Successfully Breed Your Mare
Whether To Breed
Although I'm assuming here you really want to breed, here are a few things to consider first:
1. Is there a market for the kind of foal your mare will produce? You may be thinking you're going to keep the foal, but what if something happens and you no longer can?
2. Is your mare worth breeding? Is she sound (except for injuries known to have been caused by accidents or sports injuries)? Does she have a good temperament? Is she nicely put together? Is she good at something? I don't mean she has to be a show champion, but if she's your trail horse, is she a good trail horse?
3. Can you afford the expense? Your mare may require supplementation or even drugs during her pregnancy. Although most mares foal with no complications, can you afford to have the vet come over and help?
4. What will you do if something goes wrong and you end up with a live foal and a dead mare? Can you handle hand-rearing the foal if all else fails?
5. What if the foal turns out to be no use to anyone because of complications, disease or injury? Can you face possibly having to have a foal euthanized, or keep the horse forever as a pasture ornament?
Find A Good Repro Vet
Before even considering breeding, you need to locate a good veterinarian. Your regular vet may or may not be able to handle it. If he can't, he may know of somebody. You could also call up local breeding farms and ask who they use.
You need a vet with experience dealing with broodmares and foals, not a generalist. And you need one you get on with, because if something goes wrong, you may be seeing an awful lot of him.
Get a Repro Exam
Once you have found your vet, have him come over and examine your mare. She should have a full pre-breeding exam, especially if she has never been bred before.
Before the vet shows up, consider how regular your mare's cycles are. How difficult is she when she is in heat? If you have her on Regumate, remember that you will want to stop it in the fall before breeding, to give it chance to get out of her system (Regumate works very similarly to the birth control pill and suppresses ovulation).
The vet will want to know her history and her age. To your knowledge has she ever been bred? If so, did she have the foal successfully, or did she slip (miscarry). Maiden mares over 15 are often very challenging to get in foal. Is there any record of her conceiving twins?
He will ask what supplements and medications she is on. Some supplements or medications may affect fertility and have to be discontinued.
Then, he will conduct a physical exam. He will look at her overall condition and conformation, and may alert you if she has a narrow birth canal, poor girth depth or other conformational features that can make breeding more difficult. He will also look at the specific conformation of her vulva.
Then he will perform a rectal exam. This means he will literally reach in through the mare's rectum and examine her cervix, uterus and ovaries. He is looking for abnormalities of any kind and it is even possible to determine her hormonal levels and where she is in her cycle. He may also recommend an ultrasound exam.
At this stage, however, the vet is checking for problems that may cause difficulty with conception and pregnancy. These problems include a 'dirty' mare (contamination in the uterus, which horses are particularly prone to) or ovarian cysts. If she has endometrial cysts, the vet will want to document where they are as they can cause problems with pregnancy tests. He may take a culture from her uterus.
When all this is said and done, he will either give you a green light or want to talk about problems your mare might have.
I recommend against breeding a mare that has narrow, masculine hips and a narrow birth canal, as this increases both the risk of complications and the risk of getting a stunted foal.
Choose Your Stallion
This is probably the hardest part of the entire process.
The stallion you choose should be conformationally sound and with a good temperament (although the mare's temperament is actually more important, as she is the one who teaches the foal its manners).
Beyond that, before looking for a stallion, you should do two things:
1. Make a list of your mare's conformational faults.
2. Get what you want the foal to be good at very clear in your mind.
You should select a stallion who is good at what you want to do with the foal and who has close relatives and offspring that are also good at it. Always breed type to type. If the stallion is unproven, then it is very important to look at his relatives, but also why he is unproven. There is no sense breeding to a two or three year old, but a horse who was "unshown due to injury" may suit your needs.
Once you have a short list of stallions, go see them (in person if possible) and make a list of their conformational faults. Immediately discard any stallion who has the same faults as your mare. In fact, the ideal is often to go for the opposite 'fault' - to breed a horse with upright pasterns, for example, to one with exceptionally sloping ones.
