Breeding Your Stallion On Cue

Our stallion has a great pedigree, and we have kept him intact hoping he could eventually become a breeding stallion. We’ve put a lot of effort into getting him to show well enough to be worth breeding. He has always done really well except for periodic distractions by mares that cause him to lose it at just the wrong moment. Since he was two, he has shown very high libido, so it has been hard to keep him focused on work. We chose the slow, humane route rather than the beating the sap out of him. He finally seems to understand that mares are off limits, and he is doing so well that he now has enough value for breeding.

Now we want to start breeding him while continuing to show him. We plan to start advertising semen in 2006. And since we worked so hard to get his mind off mares at shows, now we want to do everything right to try to minimize the chance that he’ll relapse. We have gotten a lot of suggestions on how to do this, such as using a breeding bell and a designated breeding halter to help him distinguish time to breed from time to behave. It has also been suggested that he be taken to a special facility that is just for breeding and uses a fake mare, and people who only handle him for breeding, again with the idea that this will help him get the message about when to breed and when not to breed.

We read about ground semen collection in your column. Will that help? Or will he then see mares and get excited anyway? Also, it has been suggested that we have semen collected with drugs, so he doesn’t relapse into interest in mares. Another person said you trained their horse to respond to estrous mare urine alone, then to drop down for semen collection on the ground by voice command, instead of getting teased up to a mare. Is that done so he doesn’t drop down to mares? We’ve been advised to have semen frozen, so we can do that this winter and not worry about collecting semen when he has to work. via e-mail

First, congratulations for taking the humane strategy of helping your stallion understand that you don’t want him to respond sexually to mares when he is working. As far as relapse when he starts breeding, let me give you the encouraging news first. My experience has been that it is usually easier for a horse to suppress his sexual response in work situations when he is actually getting an opportunity to breed outside of the work situation. It seems it is much easier for a stallion to learn “not now” as opposed to “never.” So now that he will have the chance to breed, rather than relapse in any serious way, I would expect him to figure out fairly quickly the conditions under which he is allowed to show sexual response and reserve his interest in mares to those conditions.

All of your questions about how to do that are great, and we have lots of experience with each of the suggestions you have received. So let me comment on each one you mentioned.

Breeding bells, special halters, etc.—A breeding bell is a jingle bell that is attached to the horse’s halter just when he’s being taken to breed. This becomes a conditioned stimulus for breeding; in other words, it’s a signal to the horse that it is OK to breed. We have a couple of horses in our practice whose owners like using the bell. I think it has roots in German tradition. Many conditioned stimuli can be built into the breeding regimen. The principle for using these is to give clear cues that it is time to breed. When they are not there, the horse knows that he is to suppress sexual response.

Some people always wear the same clothes, always turn one direction out of the stall when going to breed, the other direction when not, etc. These conspicuous items, for example the jingle bell, can be useful at first, perhaps, but most horses who are good at performance are so because they are very good at associative learning. After only a couple of sessions, they can easily pick up all the normal situational cues for breeding. Even the slowest learners tend to only need a few breeding sessions before they come to anticipate breeding time based on ordinary differences in the routine and handling.

Special location, handlers—Many of our clients here at the university comment that one of their considerations for always coming to a specialized clinic for semen collection, although they could do it at home, is that they think it helps their stallion know the difference between breeding time and non-breeding time. They like the idea that we always handle their stallion for breeding, then he will always behave himself with them. Again, that makes the difference very conspicuous for the stallion to learn, but is probably not obligatory for most stallions to readily learn when to breed and when to suppress sexual response.

Dummy mount—In our clinic, we have found that very few horses with high libido make much distinction between a dummy mount and a mare. For some stallions, their libido is high enough that they respond initially exclusively with a dummy, needing no mare present for stimulation. Some of these stallions seem to actually prefer the dummy and if a mare is introduced, she is quite exciting, but the stallion goes to the dummy for mounting. For some stallions, you get the impression they have associated mounting specifically with the dummy mount so well that an actual mare is not as stimulating as the dummy. Even for these stallions, it is difficult to say whether use of the dummy helps them to suppress their response to a live mare when working.

Ground semen collection—Just as with a dummy mount, stallions vary in how much actual mare stimulation is required to reach arousal adequate for ground semen collection. For some stallions that need no mare present, you can imagine that they might perceive the process as something different from breeding and thus it might not cause them to increase their interest in mares. Owners often request ground semen collection for this reason, but again, our experience is that it varies from stallion to stallion whether this helps the stallion suppress sexual behavior with mares.

Estrous mare urine and voice command—Many can learn to drop in response to estrous mare urine alone. This can be done either by association initially with an actual mare, or can be used alone. Starting with just the urine stimulus might take several sessions to reach sufficient response to collect semen. A simple voice command such as “drop down” is paired with the urine or mare stimulus, then it alone can often elicit sexual response adequate for semen collection on the ground. It is convenient to not need a mare, and for some stallions, this practice does seem to help them disconnect a live mare from semen collection.

Pharmacologically induced ejaculation—Current methods of inducing ejaculation with medications developed for disabled stallions who could not safely breed by other means are not usually reliable enough to depend upon for routine collection. Since the horse isn’t sexually aroused when the procedure is done, there would be very little chance that it would cause a relapse. But it is my experience that this method is fairly extreme and frustrating to depend upon, so it is an unsatisfactory alternative to simple behavior modification for an able-bodied stallion.

Frozen semen—Freezing semen is an ever-increasing, attractive idea if you are simultaneously breeding and showing, whether or not you have a horse that is having difficulty understanding the difference between time to breed and time not to breed. As methods improve for selecting horses whose semen freezes well and for quality control for freezing and thawing, fertility results using frozen stallion semen are coming closer to that of fresh semen. This makes it possible for you to collect semen outside your heavy performance season, and you might be able to freeze enough for several years.

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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