Tips for managing stallions expected to perform in both the breeding shed and the arena
In today’s horse industry, it’s common for the most highly sought-after breeding stallions to also maintain active show careers. Regardless of discipline, owners want to breed their mares to stallions they think will produce promising offspring that will excel in their sport. But, balancing the emotional and physical stress of actively competing with breeding a full book of broodmares can be challenging. In this article we will talk with two sources well-versed in this juggling act.
Stallions are Individuals
Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all program that is going to keep every double-duty stallion mentally and physically sound throughout breeding season. Ben Espy, DVM, Dipl. ACT, a private practitioner based in San Antonio, Texas, who specializes in equine reproduction, says stallion owners have three options during breeding season.
“Some stallions, for both behavior and stamina reasons, need to be removed from the show circuit during breeding season,” he says. “Others seem to have no problem doing both, but might need to stay home during breeding season due to the logistics of being available to be collected and/or breed resident or client mares when they are in heat. And, some can truly make it all work and actively compete throughout breeding season.”
One stallion that successfully handles competing during breeding season is 8-year-old Quarter Horse barrel racer Slick by Design. This black stallion owned by Highpoint Performance Horses out of Pilot Point, Texas, has lifetime earnings of more than $300,000 and has become one of the sport’s leading sires. His trainer and rider, Michele McLeod, says “Slick” has handled his double responsibilities with ease from the beginning, but she advises other stallion owners and trainers to test the waters before jumping in with both feet.
“When we first started collecting Slick we didn’t know how he would handle switching gears back and forth between the breeding barn and the arena,” McLeod says. “So we started small. His breeding manager would collect him in the mornings and then I would take him to a local barrel race or rodeo that evening. We are very fortunate in the fact that Slick really loves to run barrels and hasn’t had any problems maintaining his focus when he is competing during breeding season. But, I don’t think that is going to be the case for every stallion. I think owners and trainers need to have realistic expectations and accept the fact that not every stallion is going to be able to do both simultaneously.”
Espy agrees and says, from a veterinary perspective, there is not a set rule that defines the ideal balance between collection and performance schedules. Like McLeod, he says this must be determined on a stallion-by-stallion basis.
Tips and Considerations
Indeed, a stallion’s balance varies from horse to horse, but Espy and McLeod offer some tips that can benefit any double-duty stallion manager.
Both McLeod and Espy recommend feeding these stallions like performance horses rather than breeding animals.
“If you feed the stallion for performance, his reproductive needs will be met as well,” Espy says. “There are certain ingredients, like omega-3 fatty acids, that can help improve semen parameters, but no specific ingredient will increase fertility better than a well-balanced diet and healthy body condition.”
That said, if you do wish to add any supplement to your stallion’s ration, Espy recommends consulting your veterinarian first. Some supplements and medications frequently used to enhance performance can be detrimental to the stallion’s fertility.
Whether mounting a phantom or breeding via live cover, stallions put all of their weight onto their hind end. Espy says if they have osteoarthritis in their hock and stifle joints—as many performance horses do—the act of breeding can be very painful.
“The first thing I do with a stallion who is not performing in the breeding shed is a thorough lameness exam,” Espy says. “Probably 70-75% of the time I find an underlying pain issue is causing the infertility problem. The majority of the time the pain is in the hocks and/or stifles, and once that problem is resolved, the stallion regains his desire again.”
McLeod says Slick has not had any hind-end soundness issues, but she’s taken careful measures to prevent them from developing.
“Fortunately, between Slick’s routine physical therapy, strict conditioning regimen, and setting the phantom to a height that is comfortable for him, we have not run into any hind-end soreness,” McLeod says. “But we are always on the lookout for it so we can address it quickly should it ever occur.”
Vaccinating stallions at least 60 days prior to breeding season and maintaining vigilant biosecurity measures at the show grounds is critical for keeping double-duty stallions performing in all arenas. But even when owners take these measures, there is always a risk of them catching an infectious upper respiratory disease while on the show circuit. In the summer of 2014, this very thing happened to Slick.
“He ran the fastest time at the Calgary Stampede, and then that evening I noticed he did not finish his grain,” McLeod says. “I immediately took his temperature, and it was very high.”
She was able to get Slick’s fever down with prompt veterinary care before it could adversely affect his breeding.
Espy explains that sperm cells are not available for use until about six weeks after the stallion’s body produces them.
“So if your stallion contracts a high fever, he will most likely lose his appetite, stamina, and libido in the near term, and you might still be dealing with the side effects on his semen quality six weeks from now, which is a good portion of the breeding season,” Espy says.
Fortunately, McLeod’s quick actions meant the stallion’s semen parameters never waned.
All horses, regardless of gender or age, appreciate familiarity and routine. Change is considered one of horses’ biggest stress factors. When stressed, horses release the hormone cortisol. Espy says this “survival” hormone causes the stressed stallion to kick into survival mode, in which reproduction becomes a luxury rather than a necessity.
McLeod says breeding season is not the time to be making any major changes to the stallion’s exercise, management, or feeding routine. In her opinion, providing a consistent routine is one of the most comforting things you can do for a horse, especially a breeding performance stallion.
For example, Slick hauls to a breeding facility the night prior to collection, is collected the following morning, and then brought back to McLeod for training, conditioning, or competition that afternoon. By keeping this routine, Slick knows what is expected of him and, thus, doesn’t experience high stress levels.
“I also think collecting him at a separate facility, away from me, helps him differentiate when he is supposed to be a breeding stallion and when he is supposed to be a barrel horse,” McLeod says. “We are clear with our expectations of him and that helps him understand what he is supposed to do without creating confusion.”
Stallion owners and trainers must keep mare owners and fellow competitors in mind when making and communicating decisions.
Logistically, if you are going to show during breeding season, you must be forthright with the mare owners booked to your stallion. If a double-duty stallion is being collected via artificial insemination and he is away at a show when one of his mares comes into heat, the mare owner needs to be aware that they might have to breed with frozen instead of cooled semen or wait for her next heat cycle to inseminate her.
From a safety perspective, there are certainly some challenges when competing on a stallion. Even very well-mannered horses have the potential to be tempted into situations that could prove dangerous. McLeod always hauls Slick with a friendly gelding so she can keep the gelding between Slick and other horses in the barn, and she keeps any mares she also shows on Regu-Mate (altrenogest) to prevent them from being in heat. She also never leaves him tied to the trailer without supervision just in case another horse were to get loose and come over to him.
“He does not act like a stallion at all and is not an aggressive horse by nature, but I just take precautions to keep him out of tempting situations so that there is never a chance for him, someone, or something else to get hurt,” McLeod says. “That kind of responsibility is necessary if you are going to haul a stallion, especially to an environment like rodeo grounds.”
Proven double-duty stallions are certainly helping better the quality of foals born each year; however, it is not always an easy task to maintain the balancing act this situation creates. It takes a team of knowledgeable individuals—from owners and trainers to breeding managers and the horse’s veterinarian—to decide what plan is going to work best for each individual stallion.