Breeding your mare, it’s a game of two halves


By Ben Sturgeon Bsc, BVM&S, Cert EP, MRCVS

Kick off

Let’s ignore the money and concentrate on the exciting stuff.  You’re thinking that this is “the year” you’re going to put your mare in foal.  If that’s the case then it’s time you got started, yes in winter.  Not having your mare in optimal condition to conceive results in lower fertility, frustration, and financial losses that can extend through one season and into the next.  But we’ll get to that later.

Firstly, mares are long day breeders and their natural breeding season is in spring and summer. To ensure she is having regular cycles the mare needs to be exposed to increasing day length starting 2 to 2.5 months before you want to breed her. For example, for mare owners wanting to breed in February, the supplemental lighting program should have been started in December. Even if you want a March or April foal, it is a good idea to start mares under lights in January, as it isn’t unusual for mares that have not received light treatments to not cycle until May.  The old standby of 16 hours of continuous light a day is easy and highly effective. The supplemental light is added in the evening, and in winter, this generally means the lights need to be on until 11 pm.

Secondly, it is important to ascertain that the mare is a good candidate to breed, with a normal and healthy reproductive tract.  Fertility declines with age, so horses over 10 years of age who have not had a foal previously or mares that have had many foals may have difficulty conceiving.  It is also important to check for inflammation and infectious and sexually transmitted diseases.  You should have a reproductive examination performed early in the season after they have emerged from winter anestrus and have follicular activity.  If your mare has never been bred or you have no knowledge of her reproductive history it is also advisable to have her examined.  These examinations are generally called a pre-breeding exam and contain many facets:

Clinical examination

The mare should be in good physical health, in lean to good body condition as overweight mares have reduced fertility; any orthopedic problem should not significantly worsen as the mare gets heavier and any systemic medical issues such as cushings disease or insulin resistance should be addressed.

Vulvar examination

A vital part of the reproductive tract frequently overlooked is vulvar conformation. The vulva, along with the vestibulo-vaginal sphincter (hymen) and the cervix form the three barriers of the uterus preventing contamination from air, urine and faeces. The vulva should be vertical with the anus above. In some older mares the anus becomes sunken and the vulva forms a shelf beneath, this makes uterine infection and inflammation likely due to contamination reducing the chances of conceiving.

Vaginal examination

Examining the cervix and vaginal walls is done by placing a speculum into the vagina. Observing the cervix visually allows determination of where the mare is in her estrous cycle, as well as signs of inflammation (redness), infection (discharge) or pooling urine. The cervix is evaluated for scarring, which can result in difficulty dilating leading to fluid being trapped within the uterus as well as potential complications at foaling. The ability of the cervix to close completely without any defects is also necessary.   If the cervix doesn’t close properly it allows contamination of the uterus potentially leading to chronic infection and inflammation.

Rectal examination and ultrasound

Rectal palpation and ultrasound allows the ovaries, uterus and cervix to be evaluated anatomically and functionally. Ovarian structures (follicles, corpus luteum, etc), uterine edema, intra-uterine fluid, endometrial cysts and cervical length are all important to note

Pre-breeding tests

  • Three main tests are generally required by the stud or semen provider:
  • Equine Infectious Anemia (EIA) an infectious disease tested for using the Coggins test.
  • Equine Viral Arteritis (EVA) a sexually transmitted infection causing abortion, and flu like symptoms.
  • Clitoral swabs and cultures identifies Contagious Equine Metritis (CEM), a sexually transmitted disease

Some studs now require additional Strangles blood testing

It is preferable to swab the mare before she goes to the stud (as long as this is after 1 January) for two reasons: the result is not available for seven days and, more importantly, if positive, the mare can be treated before being sent to stud.

Once the all-clear has been given, mares are issued with a laboratory certificate confirming their disease-free status in the current breeding season. A mare must not be used for breeding until all test results are negative and certificate issued.  In many cases, mares are simply carriers of venereal disease and show no outward signs of infection.

Uterine Culture and Cytology

Uterine culture and cytology are important in identifying infection and inflammation. A culture provides evidence that bacteria, fungal or yeast infections are present. Cytology helps determine if inflammatory cells are present. A mare can have endometritis (uterine inflammation) with or without infection. It is important to identify inflammation since causes of inflammation alone can significantly decrease a mare’s ability to conceive. Whether a culture or cytology is required prior to breeding, is determined by the stud/farm requirements, stallion contracts, and most importantly by the mare – if she has a poor reproductive history, any evidence of abnormalities on reproductive examination, or problems foaling, then these procedures are highly recommended.

Uterine Biopsy

Biopsy provides information with respect to what problems need to be addressed and the probability of the mare carrying the pregnancy to term. Endometrial biopsies are recommended for mares that have a poor reproductive history or a history of fetal loss or abortion. Mares with a lot of scar tissue (fibrosis) in their uterus have a poor chance and may not be worth sending to stud.

