Boutique breeders who are leading by example
The phrase “backyard breeder” often carries a negative connotation. Horsemen originally coined the expression to describe the informal breeding practices that were standard decades ago. One horse owner had a mare, and maybe the neighbor had a stallion. They bred the two and produced a foal with no set plan or purpose for that horse.
Over time, the phrase evolved to inaccurately encompass small-scale breeders that only breed a handful of mares each year. In actuality, many of these breeders have some of the most sophisticated programs because they focus on quality over quantity. Their breedings are planned events, with the resulting foals meeting an industry need.
Today’s economic conditions make horse ownership more difficult than it once was, curbing some of the lax breeding practices of the past. San Antonio, Texas-based equine reproduction specialist Benjamin Espy, DVM, Dipl. ACT, estimates that it costs between $15,000 and $20,000 to breed and raise a foal to performance age. That includes breeding fees and veterinarian, farrier, feed, and training expenses. When individuals new to breeding ask for his guidance, he encourages them to consider whether the resulting foal will be worth their investment.
“Many people don’t realize the investment it takes to get a mare pregnant, deliver a foal, and raise the young horse to performance age,” he says. “The reality is that you can buy a really, really nice horse that is already trained for less than that.”
When new clients ask Ryan Ferris, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACT, owner of Summit Equine, in Newberg, Oregon, about reproduction services, he asks them about their intended use for the ensuing foal.
“Most of my clients have bred a horse before and understand the responsibility of owning a horse,” he says. “If they are a novice, I ask them if they are going to raise the foal for their own show career or riding enjoyment, or if they are planning on selling it.”
If the client plans to sell the foal, he encourages them to research the going price for horses with similar futures. Searching sales ads for horses in the same competitive discipline with comparable lineages can offer a reasonable estimate for what that foal could bring.
“I want the client to have a positive experience with breeding, and this is a part of the planning process,” he says.
Although it’s often less expensive to buy than to breed, the industry needs breeders to produce quality foals for buyers. So established breeders must consider each foal’s future, too.
“We never breed more horses than we are willing to support for their entire lifetime, if need be,” says Tricia Veley, who owns First Flight Farm, a 40-acre facility in Boerne, Texas, where she specializes in breeding quality dressage and hunter/jumper prospects. She typically breeds 10 to 12 mares a year and also provides foaling services for other breeders’ mares.
“We don’t fire-sale or bargain-price our horses; that’s when horses become unwanted,” she says. “They are all fairly priced, and we’ll hold onto them and invest in their training until we find the right buyer.”
Other small-scale breeders are raising foals for their own performance program because breeding a mare and raising her foal offers an opportunity to replicate a prized competitive partner’s traits. And it allows riders to be involved in every step of a young horse’s development and training.
That’s why Amberleigh Moore, of Keizer, Oregon, has been breeding a handful of mares for her barrel racing program for the past 20 years.
“When you’ve created, raised, and trained a foal, you know what you’re getting, and you’re not inheriting someone else’s problems,” says the two-time National Finals Rodeo qualifier, who has won more than $750,000 with her current mount CP Dark Moon, aka “Paige.”
Moore and Veley are just two examples of small-scale breeders doing things right. In this article they and their veterinarians will share the secrets to successful small breeding programs.
Breeding two horses was once based largely on geographical convenience. Frozen semen, cooled semen, and now embryo transfers have made top-notch bloodlines more accessible to breeders besides those in the Thoroughbred racing industry (who must breed via live cover).
With such ease of access to semen, matchmaking is based as much on balancing a horse’s strengths and weaknesses as it is picking bloodlines. When Moore selects a stallion, she looks for one that complements her mare.
“I have one mare that is smaller, so for her I’ve picked a stud that has a little bit more bone structure and muscle,” she says.
When Veley plans breedings for an upcoming season, she looks at the offspring from the previous seasons and determines whether she wants to improve on any of their attributes. In some cases she’ll repeat the same cross.
“I stay away from flash-in-the-pan trendy younger stallions,” she says. “When I use younger stallions I’ll look at what their sires and dams have done. It’s always important to remember that even a great stallion is not going to fix a not-so-great mare.”
Technically speaking, the mare and the stallion each contribute 50% of their DNA. However, Ferris says, in his opinion the mare impacts the foal’s build, structure, and trainability more than the stallion does.
“I often suggest that if a client wants to produce top-level foals that they start with top-level mares,” he says. “It’s nearly impossible to get a top-level foal from a low-level mare.”
