AI Training For Stallions
Given the choice, a stallion wouldn't choose to mate with man-made devices. His instincts drive him to breed a mare; yet he can learn to transfer his sexual focus to a "phantom" mare and an artificial vagina (AV). In order to train a stallion for successful semen collection, a handler uses the horse's natural behaviors to condition his responses, so the stallion will readily perform in the breeding shed and channel his sex drive to a non-mare recipient.
Whether you use live cover or AI, your stallion's earning potential depends on his fertility, assessed by the number of his mares that become pregnant. His reproductive career requires good management, which is built on early training and positive experiences. You assume the responsibility for your sire's success by setting his pattern of breeding behavior.
Plan The Pattern
Like any other horse training, teaching a stallion about breeding is the repetition of rewarding events. However, breeding is unlike most other training. A skilled rider can convince a reluctant horse to enter the show ring, but a horseman can't force the stallion to initiate the sex act if the horse won't (or can't) cooperate.
Semen collection depends on the stallion achieving an erection, and his willingness to ejaculate into the AV. Stallions differ in their attitudes toward collection due to personality traits and libido. The youngster has to learn sexual behavior and gain confidence in his performance. A mature stallion can adapt to collection based on his experience at live cover.
Training for collection requires patience with the horse's conduct. "The main thing is don't be in too much of a hurry," advises Toby Ewing, DVM, from Puget Sound Equine Reproduction Center, Snohomish, Wash.
Chris Michelson of Stallion Management Services, Red Bluff, Calif., says, "He needs to be trained at his own pace. Never book your stallion when you need a shipment to go out, and then try to train him."
A thoughtful process begins with assessing the stallion's maturity. Is he physically mature, and at least three years old? A 2-year-old might be too young to express normal sexual behavior, and he can become frustrated with the training. However, an experienced stallion can be trained to mount the phantom rather than a mare.
Before you start training, have your equine practitioner examine the prospective male for breeding soundness. (For more information on breeding soundness exams, see "Shed Ready?" in the March 2000 issue of The Horse or http://www.thehorse.com/ViewArticle.aspx?ID=3040.) Semen collection will follow the practitioner's preliminary examination.
Handle your horse consistently so he's cooperative, and learn his usual personality traits. He should accept handling of his penis during washing and diverting into the AV.
With a first-time stallion, set a favorable environment. First, consider the time of year. The horse will be more enthusiastic in the natural breeding season, such as June through August. In the winter months, most horses show a slower reaction time to the stimulus of an in-heat mare.
Plan how you will orchestrate the cues of sight, sound, and smell. The horse learns to associate cues with the opportunity to breed.
The setting should be a place dedicated to breeding. The breeding shed is a special room or pen, free of distractions, and separate from other activities. It contains a space for a mare, either behind a teasing wall or stationed in a chute or adjacent stall.
The focus of the breeding shed is the dummy mare, or the phantom. The stallion mounts the phantom as he would a mare, and the phantom supports his weight as he thrusts into the AV. A safe phantom is a rigid body, supported by a single stout post. It is covered in a durable material that won't tear from the stallion's front shoes (if he is still shod). The height, angle, width, and firmness simulate the shape of a mare.
Michelson advised, "The phantom needs to fit the stallion." She uses a phantom from 5 1/2 to six feet in circumference. "The horse needs it that big to balance himself. If his legs are hanging straight down, he has nothing to grip."
She adds that the footing should support the stallion as he mounts. "Are his feet slipping out behind? It might be too tall. If his feet slide under it, it could be too low." The ground shouldn't be so loose or fine that when the stallion mounts, he kicks dirt that might adhere to his erect penis. Also, the ground should be level, not worn into a depression in front of the phantom.
You can choose among several models of hand-held AVs. The size should fit the stallion. The handler should prepare the internal temperature, lubrication, and pressure of the AV. Start with normal recommendations, then adjust them as needed to meet his preferences.
