Building a Horse Breeding Shed

Design elements that promote safety in a breeding shed include wide, tall doors and high ceilings.

Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt/The Horse

Consider your facility and equipment needs before you set up shop

There comes a time when you've enjoyed horse ownership so much that you contemplate taking your equine involvement a step further by setting up your own breeding operation. Perhaps you have an impeccable colt that shows promise as a stallion, or maybe you have a string of mares you'd love to see produce foals. Whatever your motivation, it's easy to get caught up in pastoral visions of pregnant mares and adorable foals populating your farm. But before your stallion services a lineup of mares, carefully consider the facilities and equipment needed to set up your brand new breeding operation.

Safety First

Safety is the most important quality in a breeding facility's design, according to Linda Royer of Equine Facility Design in Oregon City, Ore. "Breeding animals are bigger and stronger than we are, and when they are breeding they can be overcome by instincts that make humans insignificant," she says. "Even the most experienced breeding stallion can become unmanageable at times, so control and escape measures are important in design."

For example, when breeding a stallion with a "phantom" mare (to collect semen for artificial insemination, or AI), Royer recommends placing a padded wall in front of the apparatus that a tease mare and handler can stand behind for protection. "An escape door behind this wall is a good idea if a stallion becomes unmanageable," she says.

Similarly, to make the live cover process safer, install a sturdy padded half wall or chest board in the breeding shed for the mare to lean her chest against for support while being bred and for the mare handler to stand behind. Breeders might also consider designing an area to place a foal while a mare is being bred back. For this area, Lorry Hayward, of Hayward Designs equestrian facility design and planning in Georgia, prefers an enclosure that has a mesh front that allows the foal to see the mare, which in turn reduces stress for both horses.

Other safety measures include designating a good quality breeding halter for stallions that they only wear when going to the breeding shed. This indicates to the stallion that it is breeding time and that the handlers mean business. Along these same lines, Royer suggests when building a breeding shed to design a different path that leads to it, separate from any path that leads to the pasture or arena for work.

Other design elements that promote safety in a breeding shed include wide, tall doors and high ceilings. "It's also very important that there be numerous doors so that if a mare is used she can be brought in and out of a different door than the stallion," says Royer. "There also need to be people emergency escape doors for a last resort."

Another important safety consideration is nonslip floors, according to Royer. Nonslip rubber floors, such as interlocking rubber tiles, help prevent injuries during the breeding process and can be cleaned easily. Some breeding sheds employ soft, nonslip arena footing that staff members manage carefully as one would an arena.

Tools of the Trade

Ideally, you should design your breeding shed to be useful for both live cover and semen collection for artificial insemination, for breed registries that allow it. "You never know when your needs will change," says Royer.

Tom Patterson, the head of sales, embryo transfer, and AI classes at livestock breeding equipment company Agtech, in Kansas, says that planning the size of your operation is the first step toward determining your equipment needs. If you are planning to perform AI, he says you should have a rough estimate of how many collections, exams, and breedings you will be doing in a season. "It becomes much easier to prioritize what equipment will be absolutely necessary and what can stay on the 'wish list,' " he says. "It's important to financially justify each piece of equipment. If it won't pencil out and pay for itself, it may not be worth buying."

Dave Freeman, PhD, Dipl. ACAN (Nutrition), Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension equine specialist, says one way to save money when buying equipment is to ask around the breeding community to find out if any nearby operations are closing shop. Another consideration is to look on eBay for used items such as good-quality microscopes.

According to Patterson, the basic items needed to start an AI breeding operation include a breeding phantom ($2,000 to $3,000); artificial vaginas, with liners and accessories (around $450 for each stallion); a phase-contrast microscope for semen evaluation ($3,000 to $6,000); an incubator; a centrifuge to increase semen concentration ($2,000 to $4,000); and a reliable refrigerator for storage, a locking cabinet for pharmaceuticals, and a computer for recordkeeping. Two other items Patterson says are ideal, but not necessary, for an AI operation are an autoclave (a superheated steam generator) for equipment sterilization and an ultrasound machine (upwards of $6,000 to $18,000). If running an embryo transfer operation, a stereo zoom microscope for embryo evaluation ($2,000) might be necessary as well.

