). Believe me, I have “heard the chimes at midnight” out in the barn checking mares for ovulation between 12 and 3 a.m. I’ve found little difference with fresh versus frozen semen (assuming the timing is accurate), but I still rarely use frozen on maiden or older, high-risk mares. It usually costs more per breeding given the extra vet checks necessary—three or four times a day.

I still use live cover here and there as it seems to work best for some of our problem or older mares. They seem to need the real thing! Of course, if you don’t have ready access to the stallion this can be impractical.

Cautionary Tales

Ask for fertility data for each stallion you breed. Especially with frozen semen, ask for EVA and CEM results. (Equine viral arteritis and contagious equine metritis are sexually transmitted infections, and EVA can cause abortion in all your mares.)

Studies show that about 5 percent of stallions are infertile, so get as much information as possible about the stallion’s semen quality, collection dates and what, if any, extenders are used.

If the semen quality isn’t good when it arrives, let the breeder know ASAP. If the semen doesn’t work, you can ask the breeder to provide the semen analysis in writing. There should be accountability on both ends, but the reality seems to be that the problem is usually with the mare or the vet’s timing.

Whichever method you use to select the best stallion for your mare, have options ready if that cycle doesn’t work. If a cross doesn’t work once or twice, we’ll rarely try it a third time. Sometimes, for whatever reason, even if the mare is clean and the semen is good, mares and stallions do not “mesh.” So we’ll switch to another stallion and often get the mare in foal on the first try.

Strategic Breeding For Sales

At Little Bit Farm, we take a three-pronged approach to stallion selection. One third of our mares are bred to Olympic or World Champion stallions, mostly for dressage but also for hunter/jumpers and eventing. These crosses are the ones that often draw potential buyers to come look, but they usually aren’t our best foals.

We breed another third of our mares to our own homebred stallions, both proven and as yet un-inspected and unapproved. We know our stallions and their get intimately, and besides, it’s really cheap and convenient. We’re likely to use these stallions with our old or problem mares to mitigate the financial risk and use better quality semen.

It may be controversial to breed to stallions that aren’t yet inspected or approved, but many of the best stallions in the world weren’t originally approved. Many eventual Olympic mounts were not initially passed or recommended by their original registries. The following famous stallions were not approved or recommended at one time: Cor de la Bryere, Don Schufro, Galoubet, Hickstead, Landadel, Libero H, Lingh, Lionidas, Mr. Blue, Ravel, Raymeister, Rubinstein, Sandro, Totilas, and the list goes on.

The final third of our mares are bred with outside, up-and-coming, unproven stallions. These crosses often produce the best surprises, foals that sell quickly and for the most money. I like to take risks. I hate doing what everyone else has done. But I have a high degree of confidence in both dam and sire when I take the risk. (I’ve justly been called a research-aholic.)

Do your research, breed fewer mares to plan for better, more proven produce, and breed for an athlete rather than a specialty freak. You can raise your odds of producing better foals with proven horses, but try to have one that not everyone else can purchase. Set realistic, long-term goals, but remember all breeding is a gamble. It’s not for anyone looking to make a quick and easy profit. The risks are high with equines, and that’s especially true with breeding them.

Oh, yes, and buy American!


Ken Borden Jr. breeds, trains and sells horses for dressage, hunter/jumper sport and eventing. He is a U.S. Dressage Federation Gold Medalist, an “L” judge and an in-demand clinician. The Borden family has owned and operated Little Bit Farm in Wilmington, Ill., since 1990, and horses Ken has owned, trained or shown have gone on to international competition. For the last three years, Little Bit Farm has been the Leading Dressage Breeder in USDF and U.S. Equestrian Federation year-end rankings. Ken has bred eight ISR/Oldenburg stallions and many USDF Horse of the Year winners. www.littlebitfarminc.com.

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