A Breeder's Perspective
By: Julie Behrends Jones
Breeding horses, in this case American Saddlebred and half Saddlebred horses, can fulfill dreams but it can easily become exorbitantly expensive. I have been breeding horses for a few years now, and have had some success, and it has been a learning experience for sure! I have discovered than by ‘doing it right’ I have less problems, and more success, and that makes it more affordable in the long run. By doing it right I mean not taking shortcuts and going cheap. If you don’t mind, I’ll share a few things I have learned along the way. These are only my experiences: I may leave something out because I don’t know about it, and I’ll only include what I personally know.
One thing I do know for sure is that you never stop learning. There may be something you want to try, it may be something you don’t want to try, but always be open to learning more. I have been blessed to have fabulous mentors and receive good advice from industry professionals. What has worked for me may very well not work for you, and I am by no means any kind of expert, but I’d like to share what I has worked well in my experience.
One thing to remember: it takes several years to get a return on your investment. You need to be patient. I personally loosely plan on a 4 to 5-year ROI from when I make a breeding decision and purchase a stud fee. (In my experience that stud fee will not be my biggest expense, so I pay to breed to successful stallions, and I don’t let the stud fee deter me. Ask if you can make payments on a more expensive stud fee, you never know what you can work out)
There are things that a person can do to help keep costs from breaking the bank and hopefully providing a better chance of success.
- Make a PLAN: define your goals! Do you want to raise a show horse for yourself? Colts to market? Make sure that you include gameness, athleticism and quality in your breeding decisions.
- Make a realistic budget. Don’t spend yourself into the poorhouse.
- Buy the best mare (s) you can buy. One great/ really good mare will make you more successful than 10 average/common mares.
- DO YOUR RESEARCH ON BLOODLINES
- Access the databank on the ASHBA website, it can be one of your best research tools.
- Old magazines have a wealth of information.
- Find mentors, ask a pro! Most everyone involved in the ASB breeding world is awesome and willing to share knowledge and encouragement.
- Don’t waste money on mares that need to be “bred up”. If they need to be “bred up” there’s a chance they probably don’t need to be bred.
- In my opinion, look for mares with lots of BHF’s and with a strong tail female line that have produced winners. A history of strong female production could help increase the chances of success. If there are mares that have missed getting their BHF’s but are successful producers, by all means don’t discount them.
- IMHO mares contribute as much and more than the stallion does.
- IMHO the maternal/ tail female line is very important: in your mare and the dam line of the stallion you breed her to. (This is just my personal opinion!)
- If you see other breeders successful cross, give it consideration. There’s nothing wrong with a little breeding plagiarism, and isn’t that a sincere form of flattery? ;)
- Breed to the best stallion you can afford to, and go see him in the flesh. (Photoshop is not your friend) Ask the stallion owner/manager what kind of mares he seems to be crossing best with. Do you research online about his family and what were/are successful crosses. Contact owners of his foals and ask if they are happy with them.
- It is easier to get interest in your colts when they have bloodlines that are popular and well know. Obscure and unknown pedigrees may be fabulous but understand that you may not get much interest until that particularly bred individual is successful under saddle.
- Consider leasing a mare. Call mare owners with mares that you like.. asking is cheap and you may be surprised to find you can lease a quality mare for a season. Contracts are needed in this instance!
- Buying embryos from successful mares is an option.
- Partnering with other people: Make sure you have a well written contract and agreement in place if this is a consideration. Partnerships can spread the expenses, but you have to share with the income as well.
- There are pros and cons to ET and ICSI, but these technologies can make it possible to maximize the production of a good mare. This allows you to maximize a mare providing multiple offspring, and extending a mares reproductive life well into their 20’s.
- Please don’t breed a mare just to breed her and show your kids “the miracle of birth/life”.
- Breeding philosophies: There are good books available to read about breeding philosophies: most are about thoroughbred breeders, but it is worth reading on how mating decisions are made. Know what line breeding, in breeding and outcrossing means. Also understand what genotype and phenotype is. I feel that both should be strong and correct in your mares ( they should LOOK like what they are on paper/pedigree)
You’ve decided on a mare and stallion, now what?
