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Breeding for the Better

September 2017 by Jane Myers and Jeanette Gower

Breeding a foal is a decision that requires careful planning and should never be taken lightly. The first question to seriously consider is: Why do you want to breed a foal? 

Unfortunately, even with the best intentions and hopes, many breeders worldwide are simply contributing to the horse overpopluation reflected by the large number of horses that are ‘unwanted’ or considered ‘wastage’ of the various horse industries. 

Breeders should be the first to assume the long-term responsibility for every foal produced. Self-regulation is the key and, in the following article, Jane Myers and Jeanette Gower highlight some of the considerations to make in advance if we are to give those future foals the best possible chance. 

If you are considering breeding or starting a stud, then you need a plan. Even if you are already operating a stud, you still need a plan to check that you are carrying out a responsible and viable horse breeding operation. 

You could start by putting together a checklist like the one within this article to help you consider all of the necessary responsibilities when breeding horses. 

1 | Market

The first and most important thing for a breeder to consider is the market. Is your ‘product’ actually in demand? What is your competition? Are mare and stallion from sought-after lines? Or, is there something else about them that will make the offspring saleable? Temperament should be as important as conformation and bloodlines. It is especially easy for irresponsible breeders to ignore inherent behavioural defects that result in horses with invisible, yet defective genes. 

2 | Costs 

Your plan needs to involve cost planning for feed and labour. For example, do you know how many man hours it takes to put one or say, five foals on the ground each year and to keep them up to selling age? Your checklist could have boxes for calculations up to riding age - when most are sold. There is no excuse to say they will be sold beforehand, because they mostly do not. Your plan also needs to include extras that tend to come with the territory, such as retirees, horses that cannot be sold, and ones you keep to promote the stud and use for breeding. 

3 | Sales, checks and guarantees 

Plan for how you will prepare and present horses for sale, with appropriate advertising and service, to give each horse a good chance. Essentials, such as a good website, decent photos and responding properly to enquiries should be expected of any reputable breeder. It is also irresponsible not to agree to take back a horse that you have bred, with no fuss, if it falls into hard times. Breeders should assess the potential purchaser for suitability just as thoroughly as the buyer should check out the breeder. 

4 | Value

Breeders need to realise the value of their breed and breeding program is the value they can sell geldings for. It is easier to think only of the horses you dream about producing and to forget, in the process, you will inevitably breed horses that don’t fulfil anyone’s dreams! Plan what to do with the horses that do not make the grade to be breeding stock or saleable produce - i.e. the horses that are the ‘wrong’ colour/size or with temperament/soundness/conformation defects. 

Some may lack the ‘looks’, but have a future as a good riding horse if they have a good temperament and legs, but they will need training to show they are going well under saddle to prove their worth. 

Above all, avoid the delusion that if any of your stock do not make the grade, then they can always be a companion horse/ lawnmower/paddock ornament. There are already huge numbers of horses that fulfil this criteria, including ‘wastage’ from various horse industries. 

5 | Selection criteria 

Think very carefully about what you are planning to breed and what selection criteria you will apply when formulating matings. Are you pandering to fashion? The problem with fashion is that it comes and goes. The trouble with horses is they live for a very long time and definitely outlive fashions. You may well breed horses that will no longer be in demand in a few years’ time. 

If you are breeding for a certain colour or size, or both, you need to plan what to do with the ones that do not have the right attributes. The much more important attributes of temperament, soundness and functionality can go out of the window when selecting breeding stock for colour/size, because a horse can win in the show ring with a poor temperament or unsoundness. 

Temperament and trainability should be top of the selection criteria list (followed closely by conformation and soundness) to give all offspring the best chance to enjoy good quality of life even if they do not make the grade in terms of colour, size and other cosmetic criteria. 

Some breeders think if something is ‘rare’ everyone else will want it (and then exhaust themselves and their family promoting this ‘rare’ breed). Others come up with elaborate cross-breeds and complicate it further by aiming for a specific colour or size, producing horses destined to add to the already overpopulated pet market. The more cosmetic criteria (colour, size, etc) you aim for, the more ‘wastage’ there is likely to be. 

6 | Genetics

You need a good knowledge of genetics, and of the background of your chosen breed and the performances of horses in the pedigrees. Do you know what genetic diseases are prevalent in your chosen breed? Are you committed to helping eradicate them? Do you understand conformation and its influence? You need to be able to read a pedigree properly and be able to design suitable matings that have the maximum chance of the foal being an improvement on the parents and a worthy representative of the breed. 

7 | Controlling breeding 

Gelding colts is essential (especially when starting out) and it does cost money, which must be budgeted for. Gelding is a necessary means to promoting yourself as a quality breeder. Having ‘accidents’ and sub-standard colts on your property does nothing to encourage buyers or enhance your reputation. It is the first sign of a hoarder. 

8 | Breed registers

Breeders who breed horses for which there is no register are at risk of condemning their horses to a very small and oversupplied market. At the same time, many breeders do not spend time involving themselves with their breed society helping, learning and networking. They cut corners with registrations, because they see that as ‘losing money’. 

On the other hand, breed societies could do a lot more to help with the problem of over-breeding. They could put together checklists to help people thinking of getting into the breed. They could start to encourage temperament tests at shows so breeders are rewarded for producing safe and trainable animals, rather than just pretty ones. 

They could educate people about the facts and costs of breeding horses. Associations could take more responsibility for regulating out genetic diseases within their breed. They could offer gelding incentives and performance incentives for geldings. They could work with genetics consultants and classify breeding stock (particularly stallions) and studs as meeting certain criteria. Quality studs would then be recognised by the breed association itself for adhering to responsible horse breeding practices. 

9 | Support network

Your plan needs to include your family and take into account their involvement. For example, if you are relying heavily on your husband to do the manual work and your children to ride the produce of your stud what will happen if your husband decides he has had enough (as many do), and when your children grow up and leave home? 

10 | Training

A stud needs a rider (or riders), because it is a delusion to think you will be able to sell your stock unbroken for good money. A stud must have the manpower to take this into consideration or the money to employ someone. If not, you are indeed operating under a delusion. 

11 | Do you need a stallion? 

There are too many breeders standing more than one stallion at once with insufficient promotion and business skills. It is not a good idea to start a breeding program by having a stallion first, then getting some mares for him. 

A stud does not need a stallion, unless they regularly breed more than five foals per year. Until then, it is best to use artificial insemination, or send the mares out and gain the experience, whilst you pick the brains of other reputable breeders. Learn which stallions are putting out the best foals and which sell readily. Not every named stallion is actually improving on the mares he is bred to and is relying on the calibre of his mares to make a name for the stud. 

12 | Stallion owner’s responsibilities

Too many breeders with a stallion accept mares that are not suitable. Once you own a stallion, it is too tempting to accept mares to justify having him and to make him ‘earn his keep’. Too many breeders are breeding from mares that have never been broken in and/or are of unsuitable temperament, mistaking ‘cute and cuddly’ for a ‘good temperament’. How can you know the soundness, trainability and temperament of your mare if she has not been performed under saddle? 

Ultimately, horse breeding is self-regulating, and breeders themselves have to take the initiative and become responsible custodians of their industry. 

If they don’t, someone somewhere will eventually start to ask difficult questions about where this surplus of ‘unwanted’, often sub-standard horses are coming from, which will lead to regulation from outside the industry. It is easy to start to think responsibly about breeding and you have a moral obligation to try. 

For a more comprehensive Breeding Code of Conduct, visit: http://bit.ly/2wKiv0n and join the Responsible Horse Breeders Network on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/responsiblehorsebreeders/