Make sure your decision to breed is the right one and that you’re prepared to handle the costs and time commitments involved
You recently retired your long-time partner, an even-keeled barrel horse, at age 15. She’s sound and in good spirits, but owes you nothing more. As you watch her grazing contentedly in her pasture, however, you think, “She sure is a great mare. Maybe I should breed her?”
If her breeding soundness is questionable or you don’t want to spend thousands of dollars, wait several years, and chance ending up with a less-than-desirable foal, perhaps you should pump the brakes.
But if your mare is healthy and has qualities or bloodlines you can’t find elsewhere, then why not? Just know what you’re getting into—both time- and money-wise—and make smart breeding decisions first.
Should I Breed My Mare?
Ah, the question only you can answer!
When counseling clients who are facing this decision, Benjamin Espy, DVM, Dipl. ACT, a private practitioner who specializes in equine reproduction in San Antonio, Texas, tells them to consider four things:
- The industry “Considering the plight of the unwanted horse, what’s going to happen to this horse that you’re making?” he says. “How is it going to pan out if this horse doesn’t end up how you dreamed it?”
- Personal finances and responsibilities Espy reminds owners that they typically need to feed, house, and train a horse for at least five years before even knowing what it’s going to amount to. “You’re talking about making a baby and then waiting three to eight years, depending on the breed, to have a useful animal,” he says. “That’s a lot of accumulated cost.”
- The mare What are you trying to create, and can you achieve that goal by breeding this mare? Consider the mare’s genetics, performance quality, temperament, age, and health.
- The stallion Also consider carefully the stallion you want to breed to, what he brings to the table, and the method of breeding (live cover vs. artificial insemination).
With these factors in mind, the answer to your question might be a simple one. Let’s say your mare was the last foal by a prominent stallion, and you would like to have another horse with his bloodlines. If you have the money and the time to commit to the process, great! But if you find yourself pursuing a foal from this mare just because you like her temperament, whether it’s worth trying to replicate that is a harder question to answer.
Says Ryan Ferris, DVM, Dipl. ACT, an equine reproduction specialist at Summit Equine, in Newberg, Oregon, “The big consideration—and it might be a redundant one—is why are you breeding this mare?”
The Costs Involved
You’ve determined your goals for breeding your mare, and your veterinarian has performed a breeding soundness exam and confirmed she’s a likely candidate for pregnancy. Now what? The following is a basic breakdown of costs from pre-conception to post-foaling.
Establishing a pregnancy “I think one of the things that happens most often when we see new clients that have never bred a mare before is that they just don’t understand the process,” Ferris explains. “With that process there are costs, and those costs can add up.”
Let’s start with the obvious: the stud fee. You have probably already budgeted for this part. But have you decided whether you’re going to use fresh, cooled, or frozen semen, and do you understand the terms of the stallion owner’s contract?
“The owner has to be really deliberate when they sign a contract to breed a stallion,” Espy says. “You have to figure out what’s going to happen if something goes wrong.”
For instance, what are the stipulations of the contract if you’re shipping the mare for live cover, as far as mare care and transportation costs go? What happens if the mare doesn’t conceive after a reasonable number of attempts or if she slips her pregnancy—does that contract carry over to next year? What if semen intended for artificial insemination gets lost in the mail? Is it a live-foal contract or a no-guarantee?
“These are all things first-time breeders would want to know and look at on a contract: What am I being bound to by breeding or buying semen?” Espy adds.
Live cover has become less popular among non-Thoroughbred breeders (only The Jockey Club requires live breeding), due to safety and convenience reasons, but it’s still the most productive method.
“You’re going to take a precipitous drop in fertility when you start breeding with cooled semen (i.e., shipping semen in a refrigerated container to deposit in the mare the next day), and with frozen semen you obviously have an even larger drop in fertility rate because the semen is being frozen and then thawed out again,” Espy says. “That sperm is under a tremendous amount of duress. Frozen semen conception rate is maybe half that of chilled semen.”
And the more times you have to inseminate the mare to achieve a pregnancy, the more money you’re going to spend.
Regardless of whether you send your mare to a veterinary clinic to be bred, or your veterinarian comes to your farm to do the job, it’s typically going to cost anywhere from $300 to more than $600 per estrus cycle, depending on semen type: cooled or frozen (the latter process can be slightly more expensive).
“Not every mare gets pregnant every cycle,” Ferris says. “The average conception rate (with artificial insemination) is 60%, which means it typically takes two to three cycles to get 90% of mares pregnant.”
At that rate you’ve already doubled or tripled your veterinary costs just attempting to get your mare pregnant.
During gestation You’ve crossed one hurdle—conception—off your list, and your veterinarian has confirmed your mare is in foal. You can now maintain your pregnant mare much the same as you would any horse, with the exception of vaccinations and nutrition. Your veterinarian should administer the equine herpesvirus-1 vaccine at five, seven, and nine months of gestation, and the core vaccinations (rabies, tetanus, West Nile virus, and Eastern/Western equine encephalitis) at 10 months in foal.