Ideally, the lab area where the collected semen is prepared for use or shipping should be adjacent to the breeding area, according to Freeman. "A window (between the lab and the breeding area) to pass the semen through works well, but of course with these types of things the price just gets higher," he says.

Within the lab, Freeman recommends double sinks with a good water source, far enough away from semen storage that "any type of wet is separated."

"Temperature regulation of water in collection booths is essential," he says. These containers are where the semen is stored, usually in an incubator or water bath, and the semen must be kept as close as possible to 38ËšC (100ËšF), or at about body temperature, to ensure it survives. The semen should also be at this temperature when inseminating the mare.

Royer adds that climate control and good lighting in the lab area are important, as are easily sanitized surfaces. "You need to plan in advance the equipment, space, and electrical requirements for the processing equipment and storage of containers," she says. "Accuracy in handling semen is critical to everyone, so communication and administration of the entire operation needs to be planned in advance."

If you plan to ship semen internationally, familiarize yourself with the USDA regulations governing approval of semen collection centers, says Royer. You can find these regulations online at "This information is good for anyone dealing with breeding and collection to know and design to," she says.

Construction and Design

When building and designing your breeding facility, first consider the number of horses you plan to work with during the breeding season.

"When you look at breeding facilities, you see everything from the small mom and pop organizations to large operations that have several stallions and breed 500 mares a year," says Freeman. "Smaller operations can just integrate facilities into buildings that they already have. Sometimes they'll just dedicate one end of a barn they already have to the breeding operation. This isn't a bad thing because your investment in a facility is hard to recoup if you're just dealing in small numbers."

Freeman says the absolute minimum area you will need for breeding is 24 feet by 24 feet, but that the smaller breeding sheds are typically 30 feet by 40 feet in size for added handler safety.

Building-wise, Royer recommends designing an anteroom (the equine equivalent of a waiting room) outside the breeding area in which to wash and prepare the stallion. "This needs to be at least 16 feet by 16 feet for safety, as a stallion can be quite excited in this process," she says.

Have a source of warm water and mild (not antibacterial) soap available in this room to clean the stallion's penis prior to breeding. Any container used should also be easily cleaned or disposable. This room should also have storage for materials.

For preparing or performing ultrasounds on mares, Royer says stocks--compartmentalized standing room-only stalls designed to hold horses relatively immobile for procedures (in this case, palpation or insemination)--come in handy. "In large operations you may have a number of stocks lined up for mares and foals with an ultrasound (machine) on a trolley that runs up and down the back of the line of stocks," she says. "An entire herd of mares may be checked daily (for estrous status or pregnancy) as part of the turnout routine during prime breeding season."

Designing a facility that is easy to disinfect is also important as bacteria and ¬sexually transmitted diseases are a risk when breeding horses.

Each mare's perineal area and each phantom should be cleaned with a dilute iodine solution pre- and post-breeding, and tease mares' tail wraps should be removed and washed.

All finish materials on a breeding facility's walls, ceilings, and floors need to be easily washed and sanitized. "For wood finishes, this means a waterproof coating," says Royer.

She notes that HDPE lumber, which is made of recycled post-consumer plastic, is a good, ecofriendly building material for breeding sheds, as it is maintenance-free, cleans easily, and is weather- and UV- resistant.

Take-Home Message

While starting your own breeding operation can be exciting, don't let the pitter patter of foal feet cloud your planning. Realistically consider how many mares and stallions you can handle, if you will be performing live cover, AI, or both, and then determine your equipment and building needs from there. Patterson recommends visiting other farms and veterinary clinics to get advice on layout and breeding equipment and also developing a good relationship with a skilled and reliable veterinarian.

"Setting up an (operation) is expensive and stressful," he says. "It's always recommended that a breeder, no matter how skilled, take time to gather advice from others in the industry in order to make informed decisions on equipment and costs. In the end, if done correctly, breeders should have a (facility) that is functional, cost-effective, and profitable to their business."

About the Author

Liz Brown

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