Restraint Techniques for Breeding
When a mare and a stallion meet, love might be in the air...but there's the potential for danger, too. Particularly when humans get in the middle of it all. In our efforts to orchestrate the best possible combinations of conformation, temperament, and talent, we long ago became involved in the process of equine matchmaking--and in doing so, we put ourselves on the front lines of the stormy process of breeding. As a result, every breeding manager must make safety a first priority for all the parties involved--the handlers', the stallion, and the mare.
Stallions can be formidable, especially when in the presence of an ovulating mare; their aggressive behavior is a risk factor in itself. And while a mare in season is generally in a receptive mood, that doesn't mean she is not capable of aiming a good kick in her suitor's direction--or her handlers'. If you are breeding by live cover, it's important to understand the risks, and to take appropriate action to make breeding as safe a process as possible. The use of a few judicious restraint techniques can go a long way toward ensuring that safety.
Advice From The Pros
Advice on breeding horses by live cover can come from no better place than the Thoroughbred industry, where, because of The Jockey Club regulations, artificial insemination of any kind is not permitted. Many Thoroughbred operations stand several stallions and see hundreds of mares bred every year, so their stallion managers are experts in reducing the risk.
Bernard McCormick, long-time general manager at Windfields Farm, once one of Canada's premier racing stables and breeding operations (and producer of the legendary Northern Dancer, among others), says that even at his farm's currently downscaled status, after the death of owner Charles Taylor earlier this year, six stallions still call Windfields home. It's safe to say that his staff has the breeding shed routine down to a science.
"The routine is key when you're handling stallions," he says. "We've had the same stallion manager for 25 years. And we try to have the same staff handling the same horses throughout the season. An experienced crew can make the whole process practically trouble-free.
"Most in-season mares, " McCormick continues, "are pretty cooperative, but the priority in the breeding shed is always to do things safely. We have to factor in the safety of the people and the stallion, as well as the mare. One of the most important things we do is have two handlers at the mare's head, one on either side. Between them, they can curtail any sideways movement and keep her straight; the person on the right is critical for this.
"Usually, we let (the mare) look a little to the left so that she can see the stallion and anticipate him. But a twitch on her lip helps keep her attention on her handlers a little, and we'll also put a chain over her nose as a rule. I generally don't use lip chains, as I find most mares react to them by throwing their heads up and backing up, which is not what you want."
If a mare is particularly nervous or uncooperative, McCormick says that it's crucial to keep her close to the wall so that she can't jump forward (on top of her handlers).
"A breeding shed shouldn't be a crowded, small place," he adds. "There has to be room for four to five people to maneuver. We've equipped ours with vulcanized rubber mats, as well, to give the horses good, non-slip footing, which is really important. Some farms use shavings or tanbark, but we find the mats work very well, and clean up quickly."
McCormick says that his farm has never considered breeding hobbles to be useful (which restrict the motion of a mare's back legs and make it difficult for her to kick).
"I find that hobbles introduce a level of restriction that can cause serious injury to the mare."
Instead, he advocates the use of a leather leg strap, which is placed around the mare's left front leg to hold her foot off the ground (a doubled stirrup leather can be used in a pinch). Once the stallion has moved to mount the mare, the leg strap is released so that the mare can bear weight on that leg and support the weight of the stallion.
"It's in that moment when the stallion is mounting that some mares may get the notion to kick; once we're past that, we release her leg."
Dan Hall, farm manager of Frank Stronach's Adena Springs Farm in Kentucky, also finds a leg strap a useful restraint for the mares he handles. Often, he notes, it can be removed once the stallion has entered the shed and the mare's reaction has been gauged to be favorable. But, he adds that if he is dealing with a really tough mare, he might even keep the leg strap on while breeding takes place.
"I don't do that often, but if worst comes to worst, the mare can still stand up with the strap on. If she's really a lot of trouble, though, she's probably not ready to be bred. We have sent the odd mare home without breeding her."
Like McCormick, Hall feels breeding hobbles can do more harm than good.
"I know some farms that do use them, but I don't. I find that mares may fight the hobbles--even if they're introduced to them beforehand--and become a danger to themselves and their handlers. I certainly don't think they should be used routinely."
Instead, Adena Springs occasionally makes use of an injectable tranquilizer for the mare.
"If we haven't been successful with the twitch and the leg strap, we may sometimes tranquilize," says Hall. "Tranquilizing can be a great asset in certain circumstances, though of course, it doesn't always work, either!" (Before considering the use of a tranquilizer or sedative for the purpose of getting your mare bred, seek the advice of your veterinarian.)
When the Windfields staff is faced with a mare which has a reputation as a kicker, they sometimes will take measures to protect their stallion by outfitting the mare with kicking boots, which are thick, felt-lined leather boots that buckle over the hind hooves and somewhat resemble boxing gloves, according to McCormick. The idea is to soften the blow if the mare should kick, and the boots do a good job, although McCormick remarks that they occasionally distract the mare from the job at hand, making her more unpredictable to handle.
"We don't use them routinely if we know the mare. Apart from anything else, they're a bit risky for the handlers to put on and take off. But if we have a really tough mare, we'll put them on. I find it helpful to have her wear them beforehand and get accustomed to the feel; then she usually doesn't object as much."
It goes without saying that under most circumstances, broodmares should be barefoot behind to minimize the risk to the stallion if she should land a blow despite all precautions.