- Decide if you are going to breed her at home or send her to a professional who can get her in foal for you. No matter which one, make sure your mare is clean. By clean as in her uterus is healthy and she does not have active infection. A thorough repro exam at the beginning of breeding season by a qualified veterinarian well versed in repro can save you in time and the extra expenses of repeat collection and shipping expenses, as well as multiple palpation exams. Make sure she has a clean culture and cytology along with good perianal confirmation. (No urine pooling, etc.) Do uterine cultures AND cytology’s, and it is sent to a reputable lab.
- Starting with a clean healthy mare can save hundreds if not thousands in expenses.
- Healthy: current on vaccinations, dental work, deworming. (Vaccines will save you money in preventing/ mitigating diseases such as Tetanus, West Nile, Sleeping Sickness, Rhino, PHF.. all diseases that can kill your horse/abort your pregnancies, etc) Keep your mares in good flesh. If she has Cushing’s disease, she can be managed for more breeding success. If you are keeping and managing your mare, find a veterinarian who does a large amount of equine work, and is well versed in reproduction work. “Just” a vet who is not well versed in reproduction can cost you in time and money by not being experienced and missing things. THE AAEP (American Association of Equine Practitioners) maintains a list of veterinarians who are members and specialize more in equine work. If you can find a veterinarian board certified in reproduction, even better! That shows they have spent extra time, money and training to specialize in reproduction. Ask around, get references. This one decision can make or break your breeding season.
- Work WITH your vet, listen to him/her, be respectful of the busy breeding season schedule, don’t be a pain in the rear or nightmare mare owner, and pay your vet bills on time.
- Keep up the line of communication with the stallion owner. Know and understand their schedules. Give them heads up as soon as possible so they can plan on semen shipments appropriately. This can insure you get your semen when it is needed, and fewer emergency counter to counter late night airport semen pick up breed your mare at 1AM because she’s fixing to ovulate and you were late calling the stallion people.
- Semen quality: you want to make sure the semen that shows up is in good order. Your vet can take some back to the clinic with them to check, but there is a cool gadget on the market to check semen on the farm, stall side. It is an i-sperm, a tablet with specialized software and a microscope where the camera lens is, and it does a remarkable job of semen evaluation. (Stallion owners/managers, this is a pet peeve: throw away beat up disposable semen shippers. They ae labelled DISPOSABLE because you use them a few times and throw them away. Equitainers are the gold standard of semen shipping for a reason. Research shows those used, beat up Styrofoam shipping containers do a poor job of shipping fresh cooled semen, especially in the summer.)
- Alternate considerations: You can go to school and learn how to ultrasound and breed your own mares (NEVER work on anyone else’s mares that is practicing veterinary medicine without a license and you can be prosecuted for this) this can save you heaps of money but be sure to maintain good relationship with your vet in case you get difficult to manage mares.
- Own your own stallion and breed your own mares. This is probably the least expensive way of producing foals.
- She’s pregnant now what? Pull a progesterone level to make sure she will maintain her pregnancy. This can save in fetal loss. Caslicks may be indicated: follow your veterinarians recommendations. Vaccinate appropriately. Deworm, and dental care as needed. Maintain her in good order. Get a heartbeat pregnancy check, a 45 day and 60+day, and consider a late fall check. If she’s open, she can then be managed as an open mare. Vaccinate your mare 30-45days prior to foaling for those antibodies to be present in her colostrum. Deworm her prior to foaling to help lower transmission of parasites to the foal.
- Are you foaling her out or sending her out? If you decide to DIY and have no experience in this, then educate yourself. There are great resources: two books I like are ‘Blessed Are The Broodmares’ and ‘Foal to Five Years’ both available on Amazon. Colorado State University has some great posters and educational material on its website. If you don’t want to foal your mare out there are reputable people in the industry that offer these services, but slots fill up quick. In Lexington and the surrounding area, there are farms that offer foaling services to any kind of breed. Ask around and get references. It can be somewhat expensive, but your mare will have experienced help to take care of her and her foal. Some veterinary hospitals offer foaling as well.