Only then consider things like price, color and whether you like the horse and his foals. One rule often used in breeding is "If you like him, breed to his sire".
If your mare has Impressive in her lines, she should be tested for HYPP before breeding. Pinto mares and mares from Paint lines should also be tested for the Frame gene. There might be other genetic disorders to test for. If your mare has either of these, then make extra sure the stallion does not. HYPP results in a horrible disease and two copies of the Frame gene produces a white foal that dies at birth. Neither is a desirable outcome.
Prepare Your Facilities
While you are drooling over stallions, make sure you have the facilities for a foal.
In mild climates, mares can and often do foal best outside in a small paddock. Although many breeding farms now speak out against this practice, it is more natural and, therefore, less stressful.
However, it is best to have a foaling box ready. You can also create one by closing the entrance of a run-in shed. The very minimum size for a foaling box is 12 ft x 12 ft, and most breeding farms go with 16 ft x 16 ft. Obviously, if your mare is a pony, you can probably get away with less space, but might need even more for an 18 hand draft.
Do not foal a mare out on shavings...they are sharp and can cause injury to the fragile newborn. Clean straw is the best bedding. The foaling box should also have good access. Bear in mind that you will be leading two horses in and out before too long, even if one of them is going to be rather small.
Foaling boxes should have a bucket held up off the ground and a hay rack. Hay nets are generally not suitable.
Finally, consider a closed circuit television so you can monitor your mare without her knowledge. Mares are notorious for waiting until you leave to foal - and a mare can drop her foal in as little as ten minutes. Their natural desire is to be alone when they foal, and they seem to have some control over the process. Discount stores have cheap, but perfectly sufficient, CCTVs available.
Avoid heat lamps - they are generally not safe and you are unlikely to need one.
Arrange The Breeding
There are basically two ways to breed your mare - live cover or frozen semen. Beyond that, there are variations.
I would not recommend that a novice breeder have semen shipped and attempt to do the insemination themselves...it's a tricky task that can end with an injured mare if it goes wrong. If, however, you have somebody with experience you can get to do it, or the vet, then go for it. Novices also often cannot tell where their mare is in the cycle. AI works best when done at the optimum time.
If you are sending your mare away to be bred, she may be covered by the stallion or they may perform on-site artificial insemination. Inspect the facility as carefully as you would any place you would put your horse. Most barns require that a leather or breakaway halter with the mare's name on it go with her...bear in mind that a large breeding farm may have as many as forty or fifty mares that they don't know on the premises at any given time and don't want to get them confused. If your mare is potentially aggressive towards other horses, let them know.
If you have a Thoroughbred or Standardbred and want the foal to be eligible to race, then it must be conceived by live cover.
Some breeders in Europe, especially pony breeders, still do 'natural cover' or 'pasture breeding', where the mare is turned out with the stallion and they are left to it. If you go with a breeder that uses this method, expect your mare to be away for two or three months.
Is She Pregnant?
You will want to be sure of this as soon as possible. It is very difficult to determine pregnancy in horses visually, even into the tenth or eleventh month. Pretty much everyone who has been in the horse industry for a long time has at least one story in which they or a friend went to the barn to discover they had one more horse than they did yesterday.
Equine pregnancy tests do exist, but they are somewhat hard to use. Some test urine, others test blood. It is often better to get your repro vet to do the exam but, of course, this will cost more. In most cases, this will involve taking a blood sample.
Additionally, if the mare does not cycle within 21 days of being covered, she is probably pregnant.
Although expensive, an ultrasound test has many advantages. Most ultrasounds on mares are performed using the transrectal method, but the transabdominal method can be used later in pregnancy. Ultrasounds can detect a pregnancy from about day 16. Rectal palpation can also detect pregnancy at about the same time. The advantage of both of these methods is they allow you to determine if the mare is carrying twins.
