Vet Talk

On Shaky Legs: Another Look at Foaling Season, Part 1

Breeding horses is an expensive, time consuming, often frustrating, and risky business

March 3, 2014 (published)

Foals induce a sort of spring madness. Almost anyone with a horse, a patch of land that could conceivably house a horse, or a collection of Breyer miniatures is susceptible. But for all of the fuzzy miracles frolicking in green fields or wobbling on shaky legs toward their dams’ udders, there are other pictures that aren’t quite so miraculous.

Breeding horses is not all glamour, champagne, and adorable future champions. It is an expensive, time consuming, often frustrating, and risky business.

In fact, it is a business best considered with clear eyes and a clear head. Put down the champagne glass and stud catalogues, and let’s take a look at some considerations along the trail from “Ooh, let’s breed her!” to the next Derby winner.

We’ll take the next three weeks to look at the full foal frolic – from concept to conception to manifestation.

Part I – The Decision

1. Money
No one likes to talk price, so let’s get the ugliness over first. Breeding horses, even breeding horse, is expensive. It is much cheaper to buy a pre-made model than to go the DIY route when it comes to equines.

When you budget to breed your mare, look beyond the stud fee. Remember to factor in veterinary costs for pre-breeding exam and cultures, follicle checks, artificial insemination (if you’re going that route), ultrasounds, sedation, wellness care such as dental work and vaccinations, and the unforeseen. That last one is the big, black box. Despite everyone’s best efforts, mares often don’t read the reproduction manuals. If you’ve set a mental budget that relies on her to conceive at the first breeding, you’re setting yourself up for a nasty bout of frustration and sticker shock if things don’t follow the plan.

You may also need to budget for facilities (see point 2, below), extra help, or board at a professional breeding/mare care barn if you decide that the whole process lies beyond your resources, dedication, or expertise.

2. Facilities
When dealing with horses, where is a big part of how. Reproductive and obstetrical work on the horse is done at the kicking end. Strange as it may seem, many horses disapprove of arms being inserted into their hind orifices. Your veterinarian needs a safe place to perform rectal and/or vaginal exams on your mare – safe for the vet and safe for the horse. Breeding stocks are ideal.

If you’re planning on foaling out your mare at home, you also need a safe “delivery room.” A normal 12’ x 12’ box stall or pipe corral isn’t going to cut it. A mare in labor takes up a lot of space, and new foals have an intensified version of the equine knack for finding trouble.

Granted, stall dimensions are a bit dependent on horse size, but for the average riding horse, a 20’ x 20’ stall is ideal. In some climates, you can use a clean, grassy paddock, but if it’s cold or rainy you may want to rethink that plan. I know of at least one foal in my former practice that was born unobserved, rolled into a large puddle, and drowned.

This brings us to monitoring. Yes, the birthing process is natural, but so is the dying process. Mares have incredibly fast active labors; the average time from the water breaking to a foal on the ground is 20 minutes or less. To achieve this impressive foal expulsion, the mare’s uterus contracts with amazing power. When everything goes right, the system is beautiful, but if something is awry, the whole thing can go very wrong very fast. If a mare needs help delivering her foal, she needs it immediately – otherwise both mare and foal die.

There are lots of ways to monitor foaling. There are detectors that can be sewn to either side of the mare’s vulva so that when a foal nose separates the two halves, an alarm sounds. Some barns use cameras to monitor remotely. Some people move their bed out to the barn aisle or simply give up sleeping.

Another option is sending your mare to a professional breeding/mare care facility. Yep, there are folks who do this for a living. This does, however, bring us back to point 1, i.e., can you afford this option? Check your contract, find out what is included, and find out their standard action plan for veterinary care in case of emergency. Have a clear picture of both best-case and worst-case scenario costs.

3. Knowledge
The fastest way to get in over one’s head is to drown in ignorance. Be honest -- brutally, 3 o’clock in the morning, dying confession honest -- with yourself about your horse breeding knowledge and experience. Just as there is a vast gulf between taking riding lessons and owning a horse, there is a similar canyon between the lands of horse owner and horse breeder.

If you are new to horse ownership or have never been around a foaling mare, I strongly suggest getting some hands-on experience if you’re going the do-it-at-home route. Volunteer at a breeding stable, take a class through your local university extension service, or pick the brain of everyone you know, but find out what “normal” looks like and what to expect when your mare is expecting. Yes, I know you read the magazine article, and you saw a video once. Don’t stop there. Become obsessed, 12-year-old-horse-crazy-girl obsessed.

4. Mare
“Should this mare be bred?” seems like such an obvious question that it should either be at the top or not asked at all. After all, who is going to go through the time and expense to breed a mare who isn’t a good candidate? You’d be surprised. I may have been naïve, but I was shocked when I first started hearing statements like these:

“She’s too wild to train, so we figured we’d breed her and she’ll settle down after she has a foal.”
“She’s too lame to ride, so we’re going to make a broodmare out of her.”
“We don’t need another horse, but she was free, and she’s kind of old, so we’re just going to get a foal or two out of her while we can.”

