To Breed, or Not to Breed?

Q: The question I have is not about any one horse, but rather a general topic that I am asked about from time to time. It concerns what is best for young stallions in terms of introduction and exposure to breeding while they are in training or work. I have had several clients here in Texas ask similar questions over the years about when to introduce young performance stallions to breeding and what effect collecting semen from these young stallions may or may not have on their performance (mostly cutting horses).

A lot is asked of 3- to 6-year-old show stallions in this area, particularly when it comes to juggling performance and breeding. Clearly, I don't think there is a cut and dried answer to this question, but I wondered what your experience has been on this subject. There are some strong opinions on both sides locally, particularly about 3-year-olds that are having semen collected regularly.

Probably the majority of trainers strongly hold the opinion that they prefer not to have colts start breeding when they are still performing, expecting that it will be a significant distraction from their work or that they might get out of hand sexually when in work. But the minority opinion, in some cases based on actual experience with some stallions, is that breeding can actually benefit the performance behavior.

The reality is that once these stallions get going well in performance, there is a demand for semen. So sooner or later the questions arise.

An equine veterinarian, via e-mail

A: In our practice here in the mid-Atlantic and Northeast, we, too, have a steady stream of similar questions. We have had a fair amount of experience with advising people on the risks and benefits for individual cases, and we have tried to keep track of the outcome on dozens of young stallions over the years for which decisions were made for or against starting to breed them. I am happy to share our experience and my current opinion on the topic.

Traditionally this immediate area was a very strong Thoroughbred community, so the prevailing wisdom was that a horse should do one or the other, racing or breeding, but not both at the same time. But since shipping of cooled transported semen started to become popular in the 1980s, our practice has included a good percentage of young stallions (not Thoroughbreds) that for one reason or another became breeding prospects at a fairly young age and while they were in moderate to heavy work, and they needed to simultaneously maintain a presence in the performance world to generate and grow their demand as sires. What we have learned in our experiences is that for most young stallions there seem to be several advantages and typically few disadvantages to getting them settled into a semen collection and/or natural cover breeding program as a youngster.

In my experience, colts tend to blossom into much more poised and mature-minded individuals with a stronger "work ethic," so to speak, once they start an organized breeding program. We know that exposure to females and breeding does increase their male hormones, and this likely plays a role in greater athletic ability, confidence, stamina, and, thus, greater performance potential.

"For most young stallions there seem to be several advantages … to getting them settled into a semen collection and/or natural breeding program as a youngster."--Dr. Sue McDonnell

In good hands, where this behavior can be directed with positive methods, as opposed to getting into battles with the animal, these young stallions often excel in performance. If they are handled for breeding by their trainer or rider, they seem to develop a special working relationship or trusting teamwork bond. The person is not only directing their work at work time, but he or she is also their "ticket" to breeding, which is a high-level reward for most stallions. They are often described as more focused and relaxed when at work.

The main problems that can develop are that the colt's increased drive and enthusiasm can, in some cases, be difficult for the handlers due to their skill level, and sometimes if it is a very rugged training and work schedule and a busy breeding schedule, the young stallion can become overworked. In my experience with our practice population, this has been extremely rare.

This topic of whether or not to introduce young stallions to breeding or semen collection also comes up frequently within the context of helping folks deal with a young stallion whose sexual behavior is challenging for show times or general handling. Again, the old traditional wisdom for many trainers is to keep a colt as far away from breeding as possible. If he already has a problem, don't encourage him, and if he is under control and focused on his work, don't give him any ideas.

Owners have requested that we collect and freeze semen (for future use) of horses that exhibit sexual interest at work, before going ahead and castrating the colt. Not always, but more often than not, we have found that starting a stallion into breeding actually helps him settle down and he learns to remain quieter when he is working. It's as if the process of breeding allows a stallion to learn when we want him to show sexual behavior and when not. In fact, it often seems that it is much easier for a young stallion to learn when--by our rules--sexual behavior is okay versus not okay than to just say no to sexual response altogether.

Owners and trainers often remark how a colt has quickly learned when he is on the way to breeding or semen collection versus on the way to work.

Another common observation is that once breeding starts, the young stallion seems much more poised and relaxed in his work. So in recent years, introduction to semen collection or even occasional breeding has been high on my list of recommendations to consider for organized therapy for extremely overenthusiastic young stallions. We recommend an initial training period of one to two weeks of three to five sessions per week. After that he can be bred or collected as infrequently as once or twice a month to as often as three times a week.

On a final note I'd like to add the old truism that every stallion is an individual, and you are right that this is not a cut and dried issue. Having said that, I have the distinct impression that success or failure of any plan is more dependent on management conditions and the people working directly with the colt than with the horse's individual variation.

Whenever there are strong opinions one way or the other, I tend to lean toward the approach being pushed by the people who are actually working with the horse. Otherwise, the plan might be doomed to fail. Then, when it doesn't work out for the people, the welfare of the horse can be at risk.

About the Author

Sue McDonnell, PhD, Certified AAB

Sue M. McDonnell, PhD, is a certified applied animal behaviorist and the founding head of the equine behavior program at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine. She is also the author of numerous books and articles about horse behavior and management.

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