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Breeding Your Mare This Year?  Read this first!

Reprinted with permission of the International Arabian Horse Association

By Cory Soltau, D.V.M.

Why do people get frustrated, upset and discouraged when they breed or attempt to breed their horses? Because sometimes they have not thought through every step or have not discussed potential grey areas with a stallion owner or veterinarian before the breeding season begins.  After 30 years as a breeder and 23 years as an equine vet, I'd like to share some pointers about this topic.

Work with Mother Nature
The optimal time for impregnating a mare is April, May or June. Why? Because with a gestation period of approximately 11 months and 10 days (that is not exactly scientific, but those numbers work for me) the foal will arrive in March, April or May when fresh grass is up, the weather's warm and the babies have a better chance of survival.

In response to industry/horse show pressure to produce competitive yearlings (a trend which I don't understand or approve of), size and maturity have become paramount. This has forced breeders to breed their mares earlier in the year under not so optimal conditions. To accomplish this, we use artificial light and synchronizing drugs and hormones to achieve earlier breeding dates often in direct opposition to Mother Nature's common sense. When Mother Nature prevails, breeders find they have spent time, energy and money trying to fight her and have become frustrated and disillusioned.

Remember that even with the best management, the equine species has a fertility rate of 68 percent and is not our most fertile domestic animal. Rather than its reproduction capabilities, horses are selected for speed, beauty, function and performance ability.

Where is your mare?
The first thing to take into consideration is whether your mare is at home, in a show barn or at a breeding farm. I think most vets would agree that the secret of breeding success is a good teasing program. If your mare is not being exposed to a stallion, she may go through "silent" estrus showing no outward signs. That may make it a bit more difficult to track her cycles. A stallion's presence will usually stimulate her to show full breakdown where the vulva winks, she raises her tail and urinates. Teasing programs often use a pony or older stallion instead of the one she'll breed to, but a good teasing program is paramount. If she doesn't have that stimulus, you need to consider how to make that available. Otherwise, your vet will have to come out and palpate her to see when she is ready. After you add up the costs of a vet and semen shipping, which can be $1,000 if you've shipped three times, you'll find it's actually cheaper to just keep a mare in a breeding barn for a few months.

Assure her health
I suggest that you have your vet come out and do a swab culture or uterine biopsy on your mare early in the season so you know she's clean with no uterine or vaginal infection. Mares that are 12 or over, or that have had many foals, may require a uterine biopsy so you know that she can carry a foal full-term. There are glands in the uterine lining which interact with the placenta. If there's excessive scarring from trauma or chronic infection, that lining is compromised. The mare may conceive but will probably lose the foal. However, if you're intent on breeding a mare with some degree of uterine scarring, there's still hope with supplemental hormone therapy such as Regumate.

Doing this preliminary work is important because up to 20 percent of the mares I've examined have had an infection, mostly from a fecal contaminant. Arabians are usually well-conformed regarding the anus and vulva, and a mare with a flat croup can still have a good pelvic angle.  Sometimes the vulva is angled outward from vertical so when she passes manure, it trickles down and causes an infection. There is a procedure called the Caslicks operation that sews up the top of the vulva in such a case, but let's just try and breed well-conformed horses! As a judge who is also a veterinarian, when I look at mares, I can't help but look at them from a functional point of view, particularly in breeding/halter classes where conformation should include all conformation.

Consider past medications
If she has been actively showing, has she been on prolonged progesterone therapy, progesterone implants or Regumate? That needs to wash out of her system well in advance, so if you're planning on breeding in March, make sure to stop any therapy in September so her system has time to adapt to a normal cycling mode.

Don't breed during transitional estrus
Most mares go through winter anestrus, the dormancy period when the ovaries take a break and shut down. The mare will not cycle during this period, which is Mother Nature's way of assuring that she's not going to conceive and subsequently give birth at an inopportune time when conditions are not optimal for the foal's survival. This first estrus of the Spring will last for 10 to 12 days, but it is not the estrus you want to breed on. Most breeders will tell you that to breed on this cycle when the hormonal ebbs and tides are coming back into play is often a waste of time. It's best to let her go through that. However, you want to watch when that ends, count 14 to 16 days, then plan on trying to have her impregnated during one of the next several cycles.

Ask the stallion owner
Make sure to contact an owner well in advance because you need to find out what a stallion's availability will be throughout the season. If you're not going to use frozen semen, you may be at the mercy of a stallion's show schedule, so you really need to plan ahead. Ask what his success rate is on both shipped fresh semen and frozen semen because a lot of semen won't freeze well. There's also a range for fresh sperm, with some lasting only 12 hours and your more robust ones still lively at the ripe old age of 72 hours. Be sure to check to see if your vet is comfortable handling frozen semen. If not, you may need to find services through another veterinary facility, stallion station or even a nearby university.

Ask how much advance notice a stallion owner needs. A breeder wants to have as many of his stallion's babies on the ground as possible, but facility management varies. Some collect semen on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Some ship on a first-come, first served basis.  (Neither of these make sense to me by the way.) In a perfect world, the breeding manager will prioritize shipments based on a mare's readiness, not who booked the stallion first. Ideally, you want the sperm waiting when the follicle ruptures and the egg is released into the fallopian tube. Once the egg drops down the tube, there's about a 24-hour window for conception to occur. So if the vet comes out Wednesday and tells you that Sunday is the day, you want semen that's collected Saturday afternoon. Make sure the stallion owner is able to accommodate you. Most of the big stallion stations operate seven days a week from February through July precisely because they want to deliver good customer service and maximize the conception success rate.

If the breeding is unsuccessful
You want to give your mare up to three cycles to conceive. Know ahead if the stallion is going to breed after July. Will there be a re-booking fee for next year? How much? What determines a live foal? If the mare owner, out of stupidity, turns a mare and foal into a pasture with other horses and the foals gets kicked and dies, that's not the stallion owner's fault. If a foal stands and nurses, then dies, is that a live foal? You need to talk about these things beforehand.

As a final note
It's nice to do business with people on your word. Don't be afraid to ask questions. Be sure to ask for SCID-clear certification from a lab. It is criminal to breed two carriers, but totally reasonable to breed to a known carrier if one of the parents is bona fide SCID-clear. Find out if there other heritable defects such as cerebellar hypoplasia, seizure disorders, etc.?

Also, ask if the stallion is Sweepstakes nominated, and find out which category. Only a Nominated Sire, Nominated Mare or Non-Arabian Nominated Sire allows Breeding Entry eligibility, not an Original Entry.

With a little forethought and knowledge about the process, you can have a very successful breeding season.

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