Putting the exam together provides you with the knowledge of whether your mare has a normal reproductive tract and cycle which aids in preparing her for breeding, alternatively your vet may suggest some treatment prior to or during breeding or pregnancy to improve the chances of her successfully conceiving and carrying a foal. Finding out this information at an early stage can prevent the expense and disappointment of trying to breed from a subfertile mare.  Half time.


Second Half

So far so good?  Let’s then get to the nitty gritty, what’s it gonna cost?

There is something about horses that make even savvy business people forget what they learned. Few breeders calculate in advance what it will cost them to breed and raise a sales yearling. As a result, a large number of the yearlings, even a majority, are sold at a loss.  Even when everything goes “right,” it costs a lot more to breed a horse than most realise or admit.  Let’s assume that this year you apply a few business principles to breeding. The starting point is to find your breakeven and this comes down to doing some honest number crunching and eliminating all wishful thinking.

The expenses calculated are those accumulated when breeding a horse and raising a foal for sale as a yearling. The sum of the expenses determines the breakeven. It is as simple as accurately listing anticipated costs in each category and adding the numbers.

1. Stud Fee – One of the more easily calculated expenses. The stud fee is what you pay for it. Simple enough?  Assume £2000 for a good stallion.

2. Mare Cost – To produce foals you need a broodmare and her cost must be factored.  Her true cost is the price you paid for her divided by the number of foals you expect her to produce over her productive career (10 years). The average on well-run studs for getting mares in foal is about 70%, so your mare is likely to produce about eight foals.

So if the mare cost £15 000 pounds, the cost will be 15000/7 = £2143

3. Breeding Expenses – This goes beyond the stud fee. It may include semen collection, semen transportation, veterinary examination prior to breeding, fees to inseminate and fees to confirm pregnancy. Importantly it is likely that you will incur these several times before your mare conceives. The average is about two “cycles” for each pregnancy.

There are 3 categories:

Semen Collection – Most studs charge for collecting semen, processing and packaging it for shipment.  The amount varies but is around £100, so the total is £200.

Semen Transportation – The semen will be shipped in an insulated container that you purchase or hire. Add this to next day shipment your cost will be approximately £75 or £150 for two.

Veterinary expenses – Can add up quickly, particularly using artificial insemination. The mare undergoes the breeding soundness examination and ultrasound to monitor ovulation allowing accurate semen ordering. It is not an exact science. Miss by just a few hours and it’s back to “Go.” Total approximately = £750

4. Mare Maintenance (13 months) – The cost of providing “room and board” for 13 months. This assumes 11 gestation months and an additional two before she is back in foal.

There are four sub-categories.

Livery – This has a large potential for wishful thinking. You can board your mare first-class for about £15 per day.  Even if you keep your mare on your own property, a strong argument can be made for charging yourself the same price it would cost to board her commercially. The labour you provide should be compensated at the same rate as if someone else were providing it unless, of course, it is your hobby. The value of labour, feed, bedding, utilities, supplies, and the dozens of other expenses probably comes to no less than £10 per day. You can compute your own costs depending upon your situation but here we will use £10 or £4,260 for the 13 months.

Veterinary Care – Assume a healthy mare requiring routine checkups, vaccinations, worming, at £15/month or £195 for the 13 months.

Farrier – Varies from mare-to-mare but assume unshod and trimmed every 6 weeks (9 times in 13 months) at a cost of £30/trim or £270 total.

Insurance – Every business must insure its valuable assets and the horse business is no different. In our example, we have a £15,000 mare that we insure for £500 for 13 months.

The total of all mare maintenance expenses is £5,300.

5. Foal Maintenance (18 months) – You must maintain the foal from the time of its birth to the day it’s sold.

Livery – Assume you’ll be raising your foal at home. A fair cost is £2 per day for the first 6 months (£364) and £11 per day for 12 months (£4,015). Total of £4,379.

Veterinary Care – The foal requires examining within 24 hours of birth, and requires vaccination and worming. It may get ill and may require stitches. If the vet bill averages £20/month over 18 months = £360. This leaves nothing for something seriously wrong.

Farrier care – The farrier will look at the foal every six weeks or about 12 times in 18 months. Sometimes no work will be required. But, as the foal grows it will require complete trims and eventually shoes. On average, the 12 farrier checks cost £30 totaling £360.

Insurance – Good business practice dictates the foal is insured. Most insurance companies will insure the foal for twice the stud fee (£2,000), or £4,000 for 18 months at a premium of £300.

Total for foal maintenance = £5,399.

6. Sales Fees – There is a huge variety of variables; advertisement, auction fee, commissions, transport, head collars etc, assume £1800

So once you’ve added all this up you can reach a grand total of £17 727 to break even and anything less represents a loss!  Of course the values I’ve picked can vary massively and your approach to the various factors will have a huge influence.  Additionally, ensuring your mare is capable of breeding before embarking on any of this can literally save thousands.  So the important point is not go into breeding blindly.  Yes it is wonderful to breed from your own mare, to make those choices, but most of those choices are not free.

If I’ve saved you a few quid then, mine’s a beer! 

Author: Ben Sturgeon

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