Distractions that upset the mare can boost the risk quotient considerably. The breeding shed is no place for a foal, for example, because if the mare has a foal at foot, she might be more concerned with calling for the offspring from which she is separated than with the stallion approaching her. At most Kentucky farms, including Adena Springs, foals are routinely left at home (out of earshot) when the mare is bred, but the Windfields approach is to provide a babysitter (usually an older mare or gelding) for the foal while his mother is led to the shed.
"Once the mare sees the stallion, she is usually fine," says McCormick.
Maiden mares, because they have no experience in the breeding shed and don't know what to expect, might be confused and thus cause more problems. Both McCormick and Hall feel that it is important for such a mare to be introduced to a teaser stallion, who should be allowed to mount (but not cover) the maiden mare before her first real session in the breeding shed.
"It is our farm policy," says Hall, "that she has been jumped by a teaser at least once before she comes to be bred--though we're not always sure the owner has taken care of that!"
It's also helpful, according to McCormick, to let mares, especially maidens, have a few minutes to meet the stallion to which they're about to be bred over a teasing board, prior to their "appointment" in the breeding shed.
"We let them have a few quiet moments--it does seem to make a difference in the shed. And it lets you know what sort of behavior to expect from each of them."
Restraint options for a stallion are limited, since he must be able to move unrestricted in order to mount and breed mares. In addition, many farms feel that a stallion's aggressive tendencies should not be discouraged too actively, since they are part of what makes him a good breeder. But Pat Meyers, DVM, whose Guelph, Ontario-based practice focuses on reproductive work, notes that there is a distinction between healthy libido (which should not be discouraged) and rank aggressiveness, which can endanger both mares and handlers. There's no evidence, he points out, that well-mannered stallions have lower conception rates!
The ideal scenario is to be able to train a young stallion from the start of his stud career to respect his handlers and develop gentlemanly ways with his mares.
"There are stallions who break all the rules, of course," McCormick says, "but fortunately we don't have any of those! Generally, stallions who are breeding on a daily, or near-daily, basis, are better behaved; if we are working with one who hasn't been bred for a while, we expect more difficulty."
The use of a snaffle bit and bridle (rather than a halter), with a noseband that buckles under the chin to help keep the mouth closed, affords more control of the Windfields stallions and minimizes the chance that a mare will get a damaging bite to the neck. Adena Springs also makes occasional use of a leather neck shield, which buckles to the crownpiece of the mare's halter and protects her from a stallion which might want to sink his teeth in her neck. Most mares, Hall notes, are comfortable with this equipment and don't need to get accustomed to it beforehand. Another option is to muzzle the stallion, a practice some farms do routinely.
For Adena Springs, currently standing the Thoroughbred stallions Wild Zone and Lit de Justice (and adding El Prado and Alphabet Soup this coming season), the breeding routine doesn't vary much from year to year, or farm to farm (Adena Springs is one of three breeding operations owned by Austrian magnate Stronach; the other two are in Florida and Ontario).
"I think our methods in the breeding shed are pretty much the same as those all over Kentucky," says Hall. "It doesn't vary a lot--the experienced people know what's safe."
Are there any special safety considerations when a mare is being bred by artificial insemination? Meyers, who works extensively with shipped semen on Standardbred and performance horse farms, says his job is simplified when there is a set of stocks available on-farm. Stocks, usually constructed of metal pipe with padding in the appropriate spots, are designed to keep mares straight and relatively immobile; a kickboard at the back, at about mid-gaskin level, helps protect the veterinarian who must stand almost directly behind a mare when palpating or inseminating her.
Many larger Standardbred farms have a set of stocks, but they are relatively rare elsewhere, says Meyers; so when he is called upon to inseminate a mare without the use of stocks, he suggests that the owner or handler of the mare position her in her stall with her quarters in the open doorway. This will limit the mare's sideways movements as much as is possible, and a familiar presence at her head will help reassure her.
"Most mares in estrous are pretty receptive," says Meyers, so he rarely encounters major difficulties with this approach, but he does recommend the use of a chain over the mare's nose, and possibly a lip twitch, to help keep the mare's attention on her handler. If he is dealing with a mare he suspects might kick, he often positions a couple of straw bales between her hindquarters and himself. In a situation where a mare might be less than cooperative (but is physiologically ready for breeding), the judicious use of a tranquilizer, or a set of breeding hobbles, might be in order, Meyers says. (If you do try using breeding hobbles, however, he emphasizes that they should be equipped with a quick-release feature so that they can be removed in an instant if the mare should panic or fight.)
Collecting a stallion for AI requires much the same attention to safety that live cover does, and the same good manners should be insisted on. Meyers points out that too much aggression is never productive, even if the stallion is only savaging the cover of a phantom mare. It's particularly important that an experienced handler be at the helm to ensure that the stallion mounts when he is asked, rather than lunging forward and taking charge of the situation. Consistency and attention to detail are key to making breeding a safe and successful process.
About the Author
Karen Briggs is the author of six books, including the recently updated Understanding Equine Nutrition as well as Understanding The Pony, both published by Eclipse Press. She's written a few thousand articles on subjects ranging from guttural pouch infections to how to compost your manure. She is also a Canadian certified riding coach, an equine nutritionist, and works in media relations for the harness racing industry. She lives with her band of off-the-track Thoroughbreds on a farm near Guelph, Ontario, and dabbles in eventing.