Should I Breed My Mare?

Should I Breed My Mare?

There are a number of factors that must be weighed in making the decision on whether to breed a particular mare.

Photo: Photos.com

To breed or not to breed . . . .With apologies to William Shakespeare, that is a question that perplexes many mare owners and is one without a single, simple answer. The problem usually begins with ownership of a mare which fits our equestrian needs--trail riding, jumping, cutting, roping, dressage, horse trials, whatever. Perhaps she is a stellar performer, and we want to perpetuate the bloodline. Or perhaps she is a serious disappointment in our chosen discipline, and we don't know what else to do with her.

There are a number of factors that must be weighed in making the decision on whether to breed a particular mare.

At the outset, let it be said that I have raised foals for a number of years and intend to keep doing so. There is something captivating and even rejuvenating about the arrival of a foal in the spring, after months of anticipation. Watching them grow and mature into solid, sound, usable horses adds to the positive side of the equation.

That being said, not everyone should raise a foal, and not every mare should be bred. Included in the considerations are economics, quality of the mare, availability of proper facilities, and capability of the owner, to mention a few.

Considerations

Let's start with some basic questions that involve these concerns and others.

First, why do you want to raise a foal from a particular mare? If you wish to perpetuate a great bloodline, that is justification in itself. However, if you have a mare which has failed to reach your expectations and you don't know what else to do with her, that is definitely not justification for breeding.

The problem in the latter case is that you just might breed into the foal all of the characteristics that made the mare such a disappointment. If that turns out to be the situation, you have accomplished nothing except to compound your problem.

Next question. Are you prepared to have the mare out of service for a time? Under normal circumstances, you would cease using the mare for about three months before she foals, and for perhaps four to five months after parturition. This time can be shortened, but you have to expect that the mare will be of at least limited use to you for about half a year.

Do you have an appropriate facility for the birthing process itself and later for the foal and its dam to obtain exercise? One does not need an elaborate, heated stable for the mare-in-waiting, but one has to be prepared with appropriate housing if the need arises. What this means is that you should at least have a sheltered run pen or shed. A barn with a box stall is best, of course.

It is true that many mares can foal with ease out in a pasture, but there is always the chance that this will not be a normal birth, and you should be prepared for that. If a veterinarian is called on to assist with the birthing because of dystocia, for example, it is far better to have the mare in a confined area.

Then, too, there is the matter of weather. Mares don't always pick the warmest or clearest day or evening to give birth. Sometimes it is in the middle of a rainstorm or snowstorm.

I remember the story of a friend who had a mare which foaled early. She was outside in a paddock. In the center was a large pile of manure waiting to be spread on the fields in drier weather. The night the mare decided to foal, there was a torrential rainstorm, with the paddock covered with mucky water. The only place the mare could find where she could be above the water was on top of the manure pile. It was there that she delivered what turned out to be a very healthy filly--a youngster that would grow up one day to be one of my riding horses.

That story had a happy ending, but what if that manure pile hadn't been there? It is possible that the foal would have been unable to rise on the slippery ground and might even have drowned. Then, too, there is the matter of the manure pile not being the most sanitary place for a birth. A wide variety of bacteria lurked in that manure, ready to invade the foal's system through its umbilical stump. A far cry from a stall bedded with dry straw and someone standing by with a bottle of iodine.

If the foal is to be born outdoors, the birth should take place on green grass.

Mares And Foals

Still another question. Have you had any experience in handling a mare at foaling time? Vast experience, of course, is not a requirement, especially if you have a veterinarian on call in case of trouble. However, you should know, for example, that a mare's birth canal muscle structure is so powerful that the fetus is expelled in a matter of minutes after she goes into labor. Cows might be in labor for a long period of time, often with no serious consequence to the calf. Not so with horses.

The entire sequence that starts with labor and ends in birth might last no more than 20 minutes. That leaves one with a very small window of opportunity to do something about dystocia and saving the foal, as well as the mare. That is not a time to procrastinate in seeking professional help, and you should know at least the basics of how to deal with the mare while waiting for the vet to arrive.