The novice stallion needs a stimulus to associate the phantom with breeding. The smell of a mare in estrus often starts the process, with the pheromones in mare urine exciting the stallion. The mare doesn't have to be present in the breeding shed, depending on the stallion's preferences.
Many handlers keep mare urine in storage, collecting and freezing portions in small plastic bags. Ewing says, "In our practice, we use in-heat mare urine to entice the stallion. Our dummy has a lot of scents and smells on it. We lead the young stallion to the dummy and see what his reaction is.
"I prefer to go with the stallion who shows interest in the dummy. I will work with him for 15, 20, or 30 minutes at one time to see if he will spontaneously mount." Ewing might introduce thawed urine onto the dummy to encourage the stallion's interest.
In most cases, collection involves two people--one who holds the lead shank and one who handles the AV. Both should be confident horse people who treat the stallion with respect and authority.
It is safer if the handler and the collector both stand on the same side. They choreograph their actions, and should rehearse if they haven't worked together before. Because safety is crucial, both should wear protective headgear.
The pattern begins with outfitting the stallion with a halter and lead shank used only for breeding. Leading him to the breeding shed, the handler prepares for the stallion's display of sexual interest.
Approaching With Enthusiasm
How the horse displays libido guides the introduction to breeding. The handler employs the stallion's natural instincts. The goal is to encourage the horse's excitement in a controlled situation, with the horse always in hand.
To encourage normal sexual display and arousal, the handler observes the stallion's reactions. "We look at the stallion and gauge how he is in his surroundings," says Ewing. "If he appears willing and eager, he is more easily trained to the dummy.
"We go on a set of archetypical behaviors around the dummy. When he approaches the dummy area, he will have a display--prancing trot, arched neck, and usually vocalization. When we see that, we know we have a stallion that has an understanding of what he has to do."
Michelson explains how she uses the smell of mare urine: "Each stallion is different, but nine out of 10 will drop (the penis). I hold the bag under the horse's nose so he will drop when I wash him. Then I put the rest over the phantom."
Ewing emphasized that the handler must allow the stallion to display enthusiasm. In arousal, the sexual excitement reaches a threshold of erection.
Ewing lets the horse smell the scent of urine on the tease wall. "If he attains erection, we wash him and lead him into the phantom area and collect." He gives the horse time to sniff the wall and around the phantom.
The young horse is distracted easily. Some need to leave the breeding shed to reflect and come back fresh. Michelson says, "His attention span isn't there yet. He hasn't had enough pleasure response built in."
Completing Successful Collection
When the horse shows arousal, wash the stallion. The AV should be prepared at this point. Then the normal behavior is for the horse to mount the phantom, be diverted into the AV, and ejaculate. The collector then takes the AV into the laboratory.
Ewing recommends the water in the AV be at 47° Celsius. "Most stallions will ejaculate in a semi-tight AV. If they won't, we start raising the temperature and pressure."
Michelson says, "The quicker you can find out what they like, the quicker the learning experience will be." She trains with a mare stationed near the phantom. "The horse will usually try to go over to the mare, though some know to mount the phantom right away. The stallion handler grabs the left front foot, and keeps that foot down. The collector gets the AV on, so the horse will start to forget the mare. Then he will associate the phantom with the AV." The next time, the mare is positioned farther from the phantom.
All phases must be positive experiences. Keep the horse's attention and establish a normal pattern by training in repetition. "Usually three times is what it takes to get the stallion going well," says Michelson.
The handler regulates the mating behavior. Laurie Campoy of Delta Farms Sport Horses, Plymouth, Calif., says, "Your job is to make sure that the stallion mounts only what he's supposed to mount. If you make an error and he starts to mount the mare or dummy without being asked to do so, you have made the mistake. The worst thing you can do is force him off what he mounted."
You allow the stallion certain freedoms, within limits of safety. Michelson describes the display one stallion shows: "He does this loud squall, strike, and stomps with his hind feet. That's his breeding pattern and his confidence builder."
