Return to Nature With Pasture Breeding
In a world of artificial insemination and embryo transfer, simplicity can prevail. Registered stallions and mares can breed with minimal human intervention, through natural cover in the pasture. Pasture breeding continues as an accepted breeding method recognized by many breed registries. As in the wild, a stallion roams with a band of mares. Horses are confined in fenced acreage, able to graze and interact with each other. Caretakers manage the breeding stock through regular observation and routine veterinary examinations and treatment.
With the stallion and mares left alone, the situation appears idyllic. The herd enjoys freedom to roam, and horses associate in social groups innate to the species.
Some horse owners would label this method as old-fashioned and hazardous. They cite the dangers of turning horses out in a herd, where injuries can occur or diseases spread. The lack of supervision means that the breeding manager doesn't know the exact dates of breeding or if a stallion actually covered a mare.
Pasture breeding proponents support this natural approach. Although this method remains less popular than in-hand breeding, a substantial number of established breeders continue to turn a stallion out with mares.
Benefits Of Nature
A primary benefit of pasture breeding is the higher percentage of conception. Breeders report a conception rate of more than 90%. When the stallion is constantly present with one or more mares, he has more opportunities to breed. Both horses can court, and either can initiate contact.
Ruth Wilburn, DVM, uses pasture breeding with her Welsh pony stallions in Olive Branch, Miss. "We hand breed and ship semen on our stallions, too, but they much prefer to court. I have had problem mares, and I see the stallion out there teasing and talking to the mare to get her in foal. With one mare, he took three months to talk her into it. After that, she had a foal every year."
In a 1998 article in The Horse, Sue McDonnell, PhD, Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and the founding head of the Equine Behavior Program at the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center, reported lessons learned about stallion behavior (September, pp. 39-42). In her research, she noted how switching to pasture breeding can aid stallions which seem reluctant to breed in-hand. She also observed that breeding at liberty sustains fertility, as contrasted with in-hand breeding.
Critics of pasture breeding expressed concerns about the safety of valuable horses. Turned loose in a field, stallion and mares can be in danger from each other, or from fencing or terrain. At liberty, horses are involved in the dynamics of a herd. Mares squabble among themselves as they establish the hierarchy of highest-ranking to lowest-ranking members.
However, being in a herd doesn't mean that mares constantly bite or kick others. Lower-ranking mares and their foals are kept in place through threats rather than physical contact. They might be bossed around or ignored by the more dominant mares.
The stallion himself learns manners from older mares. "Half a dozen old, pregnant mares will quickly teach a young stud," said Jim Brinkman, a successful breeder of Quarter Horses at the Pitzer Ranch in Ericson, Neb.
The pasture breeding method doesn't necessarily mean there are more accidents, since accidents do occur to horses and people during in-hand breeding, either by natural cover or artificial insemination.
Planning The Herd
Like any other breeding method, successful pasture breeding requires advance planning. Two legendary Quarter Horse ranches, the R.A. Brown Ranch and the Pitzer Ranch, have raised generations of foals with this method.
The R.A. Brown Ranch in Throckmorton, Texas, was the winner of the 1997 Best Remuda award from the American Quarter Horse Association. The ranch breeds about 40 mares a year, and pasture breeds its top stallion Hesa Eddy Hancock. Eddy has bred mares at liberty since he was a 2-year-old.
Rob A. Brown describes how his ranch manages the process. "We put the mares into bands around the first of April. On the day we turn the stallion out, we will make sure all the mares are together. We haul the stallion to the mares in a trailer and turn him out. He'll want to go around and meet every mare."
Once the stallion accepts all of the mares, he's left in charge of the herd. The stallion will band his mares depending on his personality. An intense horse will continually circle the herd, attempting to control the mares; a more relaxed stallion will accept mares moving away from and back into the band.
"If it's a 4-year-old stud with 22 mares, he physically can't keep that many banded together," said Brown. "It's too big a job, and he doesn't worry about it. As long as we humans don't worry, it works out."
The late Howard Pitzer, past owner of the Pitzer Ranch in Ericson, Neb., was inducted into the American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame in 1996. He owned the outstanding sire Two Eyed Jack. Brinkman describes the ranch's breeding routine as follows.
Nine stallions each breed 20 to 35 mares, running with mares for 60 days. The pastures are made up of native grasses in sections of either one or two square miles.
"The stallion starts staying out right around May 10," said Brinkman. "We foal them all outside."
Pitzer Ranch mares stay outside in large groups year-round. Brinkman reported no problems returning a stallion to a band of mares and foals. "Our mares are used to it. We have some older mares, some 18 or 19 years old, that have been in pasture all their lives. The studs are dominant, but those older mares hold their own."
Stallions in frequent contact with other horses can be more content. The word "stallion" doesn't have to imply aggressive behavior toward mares or humans. In the pasture, the stallion and mare choose when to mate--in an act rarely observed by humans.
Living with a band of mares and foals, the stallion assumes an active parental role. Beyond the act of mating, he participates in the social group.
On the other side, the typical breeding farm isolates the breeding stallion, and the confinement limits his equine contact. Stable vices can result by imposing captivity and treating the stallion more like a prisoner than an active horse. The solution for many of these vices remains a simple change of location--moving the horse away from the four walls of a stall and into open space.
