Semen Collecting from a Blind Stallion

We have a Standardbred stallion that had a minor neurologic episode a few months ago that was never really figured out. He has recovered slowly back to normal, except that he has gone completely blind. He does well at pasture and you would hardly know he's blind. But we had planned to start breeding him this year. Can we train this blind stallion--who has never bred before--for semen collection? via e-mail

I've only worked with a couple of completely blind stallions, and they did really well at breeding. My intuition is that blind horses adjust amazingly well. They can do tasks they already know and learn new ones. I have worked in some learning experiments with horses that have worn full blinder cups to block vision after they had learned a task, and it's pretty amazing how well they do at a task they already know. We sometimes use a full blindfold to calm extremely rowdy stallions when training them to breed, and they seem to do really well at mounting and breeding if guided up to the mount. So my intuition is that this horse could learn to breed.

You will want a very skilled team in a safely enclosed facility. A lot will depend on how excited he gets and if he gets unwieldy or can take direction from the handler. You might want to try ground semen collection as an alternative to mounting.

Followup: This stallion came to our veterinary school's reproduction clinic for introduction to breeding. The owners elected to try him with a dummy mount since that was the method of semen collection to which they were accustomed at their breeding farm. The handler worked with the stallion for a few minutes before going into the breeding shed. His goal was to establish the basic ground commands needed in the breeding shed--forward, stop, and back--and to get a feel for how the horse took direction.

The stallion was then introduced to a mare that was restrained in safe teasing stocks. Everything proceeded just as we do for a sighted stallion. He was teased up, washed, then taken to the dummy mount. We used estrous mare urine on the dummy to stimulate his focus on the dummy mount. When he was squared up behind the dummy and appearing ready to mount, the clinician stimulated the stallion with the artificial vagina while at the same time the handler encouraged him to bump his chest into the dummy. These two steps done simultaneously evoked the stallion's first mount, which proceeded normally and was successful. Within three brief training sessions, the stallion reached a level of organization in the breeding shed that we felt he was on his way and could transition to the home farm for acclimation to their set-up.

One really fun finding was that in that short time the stallion was with us, he learned to orient to the sound of the clinician tapping on the end of the dummy mount as the stallion was approaching. The stallion appeared to use the sound to judge his distance from the dummy mount and to approach squarely from behind. The transition to the home farm went smoothly.

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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