In breeding, you aim to maintain the stallion's libido and temper aggression. Ewing explains, "One of the challenges with the older stallion is trying to separate out those behaviors. They have come to associate those two behaviors simultaneously."
Dealing With Deviations
Pay attention to the horse's attitude so you can notice any changes. Signs of psychological or physiological problems include disinterest, multiple mounts, dismounting before ejaculation, and failure to maintain an erection.
A stallion can be distracted easily. In the breeding area, Michelson advises not to discipline the horse through punishment. "If he lacks confidence, you have to build it back up. He can't get in trouble in the breeding area, and the act of copulation has to be pleasurable."
Boost a lack of interest by adjusting stimuli. If you haven't had a mare present, return to teasing with a mare to build his enthusiasm. However, keep in mind that overstimulation can increase semen volume with a result of low sperm concentration. This could be a problem when shipping or freezing the semen.
Joan Rogers of Applebite Farms, French Camp, Calif., explains how good stallion handlers employ psychology. "You might let the stallion watch the mare a while, or let him see others breed mares, to help the slow stallion get excited. Sometimes you lead the mare away from him. Sometimes the horse becomes frustrated with his own inability to do what he'd like to do."
Campoy notes that a stallion bred naturally, then collected with an AV, might become slower to show arousal. "You can re-motivate by letting him do a couple of mares natural cover. It brings his libido up. They do know the difference, so let him breed a mare naturally now and then. It is an option, and you might find you have a whole new stallion."
How the horse accepts the AV can affect the quality of semen collected. If he seems resentful, you can adjust the AV to find his preferences for more or less heat or pressure.
Karen Berk of Equine Reproduction Services, Ocala, Fla., advocates increasing comfort with a hot towel. "I use this method when the stallion isn't at his peak due to cold weather, or with an older stallion. I hold the AV in my left hand, and put light pressure with the right hand on the scrotum. An assistant hands me the hot towel, and I place it at that point." She has found that the warmth encouraged complete release in a stallion.
Physical reasons can affect the quality of semen. Berk cautioned breeders of the effect of artificial lights on stallions. She collects close to 300 times a year, and has noted the differences in the stock horse breeds kept under lights for better hair coats. "In the stallion no longer showing, who's then turned out in pasture and not under lights, the fertility goes up."
Hock or back pain can affect a horse's willingness to breed. He could be in pain as he shifts his weight to mount.
By reducing stress and maximizing comfort, you help your stallion as a sire. To alleviate the pressure on you as a stallion manager, consider Ewing's advice: "One of the things we have learned is that there is no real emergency in reproduction. It is an elective procedure."
She Who Must Attend?
Should a mare participate in the aI scenario to stimulate the stallion? Ewing only uses a mare if the young stallion lacks interest. He notes that with a "marginal libido stallion, we have to complicate the issue with a tease mare. The stallion has to associate the mare with sexual arousal. That can become a hardwired phenomenon."
A mare's presence adds another animal in the breeding shed. If the stallion requires a mare, you have to supply one (perhaps one even in heat). Through sight alone, her presence can excite the hesitant stallion.
"I always start them with the mare," says Campoy. "With a young stallion, he doesn't have much of a clue. You need a flesh and blood mare to motivate him."
Michelson says, "The stallion will need to get near the mare. You can take the mare farther away and eventually not need her in the barn, but you need her in the beginning."
A mare might intimidate rather than stimulate a youngster through her reactions to his interest. On the other hand, a mare can overstimulate an aggressive horse.
Some stallions require a "jump" mare, or a mare to mount while being diverted to the artificial vagina. As in natural cover, the close contact potentially can endanger animals and handlers.
About the Author
Award-winning writer Charlene Strickland lives in Bosque Farms, N.M. She has published 8 books and over 600 magazine articles, and is a member of the International Alliance of Equestrian Journalists.
POLL: Farm and Liability Insurance