- So you have a foal. Now what? Raise it, make sure you provide proper nutrition and care. Ask your vet about rhoococcus and rota virus, these are two diseases that foals are suspectable to. Mares can be vaccinated for rotavirus, and plasma can be given to help protect against rhodococcus. Deworm as your vet recommends. Vaccinations as needed. Losing a foal to a preventable disease is heartbreaking and not to mention, a big loss of money! There is a cool new microchip that can track you foals temperature, and an app that tracks their health: vaccinations, etc. Make sure that you have nominated your foals to futurities, it can increase marketability and make you some money!
- And now it’s time to go to a trainer. Find a good one, not a “cheap” one, you get what you pay for. Get references, ask around. Don’t go to the kid down the road who ‘thinks’ they are horse trainers. That is a surefire way to not save money in the long run. Go visit prospective trainers, discuss with them what your goals are. A particular trainer may specialize in divisions that are not appropriate for your goals, so make sure to be clear in what you are trying to achieve.
- You pay your trainer to train your horses not be your BFF, don’t bug them every day, be aware that they have other clients, and are very busy. Aim for a professional, mutually respectful relationship.
- Ask for a price sheet/contract. That lets you know what to expect and budget for.
- Set realistic goals with your trainer.
- Go see your horse in person every so often (not every day)
- Listen to your trainer, but if you see that things are not going well, you may need to move your horse. Open communication will help in this situation.
- Sometimes after all you’ve done it doesn’t work out, your horse doesn’t have what it takes to be successful in what you hoped and dreamed for. There are divisions that your horse could do well in, but you need to be practical and realistic: you will not get 50K for a 3-year-old greenbroke western or hunter prospect. It is your responsibility to find this creature a job please don’t go dump it at the local cattle auction and think all will be well, chances are it will end up on a dinner plate in Europe. Cutting your losses rather than throwing good money after bad will save you in the long run. Hanging on to a horse for months to get an extra thousand dollars in a sale can cost you heaps and doesn’t make sense. Sometimes you just need to cut your losses and move on. This decision in itself can save you thousands of dollars.
- Some ways to mitigate unexpected expenses: insurance. There are good insurance companies that can insure a wide range of things: Pregnancies, frozen embryos, your mares, your stallion, your frozen semen, you would be surprised at the offerings. Having an expensive investment insured can help you sleep better at night and in the event of a loss, help recoup expenses.
- Breeding horses isn’t cheap and making cheap shortcut decisions can actually cost you so much more in the long run than doing it right in the first place.
I googled Colorado State University reproduction books: There were some really good books on reproduction to buy as well as PDF’s to download and print. I was impressed. Here is the link:
I personally am a big believer that proper nutrition can help keep animals healthy for
their intended purpose. Feeding your horses a bag of feed labeled “good for cattle, sheep,
goats, pigs and horses” may be cheap but it probably isn’t the best for your horse. Reputable
manufacturers make different feeds for different needs: mares in foal, mares and foals, foals
and weanlings, senior horses, horses with Cushings, you name it they have a feed for it and
feeding a quality feed maybe more expensive per BAG but usually your cost per day is almost
the same as cheap feed because you don’t have to feed so much of it.
ET and ISCS resources:
In Lexington and the surrounding areas, we are blessed to have excellent veterinarians who can come to your farm, breed your mare, then come back and flush her to ship an embryo off to wherever it needs to go. There are also large veterinary hospitals that offer these services on a haul in and leave your mare basis. I do believe one large equine hospital in Lexington is going to be offering ICSI soon, but for now I personally only know of Equine Medical Services in Columbia Mo. and Colorado State. (That doesn’t mean there aren’t more facilities offering it, I am only familiar with these: do your research!) If you are considering buying frozen embryos or doing ET or ICSI you need to get your contracts in early, there is a real shortage of recipient (surrogate) mares and space is limited in their programs. Kentucky Equine Research has good information about supplements and how they affect equine health. Ker.com is the website.
There are some good repro forums on social media. There is a wealth of information to be had via the internet and there is information that is garbage. Your due diligence in these matters matters!
I wish you all nothing but the best of luck in your breeding efforts!