Your best ally before the birth is your vet. If you are short on knowledge and hands-on experience, quiz him or her in depth about potential problems and how to respond to them. And do it well in advance of the birth.

There is also the matter of how to handle the foal immediately after birth. Are you going to imprint it? If so, learn what this involves. Study and be prepared.

What if you aren't there for the birth and have lost the window of opportunity to imprint? Do you know how to handle a foal safely so that neither of you gets hurt? There is a great deal of information out there in the equine world about foals and their handling. You should avail yourself of the opportunity to learn before you are faced with the challenge of, for example, teaching the foal to lead.

The question regarding proper facilities extends to pastures and paddocks. Are the fences secure and safe? Drooping barbed wire fences are an invitation to disaster for inquisitive foals.

Your Herd

Then, too, there is the matter of other horses in the same paddock or pasture. They can be a help, or they can be a hindrance.

This spring, one of our veteran mares foaled out in the pasture. With her were a mare which had already foaled (that birth took place in a box stall) and another mare which we thought was pregnant, but turned out to be open.

In the early morning light, we saw the foal struggle to its feet and start nosing around for the milk supply. The dam was an old pro at this and stood still while the foal tottered and wobbled at her side.

However, at this point the mare without a foal moved in and cut the foal away from its mother. This confused the foal's dam and she began turning in circles in an effort to locate her offspring. Cleverly, the thieving mare kept her body between the colt and dam and began pushing the youngster away from its mother.

We quickly intervened, catching the mare that was attempting to steal the foal and removing her from the pasture. However, if we hadn't been there, it is very likely that the foal would have been prevented from nursing and would have missed out on ingesting the all-important colostrum that provides it with life-saving antibodies. Had this scenario been played out without human intervention, the foal could have died.

Geldings, too, have been known to steal foals. It might not happen frequently, but it has happened often enough that you should be aware of the possibility. The best of all worlds is that mare and foal have a paddock or pasture to themselves for a few days so that the bonding process will be rock-solid and complete. After that, they can be phased in with other horses, although you still should be on the alert for adult horses that might seek to "steal" the offspring or harm it.

There have been cases where adult horses have taken a dim view of a youngster being admitted to the band and have attempted to bite or kick it. Obviously, this can result in serious injury to the foal. When that possibility raises its head, either the mare-foal combination or the offending horse must be removed from the herd.

Still another question involves economics. Is it cheaper to raise a foal than to buy a horse which already has been trained? Maybe yes, maybe no. On the one hand, a horse which has been trained to be proficient in a given discipline might be very expensive when compared to what it costs to get a live foal on the ground. However, getting the foal born is only the beginning. It is a matter of at least a couple of years, and often more, before that youngster reaches a state of maturity where it can demonstrate its prowess. Along the way there will be training bills, vet bills, farrier bills, and the possibility that the horse will never reach its potential because of injury. There are many cases where that proven, expensive horse turns out to be the better bargain.

Like Mama, Like Baby?

Another question to be considered involves temperament. If the mare is mean and hard to handle, or nervous and flighty, there is a good chance that her foal will be the same. Not only does the mare have the potential to pass on these qualities genetically, she might reinforce them with her own behavior. The foal is tightly bonded to its dam during the first weeks and even months of its life, and often mimics the mare's behavior patterns.

Conformation also is important. Does the mare have good conformation, with sound, durable legs and feet? If not, be careful, even if the mare has remained sound. The problem could be compounded in the foal, especially if the stallion has a similar problem.

Finally, is the mare in good reproductive health? Here again, your veterinarian is your best ally. Have the vet give the mare a thorough examination, especially if she is older. There might be serious uterine scarring or the presence of cysts that could compromise her ability to carry a foal to term.

If you answered all of the questions in a positive way and still want to raise a foal, pick the best stallion you can afford and breed your mare. And good luck!

About the Author

Les Sellnow

Les Sellnow is a free-lance writer based near Riverton, Wyo. He specializes in articles on equine research, and operates a ranch where he raises horses and livestock. He has authored several fiction and non-fiction books, including Understanding Equine Lameness and Understanding The Young Horse, published by Eclipse Press and available at www.exclusivelyequine.com or by calling 800/582-5604.

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