January 2015 - The Art Of Breeding
Written by Jennifer McFall
Wednesday, 31 December 2014 02:40
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Experienced sporthorse breeder and rising eventing star shares 10 tips for getting that “masterpiece.”

by Jennifer McFall • photos of Dragonfire mares and foals by Sherry Stewart.

Breeding horses is truly an art form. Those that are drawn to it express themselves through their creations; whether it’s a signature brush stroke, a favorite material used in sculpting or the type of horse they produce. Like the artist, the breeder’s vision is unique to them and may not be appreciated by others, or it could change the face of the equestrian world.

Either way, it is the dedicated creator’s passion that ultimately shines through. If you are thinking of breeding your mare this season, here 10 tips that may help you get started on your own artistic journey as smoothly and successfully as possible.

1. Make sure you know what you want. It is quite difficult to breed a quality horse. Don’t make it harder by not having your goals set firmly in your mind before beginning. By knowing what traits are most important to you, it will be more likely that you will get a foal that resembles the ideal in your fantasies.

2. Understand that breeding is a commitment of money and time. Not only will you have the costs of the stud fee, the vet and the mare care, at the end of it you will hopefully also have a beautiful foal. That foal will then turn into another horse someday, with all of the costs associated with that. Also, the time that it takes from the planning stage, to the birth, to actually riding your young superstar is long, so you cannot be short on patience if you want to be a breeder.

3. Objectively evaluate your mare. This can be tough, as we all want to be a bit barn blind about our own horses. First off, is she of a healthy breeding age, ideally between 3 and 10? Has she successfully produced a foal before, or is she a maiden? What are her physical and conformational weaknesses and strengths? Has she been injured because of a weakness? What is her temperament? Was she a good performer in her own right? Remember that the mare has just as much responsibility as the stud does when it comes to contributing chromosomes, so don’t discount the importance of starting with the best mare you can get your hands on.

4. Research bloodlines of horses that are successful in your discipline and have the traits you desire. Although I believe the individual is who you need to scrutinize and that it is not wise to breed by papers alone, there is no denying that there are successful family trees in every equestrian aspect. When considering papers, make sure that the dam lines are strong, not just the sires. Although it’s easier to recognize and follow sires in this research, knowing who mares are, and their relations, will pay out exponentially in the end.

5. Choose a stallion appropriate for your discipline and your mare. Not to point out the obvious, but choose a stallion within your discipline or one who is known to produce performers in your discipline. Matching the right stallion to your mare is a tricky business because there is no guarantee of what you are going to get, but choose one that is strong in the (hopefully small) area in which your mare is weak.

6. Understand the breeding contract of the stallion you have chosen. Contracts are as diverse as the horses we love, so make sure that you understand the terms, as not all stallions offer the same guarantees, if any.

7. Choose a reproduction vet that is best suited to your needs. A good repro vet can make all the difference in the world, as can a bad one! When finding a vet, take into consideration their success rate with fresh or frozen semen, their availability and, lastly, the costs to you per cycle. Even great vets can need several cycles to get a mare successfully in foal, so be prepared for this circumstance when budgeting.

8. Be mindful of your mare’s health before, during and after her pregnancy. Make sure that her diet is adjusted for a mare in foal and then for a lactating mare. You might like to consult an equine nutritionist if you feel overwhelmed by this prospect, as they are very reasonably priced for the peace of mind they provide. Also, make sure that your mamma-to-be has plenty of room to move around as you want to avoid the onset of edema.

9. Prepare for the birth of the foal and its living arrangements. Ideally, you want plenty of airflow in the foaling stall, even if it is still cold. A quiet 12 ‘ x 16’ stall is best, with plenty of straw for bedding as shavings can be troublesome for their eyes and breathing. As the foal strengthens over its first week of life, begin a turn-out regime in a small enclosure before trying a large pasture. That way, the mare and foal cannot be separated and put into a panic. If you feel that your stabling is inadequate, you can have your mare foal out at the vet clinic.

10. Learn from your results. There is always a lesson to be had if you are willing to accept it, even when your efforts result in no foal at all. When the baby is born, evaluate your foal with an objective eye and answer honestly whether this cross came out the way you expected. The answers will help you to decide if you want to breed back and have another!

Breeding horses is extremely rewarding. From the excitement of planning the foal, to the miracle of the birth, to watching them grow and develop in their adolescence, you will create a bond that is undeniably deeper than if you had purchased the horse. As they reach competition age, there is such a great sense of pride and accomplishment when they are called out as a winner. And your heart will swell when you see them bringing joy to new owners as they continue their careers. For me, the “painting” may never be completed, as each new cross has the potential to be my masterpiece.

Author Jennifer McFall is a partner in the family-owned Dragonfire Farm breeding and training operation in the Sacramento area’s Wilton. She is also a top eventing rider. She and the Holsteiner High Times (by Hunter) completed their first CCI Four Star, at the 2014 Rolex Kentucky, and Jennifer received the $10,000 Rebecca Broussard Developing Rider Grant during the US Eventing Association’s convention in December.