During the last trimester the mare will need 30% more nutrition. So, says Espy, if you typically feed her 6 lbs of feed twice a day, increase this to 8 lbs twice a day during the last 90 days of gestation.
Your feeding costs might also increase based on where you live. “In areas with poor hay quality, for example,” Ferris says, “you’re going to have to buy more concentrates or a better quality hay” to maintain your mare during late pregnancy.
Just in terms of animal husbandry, you’re still going to spend time mucking stalls, turning out, feeding, buying hay, paying electricity bills for the barn, and more. “That’s all hidden cost that people have to consider,” Espy says.
Foaling and beyond While many mares safely foal unattended in their pastures, remember that any difficulties lasting longer than 15-20 minutes can result in an impaired foal or worse. For this reason many breeders—both first-timers and seasoned—choose to send their mares to a foaling facility for the last month of gestation.
“This is going to have another cost associated with it—probably $300 to $500 for the foaling event plus board,” Ferris says. “Then there’s care of the newborn foal and increased vaccination during its early life.”
And remember that you won’t even put a saddle on most foals’ backs until they’re at least 2 years old. “So really you have a three-year commitment from the time you say, ‘Yes, I want to breed my mare,’ and start that process before you have a rideable prospect.”
To sum it up, let’s say you spend $2,500 on semen, it takes two cycles and $1,600 in vet bills to get the mare pregnant, you spend about $800 a year to feed each horse, maybe $5,000 in training fees, and another $1,000 in incidentals.
“Foals are cute and majestic, but foals will cost you $15,000-20,000 before you even know if they’re an athlete,” Espy says. “If you know the foal will be worth more than $15,000, then great. But if you’re looking for a $5,000 trail horse or kid-friendly horse, then you might want to go buy a 7-year-old gelding that has proven he’s got what it takes.”
Time Commitments Management Considerations
Producing a healthy foal requires more than money and good luck. Breeders must also manage their mares properly—sometimes caring for them in ways that aren’t immediately intuitive.
One common misunderstanding Espy says he encounters is that owners overfeed their pregnant mares. With the exception of the last trimester, “pregnant mares are fed the same as nonpregnant mares,” he says. “I’ve seen people double their mare’s feed for the entire pregnancy. Fast-forward 11 months and you have an obese mare that’s going into labor, which is not a good situation (she might have more trouble foaling due to her lack of fitness). Regardless of the species, having a baby is an athletic event.”
Owners might not realize they can simply feed, water, and house their pregnant mares in the same manner as they do their nonpregnant horses. They can even ride or exercise them through the first half of gestation. And because pregnant mares don’t go into heat, they can share a pasture with geldings without causing a fuss. “People can save a lot of money by just keeping their pregnant mares in the same situation they do their geldings,” Espy notes.
“The last 30 days become much more challenging because the mare is going to have exponential weight gain, and water intake is going to increase significantly,” he continues. “A normal horse might drink 5-12 gallons of water a day, whereas a pregnant mare might need 15-20.”
So if your mare is nearing the end of gestation in the middle of winter, make sure your water heaters are working and buckets are ice-free!
First-time breeders should also be prepared for the mare’s physical changes at the very end of gestation, which can be unsettling to some.
“Mares get a lot of edema (fluid swelling) in their body wall, they start moving around a lot less, just like pregnant humans, their legs will swell, some will be painful, and some will spend a lot more time on the ground trying to find positions that are comfortable,” Espy explains. “All that is pretty unnerving for those who have never seen it before because they think the horse is uncomfortable and, of course, she is. It’s pretty common and normal for any full-term pregnant female to be painful.”
Again, at this point Espy might recommend sending the mare to a foaling facility to ensure she receives 24/7 care and surveillance leading up to foaling. Otherwise you’re saddled with that time-consuming task yourself and might need to invest in foal-watch cameras and/or foaling detection devices, each of which are several-hundred-dollar buys.
“If (the owner is) willing to take on the foaling process on their own, they need to understand it’s a 30-minute event, and the vet might not be available,” Espy adds. Consider how far away your veterinarian might be day or night. If it is more than 10 or 15 minutes, he or she will be of little help during a foaling emergency.
At the end of the day, the choice to breed is yours. A realistic outlook and good preparation can help prevent expensive surprises and disappointment.
“To me, a responsible breeder is someone who thinks, ‘Why am I breeding this mare? Is it going to make a significant impact to me personally or to the equine industry to continue breeding this horse?’ ” Ferris says.
If you do decide to breed, be smart about it: Your veterinarian is your best resource, so communicate with him or her regularly. Stay away from Dr. Google, says Espy, and refer to vetted and approved websites such as aaep.org/horse-owners and TheHorse.com for more information.