NO. Nonononono. Veterinarian stamps her foot. Okay, breathing deeply, let’s address these scenarios one at a time.

Myth 1: Breeding a mare will “settle her down.” I’m not quite sure how this one gained a foothold in the horseman’s psyche, but I’ve heard it more than once. While some mares with hormonally-induced behavioral issues may change their behavior while pregnant, a more common scenario with poorly socialized mares involves foal rejection by the mare, an inability to safely handle the foal because the mare is too aggressive to allow people near it, the mare raising an equally hell-raising offspring, or some lovely combination of the above.

Myth 2: Lame mare = broodmare. Some career-ending injuries are perfectly compatible with breeding. Others are not.

If a mare is lame due to a condition linked to heritable body type (conformation), breeding her is not likely to improve the performance longevity of the breed. Think of it this way – does the world really need another club-footed horse? Or another Quarter Horse with tiny feet holding up a 1200-lb body?

Also, front-limb injuries are less pregnancy-friendly than hind-end lamenesses. Since horses carry over 70% of their body weight on the front end, adding another 100+ pounds of foal and fluid to the load can sometimes be too much to bear (literally).

Myth 3: Breeding a mare will somehow “pay for her keep.” This myth is a particularly dangerous trap when we are talking about an old mare or one without any notable bloodlines or accomplishments. Older mares, especially those who haven’t carried foals routinely, have age-related changes that may make it more difficult (and expensive!) for them to conceive and to carry a foal to term. And, for the mares with lackluster genetics or performance records, frankly, the horse market isn’t good enough to make breeding them profitable. There are over 170,000 unwanted horses per year in the United States. Do you really want to add to that total?

5. Time
You may have thought you spend a lot of your time in the barn now. Guess what? Breeding your mare means adding another horse, and mama mare isn’t going to do all of the work. Unless your horses reside on permanent pasture 24/7, adding a foal means more poop to scoop. Mom feeds the baby for a while, but you will need to begin creep feeding (introducing solid feeds to baby using a specially blocked off area that mom can’t enter) sooner than you think. Also, that foal isn’t going to halter-break itself, nor will it train itself to be groomed and have its feet picked up.

Contrary to some schools of thought, it has not been my experience that these tasks get easier when the foal is older. Unless someone is breeding mutant-reverse-growth horses, they don’t get any smaller or easier to handle as they get older.

These things all take time – lots and lots of time. Every. Single. Day.

Speaking of time, we’re running out for now. But I want to leave you with a final thought from veterinarian Jean Feldman. “If you can’t stand to lose her, don’t breed her.”

Tune in next week for part 2 when we look at your mare as she develops that special glow.


City Limits Ranch 
May 6, 2014

We have a small horse ranch owned by a veterinarian and a career horse woman.  We also run a non profit that provides horsemanship opportunities for children and adults.  10 years ago we had a well bred older cutting mare with a lameness worked up at UCDavis.  The lameness was permanent.  We had a repro workup also, because although others had gotten that mare in foal several times, she had never delivered a baby.  After finding out her problem was most likely a failure to maintain the pregnancies due to low progesterone we bred her.  And bred her again, and almost gave up but returned her to the stallion one last time.  Then we gave her progesterone daily during her pregnancy.  And built a special foaling pen with dog proof fencing (now occupied by our rescued mini horse and donkey.)  And an acre pasture also with dog proof fencing.  We monitored and predicted foaling with a test on the colostrum daily (and it predicted it nicely.)  We checked on her every two hours around the clock for a week.  We missed the foaling but all went well.  We tested the foal for FPT the next day. When the baby was a week old she choked on some straw and we called a 'real' (equine) veterinarian.  We imprinted the foal, halter trained her and paid a pro trainer to start her at 3 years old.  We kept her in training on and off for the next 9 years.  She is  one of our's dream horse and we plan to keep her for life and we know who will take her if we both die.  However, she probably cost us at least $25,000 to raise to age 5.

Christy Corp-Minamiji, DVM 
March 27, 2014 

Thanks, Holly, for sharing your experiences!  You made some excellent points and touched on something I neglected to mention in this series.  Foals are expensive to raise, and in most breeds, they don't start to "earn their keep" for several years.

March 26, 2014

In the cost category....most studs are now kept at breeding facilities. That means Not Near You. So you should factor in shipping costs for the semen and that will run you $2-250 per shipment. If that shipment happens to be flown then Fedex'd in...better not be at work as it need to be refrigerated. Oh, and not frozen either. Again, in regard to cost.....I bought AND shipped my young mare when she was coming 3. Her total cost (purchase and shipping) was less than what her breeder had in stud fees. Not counting the feed/training costs for the two years her breeder owned her. WAY cheaper to buy than breed and you can get the bloodlines, color, and gender you want.


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