Both of these methods, however, may be unsuitable for use if the mare is difficult to handle. Rectal exams may also be impossible to perform on small ponies. Blood tests for pregnancy, however, may show false positives, especially if the mare miscarries. A retest after 100 days is often indicated.
Every so often, you will hear some cute and wonderful story on the internet about somebody who's mare had twins. It sounds really cool.
Brakes on. Right now.
Twins in horses are a bad outcome. Horses, unlike goats and sheep, are simply not designed to carry two fetuses to term. Many twin pregnancies silently abort. For those that do go to term, the survival of both foals is extremely rare. More commonly, one is stillborn and the survivor is weak. It is very common for both foals to die...and quite common for them to take the mare with them.
Get it into your head. You do not want twins.
An ultrasound at 16 days can detect twins. In many cases, one twin will be resorbed, but it is often best to ensure that this happens by 'pinching' the twin. A skilled operator can use the head of the ultrasound scanner to destroy one of the twin embryos. Although selective abortion probably doesn't appeal, it really is the best way to ensure that you have a healthy mare and ONE healthy foal. If it goes wrong, however, it is possible to lose both embryos. It is also possible to simply abort both and start over, generally using a drug. Some vets recommend waiting until the 30 day mark, checking again, and then doing an abortion if there are still two foals.
Is She Ready Yet?
The average pregnancy in horses is 11 months. Labor before 10 and a half months is of concern as is a mare holding onto the foal longer than 12 months. But anything within those dates can be considered normal. If your mare is a maiden, you will not know what is normal for her - some mares routinely foal early or late.
The first sign is "bagging up." Her udder will begin to swell and become sensitive to touch. This can happen as early as a month and a half before foaling. Some breeders recommend handling a maiden mare's udder and teats regularly so that she becomes used to them being touched - this can prevent rejection of the foal.
Signs that labor is imminent include:
1. Waxing of the teats - the teats hang lower and produce a thick, waxy material.
2. Softening of the tail head. The mare's tail will relax as she prepares for labor, so that it will be easier for her to get it out of the way.
3. Swelling of the vulva or changes in its shape and size.
4. Behavioral changes such as an increase or decrease in visible signs of affection, nervousness or moving away from other horses.
5. Loss of appetite.
Each mare is different, but any or all of these signs may indicate that she's about to drop the foal.
A Normal Delivery
Horses are flight animals that cannot afford to be immobile for long. Mares have one of the shortest labor periods on the planet and generally do not require (or want) any help.
Stage one labor lasts one to two hours, during which time the mare will be restless as contractions move the foal into position.
Stage two labor should last no more than thirty minutes. If it is taking longer than that, you have a problem (one good reason why CCTV monitoring is such a good idea). It may be even quicker than that.
Mares do not lie down until stage two, and may lie down or stand up several times. They may even roll, perhaps in an attempt to shake the foal into position.
The first part of the foal to emerge should be the front feet. with the hooves pointing downwards. The hooves will look very strange at first. They are covered by what is called the 'foal slipper' and are very soft - this protects the mare's uterus and birth canal from the foal's hooves. The foal slipper has an oddly feathery appearance. Most of it will break off very quickly, although some remains, dries up and becomes the foal's first 'frog'. The head should be between the front feet.
The foal should come out in pretty much one movement. Both mare and foal should get up relatively quickly. With horses, it is not necessary to cut the umbilical cord unless it does not naturally break when one or both stands. Foals should stand within thirty minutes and nurse within two hours. (Needless to say, they can take a few attempts to get used to this standing up thing. Resist the temptation to help them. They'll work it out quickly enough).
Complications are relatively rare in equines, but there are a few to worry about.
1. If you see the bottoms of hooves rather than their fronts as the first thing to emerge, call the vet. You have a foal that is breech or upside down. At this point, your mare IS going to need help getting the foal out quickly enough. An experienced breeder knows how to help, but if it's your first time, call the vet.
