I have a lot of breeder friends, both pro and amateur, and can’t seem to stop obsessively following all things sporthorse breeding-related. Our trip to Belgium last year to visit farms and watch the sBs stallion show will forever be one of the highlights of my life… I was in heaven. So, ya know, I guess you could say that sporthorse breeding is a subject very near and dear to my heart. Having worked at a breeding farm in the past and been involved with the breeding industry in some capacity for many years now, I have made a lot of observations along the way. I have certainly learned a ton in the decade since I first embarked on the journey to create my first homebred – much of it by trial and error.
Since breeding Sadie this year for what will be my second homebred (because yes, even having seen all the terrible things that I’ve seen, I’m still dumb enough to do this myself – TWICE), I’ve gotten a lot of questions and comments, and heard a lot of stories from people thinking about breeding their own mares. A few people even asked for my advice. Oh dear. My advice? Well, you’re about to get it. Strap yourself in, because here we go.
The mare is way more than 50% of the equation. She might contribute 50% of the pedigree, but foals tend to take WAY more after their dams in terms of general mannerisms, temperament, and often even in talent. There’s a reason those Europeans are all about their mare lines. Finding a good stallion is important, but having a good mare is imperative. If you don’t love pretty much everything about your mare, inside and out, you’re not going to like the baby very much once it gets beyond the cute, fuzzy phase (which is sadly quite short). I’m not saying your mare has to be world class, that’s unrealistic, but she needs to have a good temperament, you should find her enjoyable to own/ride, she can’t have any genetic or major conformational defects, and she has to be suitable for the sport you want to do.
Warmblood registries can be really freaking confusing. If you’re breeding for any of the Olympic disciplines, or for the hunter ring, odds are that you’re going to end up going through a warmblood registry for foal registration and papers. Make sure you understand their guidelines, terminology, and fine print well in advance of breeding, so there aren’t any unpleasant surprises later on. Each registry is different, so it’s important to have a thorough understanding of the rules and regs of whichever one you choose. If you can, attend an inspection and get an idea of what you’re in for. Even better – present your mare for inspection BEFORE you breed her. And definitely never be afraid to ask questions.
It can get really expensive really quickly. If it takes more than one attempt for the mare to become pregnant, if she has uterine infections, if your vet is not particularly proficient at reproductive work, if the semen quality is sub-par, if your mare needs to stay on Regumate for the duration of her pregnancy, if you have foaling complications, if the foal is unhealthy, if the mare dies, if the foal dies… all of these things can REALLY add up fast. And to add insult to injury, there’s a real possibility that you might have nothing to show for it in the end. Whatever you think your initial cost estimate is – write it down, light it on fire, and then start over with all of your numbers tripled.
The stud fee is probably the least expensive part. Because of the last point, don’t even bother getting super concerned about saving a few hundred bucks on a stud fee. You see people on the internet all the time asking for stallion suggestions “under $1200”. Girl, no. Just no. If you luck into a good deal on a great stallion, that’s perfect, but find the best match you can, don’t quibble and fret over a few hundred bucks and allow that to be your determining factor. If such a relatively small amount of money causes you anxiety, this is not the adventure for you.
It is so important to do your research. In every regard, you must be thorough. Creating a life (and make no mistake, that’s exactly what you’re doing) is a really heavy responsibility, something that should not be done with reckless abandon or blind naivete. The stallion, his offspring, the farm he stands at, his fertility, your mare’s fertility, her offspring, all of their ancestors, performance, temperament, traits they pass on, traits they don’t pass on, registry options, etc etc… you need to know all of it. We live in the internet age – use it. Find pictures, find videos, talk to people, read up on the bloodlines. There is a ton of information out there.
If you don’t have a good eye, enlist the assistance of someone who does. Can you pick a horse apart, piece by piece? Can you spot areas that need improvement, areas that are very strong, issues with movement, trends that are common among offspring? Can you tell a good front and hind end jumping technique from a bad one? Can you tell a decent canter from an excellent canter? If you want to increase the odds of producing a good match, you have to learn this, and you have to learn to see past personal feelings, a fancy looking horse, or a pretty picture. Every single horse has strengths and weaknesses, and every line has things that they consistently pass on or improve upon. Find them, evaluate them, and use them to help you make better choices.
The odds are in your favor… barely. Roughly 60-65% of breeding attempts result in a live foal. That means the other 35-40% either don’t become pregnant, lose the pregnancy, or have a complication that results in a stillborn foal. Finding an excellent repro specialist will increase your chances (sometimes exponentially) but this number is fairly steady industry-wide. Something will go awry more than 1/3 of the time. Expect it. Breeding can be heartbreaking.
Finding a good repro vet is vital. With every cycle that your mare fails to become pregnant, or every aborted pregnancy, money and time are lost. Your local vet might be great at lameness but that doesn’t mean they’re great at repro. Find someone who specializes in reproductive work, especially if you have a tricky mare or are using frozen semen. Also be wary of industry professionals who use incorrect terminology. A really common one: there is no such thing as an “absorbed” pregnancy. If your vet uses this term, it could possibly be a red flag about their equine reproductive qualifications. A lost pregnancy is an abortion and it is expelled via the cervix – the conceptus is just so tiny in early pregnancy that you’re unlikely to ever find signs of it. If they’re using incorrect basic terminology, what else are they getting wrong on your dime?
Foaling is effing scary. Yeah sure, it’s amazing, blah blah blah, miracle of life, blah blah, but really – it’s SCARY. Don’t believe me? Buy Blessed are the Brood Mares and try to get a good nights sleep after you read it (for real though, buy it, and The Foaling Primer, and throw in The Complete Book of Foaling for good measure). If you’ve never seen a mare give birth, you’re probably in for a very stressful night when your mare goes into labor. Foaling can be brutal, and things can go very very wrong in the blink of an eye. If you’re uncomfortable handling a foaling emergency, or if you don’t have a way to quickly and easily get a mare and foal to a vet for help, send your mare to a qualified professional for foaling. You don’t want that terror, trust me.
A live foal is only the beginning. Baby is here! You’ve made it! Mission accomplished! Well… you’ve made it to the beginning of the mission. Now you’re responsible for taking care of another horse, one that knows literally nothing. Those first few years are crucial – are you qualified to handle and train a horse that knows literally nothing? Foals are a totally different ballgame and to be honest, sometimes they’re huge jerks. Baby tantrums are real.
Breeding a horse to keep “forever” is unrealistic. This is something else you see pretty often, too. Person has a mare who they say is their “heart horse” and they really want to breed her. They know she has some major flaws, but that’s ok, because they’re going to keep the baby forever. Insert about one million eye rolls here. C’mon, man. That’s about as unrealistic as you can get. Things change, life happens, and there’s just no way to guarantee a “forever” anything. If you’re going to breed a horse, make something that is still useful and marketable. Train it to be a good citizen. Teach it manners, from day one. Those are the only ways to stack the odds in the horse’s favor so that it can have the best chance at a good life, whether it stays with you or not.
Duds are real. A lot of people don’t talk about this, but even the two very best parents can still produce an offspring that isn’t as good as they are. Sure, some things (like jumping ability) are more heritable than others, but if it were as easy as putting two great horses together, we’d have a world full of Sapphire’s and Sam’s and Blueberry’s. If you’re really trying to produce something very specific, you’re probably better off buying a horse that already exists. The idea of breeding is fun, because it lets us visit fantasyland for a while, but that’s a whole lot of time and money and risk to put into what is, ultimately, a best case scenario. Are you prepared for the worst case scenario?