Living in a pen affects a stallion's attitude. "If he's fed well for eight months, then turned out with mares, he has a lot of energy to burn up and can be more aggressive," Brown said. "Hesa Eddy Hancock has interacted with horses every day of his life, with geldings, if not with mares."
The stallion understands the difference between working under saddle, and freedom to breed when turned out. "We like to handle those kinds of stallions a lot more," said Brown. "They don't act like most people's stallions. They act like horses."
The stallion which lives in a herd environment develops his personality as the male parent. He interacts with youngsters and in many cases is more of a playmate.
"We have more trouble weaning the babies from the stallion than from the mothers," said Jeannie Vaughan of Foxfire Farm in Byron, Calif. A breeder of Missouri Fox Trotters for 25 years, Vaughan relies on pasture breeding her own and outside mares.
"The studs love the babies," she explained. "They share food with a baby when the mother won't let either of them in to eat." Vaughan tells about a foal whose "independent" dam wandered off, and the foal tried to nurse from his sire. The tolerant stallion led the foal back to the mare.
Joan Higginson Dunning, breeder of the famous Farnley line of Welsh ponies, relates a similar experience. A mare approached the stallion, looking for her foal. "She was depending on him as head of the herd. The foal was asleep, and he went off looking, found it, and brought it back."
Stallions vary in how they react to foaling mares. The easygoing stallion will allow a mare to move away from the band to foal, then accept her when she returns with her new foal in a few days.
"Normally a stallion will keep that band together," said Brown. "He'll circle them, and if someone tries to leave, he'll put her back in there. Some stallions will let the mare go off, and when she comes back in season, she'll come back to the band, and he'll breed her."
Mare Owner Expectations
Breeders do accept outside mares for pasture breeding, with a clear understanding from both parties. The stallion owner might choose to screen mares for their adaptation to a herd environment. The mare owner wants assurance about the mare's safety and conception.
Brown receives eight to 10 outside mares per season. "We require outside mares to be here about March 15--at least three weeks prior to the first week in April--whether they're dry or in foal," he said. "We put them all together in a band and watch them for any sickness or health problems."
The outside mares join groups of ranch mares, and each band of about 15 to 24 mares is turned into a pasture for a week.
At the Pitzer Ranch, Brinkman adds outside mares to the band of ranch mares. "We sort them and put them outside in a bunch, in a big pen or small pasture, for three to four days. They have time to figure out their pecking order, and the outside mare learns who she can stand with. Then we turn the stud out with them, and they work it out again."
"You have to be careful with outside mares," he added. "Pen-raised or barn-raised horses don't adjust very well."
Vaughan has a smaller number of horses. She removes her mares from the stallion so he's alone with an outside mare. She keeps the mare for a month. "Most people like the option to pasture breed. It's more effective, with the goal to get her pregnant and get her home." She uses two breeding pens, measuring one or two acres in size and fenced with woven wire reinforced with electric wire.
Some owners are worried about a mare's spreading infection to the rest of the herd. Breeders examine mares before turnout, and they report that stallions also check mares in the band.
Some stallions seem to outsmart even veterinary science. Through scent, these horses decide to reject a mare which isn't in a physical condition to conceive.
"The stallion may not like a mare for some reason," Brown said. "The older, wiser stallion seems to smell if a mare has an infection."
"The older stallions are good at checking the mare," Vaughan said. "A stallion won't touch a mare if he senses something wrong. The nose knows."
At a busy farm, less hands-on labor for breeding reduces the number of people required. Hand-breeding demands at least two, and usually more, handlers. Staffing an artificial insemination (AI) laboratory increases the expenses. Fewer employees can mean increased profits.
A seasoned stallion can settle a mare at his own pace, keeping her in production. Vaughan had an older mare which would appear to be in season, yet reject the stallion at that time. A week after she showed in season, she would accept the stallion, and the breeding succeeded in producing foals.
Many registries have made provisions for pasture breeding. A few of the associations that accept pasture breeding include the American Quarter Horse Association, Appaloosa Horse Club, Inc., American Paint Horse Association, Arabian Horse Registry of America, American Association of Owners and Breeders of Peruvian Paso Horses, Morab Registry, Missouri Fox Trotting Horse Breed Association, Morgan Horse Club, American Saddlebred Horse Association, and Welsh Pony and Cob Society of America, Inc.
On registration and stallion service forms, the owner reports pasture breeding dates as a period of exposure. Recording "Date in" and "Date out" sets a definite span of time during which breeding and conception occurred.
To assure ancestry, many associations now require blood typing of all foals, whether or not a foal was conceived through an unobserved mating. Pasture exposure doesn't always guarantee that a mare was bred by a single stallion. In rare cases, another horse might gain access into the fenced area and breed a mare. Some associations add specific constraints about the fencing of the pasture in which breeding occurred, or that the mare contacts no other stallion over the age of 10 months.
Pasture breeding isn't a mainstream method or the solution for every situation. However, with amenable horses and a spacious environment, the answer to breeding challenges could be letting Nature take its course. "Horses never change--people change," Brinkman said.
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: Enriching Your Horse's Environment