2. If labor lasts more than 30 minutes, there is probably some kind of a problem. Call your vet.
3. Your mare may become aggressive to her own foal. This is far more common with maiden mares...they may simply not know what to do. If this happens, remove the foal, give it colostrum (you should make sure to have foal colostrum on hand) and then reintroduce it with the mare under restraint and being talked to and encouraged by somebody she knows. Most mares will realize that this is, yes, their foal and work out what to do.
4. The foal does not pass its meconium (first poop) within 12 hours. If it does not, call the vet. In most cases, birth constipation can be fixed by giving the foal an enema.
5. The placenta should be expelled within 3 hours. When it is, examine it. Make sure it is Y shaped and only has one hole in it. If it has more holes or is an odd shape, call your vet, as this may mean your mare retained some of the placenta.
6. Your foal has difficulty standing, seems to be unable to work out how to suck and keeps pressing its head against things. Call the vet immediately if you see these symptoms, especially if the mare took more than 30 minutes to foal. You might have a foal with Hypoxic Ischemic Encephalopathy. A "dummy foal." In the past, such foals were generally euthanized, but most can now be saved and indeed lead normal lives, providing appropriate treatment is started immediately.
Replacement colostrum should be given if the mare rejects the foal. If a mare is leaking a lot of milk before foaling, you may want to milk her, freeze the milk and give it to the foal shortly after birth. A foal that does not receive enough colostrum will be more prone to infections during the first few weeks of its life.
If the Worst Happens - Dead Foal
Sometimes things go very badly indeed. Your mare may give birth to a dead foal or a foal that does not survive. This is the second worst nightmare of any breeder.
First of all, your mare will grieve. Horses DO grieve...I have seen extremely human-like grieving patterns in horses after the loss of a long-time companion. Depression, loss of appetite and out of character behavior can all be expected in a mare, especially if she was not a maiden, who lost a foal. Be patient with her...she has every reason to be upset. Some mares will scream, paw, run around everywhere looking for their baby. It can be heartbreaking. If given time, though, she will recover.
If the Worst Happens - Dead Mare
The absolute worst nightmare...your mare died giving birth. The foal might also have died. Or it might be alive and even perfectly fine.
Most large breeders keep colostrum and foal formula on hand, just in case. If, for some reason, foal formula is not available, goat's milk is a decent emergency replacement - it has similar fat and protein levels to equine milk. Cow's milk is not all that suitable, although it can be used if it is all that's available. Sheep milk, although harder to get, is also suitable.
Hand raising a foal is possible, but difficult and time consuming. Healthy foals will nurse little and often, up to eight times an hour for the first month. Hand raised foals can often be trained to feed less often and, relatively early, to begin to drink from a bucket.
Hand raised foals require lots of equine company, otherwise they may become over-imprinted (they start to think they are human). Such horses may be excessively affectionate (to the point of being annoying) or even aggressive towards humans (they don't see us as above them in the pecking order).
If the Worst Happens - Nurse Mares
If you find yourself facing either of the two worst case scenarios - live mare and dead foal or the reverse - then it might be worth contacting a nurse mare broker.
Generally, these are non profit organizations who match mares and foals together - the size of the mare and stage of lactation need to be matched carefully.
If the foal dies at birth, then consider milking the mare and freezing the colostrum, which can then be sent to a colostrum bank to potentially help somebody else's foal. If the mare is a maiden, get help, as she might well freak out when you touch her. Colostrum should be filtered through cheese cloth. As colostrum can be kept for up to two years, you can also keep the frozen colostrum on hand for a repeat breeding...it's always handy to have.
By going to a nurse mare broker (many of which are online and simply help people get in touch) you can either turn your breeding tragedy into a great help for somebody else, or see your orphaned foal grow up strong and healthy with his or her foster mother.