If the mare “doesn’t have the nicest personality, if she pins her ears and kicks out when you approach, she teaches the foal that,” Veley says. “We break the bank buying the absolute best mares we can.”
The Breeding Process
Breeding a mare is not as easy as leaving it to the birds and the bees. While shipped semen has made stallions more accessible, it’s a tricky process with no guarantee of conception. Espy estimates a 65-80% pregnancy rate with cooled semen and a 35-50% chance with frozen (and thawed) semen.
If the mare doesn’t take the first time, rebreeding can get expensive. “It costs about $900 to put frozen semen in the mare, and she may not catch that cycle,” he says. “Then it’s $900 for a second cycle, and she may not catch then, either. So they have $1,800 into a breeding and no pregnancy.”
By comparison, he says, it typically costs half as much to breed a mare with cooled semen.
So when mare owners pick a stallion, Ferris encourages them to look for one with good-quality semen. That involves asking pointed questions, such as how many mares the stud bred the previous season, how many of those mares are currently pregnant, and how many insemination attempts it took to establish each pregnancy.
The timing of breeding is a big factor, as well, and can vary based on breed and region, says Ferris. For example, Quarter Horse breeders often desire early foals (born January through April), while Warmblood breeders might want foals they can present at fall inspections (born May through July). Timing also shifts dramatically depending on weather, environment, and facilities. A mare can easily foal in March in California, but in Ferris’ home state of Oregon, that time of year will be rainy and muddy, and in Colorado it could be cold and snowy. Breeders in these locales often prefer summer foalings.
Mares are naturally most fertile from March through June under natural conditions. So if you are aiming for an earlier foal (e.g., for Western futurities or Thoroughbred racing), you’ll need to adjust the mare’s cycle accordingly. You might need to put her under artificial lights in November or December of the prior year so she can be bred in January or February.
“The best advice I can offer any breeder is (to have) patience,” Moore says. “It’s not an easy process.”
She’s been trying to flush embryos for transfer from Paige for four years, with no luck. This year, under Ferris’ care, Paige has produced three embryos. Moore attributes the success to reframing the way she manages the mare.
“My schedule fits her schedule,” she says. “If that means I have to drive her to his practice every day for a week (for ultrasounds to determine where she is in her cycle so they can order semen and inseminate her), that’s what I do. She’s also had some downtime this year due to another injury, and having a little bit of rest and time to get a little fat may have also helped,” in line with study findings showing that mares in higher body condition typically conceive and carry pregnancies more easily.
Building Your Team
Large-scale breeding farms are successful, in part, because they have a team to help with each step of the process. That includes not only the breeding but also the wellness exams, vaccinations, deworming, and foaling. Ferris stresses the importance of assembling a team 330 days in advance of your foal’s arrival.
That team could be limited to one veterinarian who assists with every step of the process or include several who communicate with each other and the owner. Veley says the team can even include businesses such as hers. If an owner isn’t prepared to handle foaling, boarding the mare at a barn under the care of someone well-versed in it might be the best option.
“It’s important to know where a foaling facility is and how much it will cost,” she says. “In case you panic last-minute or have a problem, you know where to get help.”
While Veley charges $700 a month for foaling services, fees vary based on the region, length of stay, services rendered, mare value, quality of the facility, extent of technology available (e.g., foaling monitors, night vision surveillance cameras, etc.), and skill of the personnel.
When owners ship mares to these facilities varies dramatically, depending on how far away they live. If the facility is within an hour’s drive, says Ferris, the owner can transport the mare there a few days to a week prior to foaling. If the mare is going to be transported long-distance, she should ship several weeks to a month in advance.
Veley asks mare owners to provide the mare’s breeding history because mares tend to follow a foaling pattern. Without that history it’s difficult to estimate an arrival date.
“We recommend that the mare comes to us around Day 310, or at least 30 days before her expected foaling date,” she says. “The mare and foal stay until the vet has checked them and given them clearance to travel. This is usually within the first week after foaling, unless there are complications with the mare or the foal that require more monitoring or treatment as per the vet.”
There’s an old saying: If you have livestock, you also have deadstock. Breeding and, subsequently, foaling can bring the most joy and at the same time the most heartache, regardless of how immaculate your care is each step of the way. This year alone, Veley lost three horses: a 4-year-old stud, a broodmare, and a foal.
“It happens to everybody, and the business can be absolutely brutal,” she says. However, “it’s where my heart is, and I absolutely love the breeding business.”
“Life is a gift, not a promise,” Moore adds. “You’re making a life every time you breed, and it can have its ups and downs.”