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Introduction

As your beloved riding horse gets on in years, the ‘aches and pains’ start to set in at some point, so that you find yourself thinking more and more often about ‘retirement’ for your four-legged friend. Often the horses are not very old – between 15 and 20 years old. If it is a mare, then the idea of breeding a foal from the mare is an obvious one. This will not only give the mare something to do, but in a few years, you will also have a young riding horse with whom you can spend a few more good years, while the mare is then finally retired. Before making such a decision, however, you should give it some critical thought so that the project doesn’t end in disaster.

The ‘Equine market’

The plan of course is to keep the foal as the future riding horse. But what if the offspring turns out to be completely different from the mother? If it turns out to be a small stallion and not a mare? Or the future riding horse remains 20 cm smaller than you had hoped, and you require the height due to your own? What if the horse is the complete opposite in character to its gentle, kind mother? Once you go online and check out the advertising websites, you realise that there are thousands of horses for sale and new ones are added every day. If you haven’t bred an absolute ‘cracker’ of a horse, you may well end up with a horse that doesn’t suit your own requirements and just gets lost in the ocean of ads in an already oversaturated marketplace.

The Finances

The idea of breeding your own foal is full of wonderful emotions, how cute will it be, choosing the name, and so on – however, breeding a foal is a huge financial commitment. Costs start even way before the birth, vet fees for examining the mother-to-be and the stud fee once the stallion has been chosen. Some may think to choose the Spanish Stallion down the road who offers a free covering. Have a good think, if you find a buyer for the foal if it turns out to be unsuitable to your own requirements once born, will the breeding linage add any value? Perhaps it’s more thoughtful to choose a stallion that is registered with a breed society to get a passport registration in case of future sale? To get the mare in foal is cost intensive regardless of AI or natural covering. As an average cost, around £1,000 pounds is probably a good benchmark (there is no limit going up, looking at stud fees for some iconic stallions).

Stable costs for the first six months will probably not vary much while the foal stays close to the mother. When it’s time to wean the foal at six months plus, this will be about to change – stabling fee, vet fees, hoof care, feed is all going to double up. The approximate costs of the up bringing of the growing foal is estimated around £1.5k+ for the first year – provided you don’t have to pay a stabling fee and no major accidents happen that can result in considerable veterinary costs. We are only talking about the costs for feed and the regular hoof care, vaccinations, worming and standard checks. If you don’t have your own yard (which is the case for most people who want to raise a foal from their riding horse) and are an owner who puts their offspring into a young horse herd living out after weaning, this cost could easily double or even triple depending on the facilities or set up.

Meaning that in addition to the pure breeding costs, you should expect to pay around £3,000 a year for grass livery. That sounds high at first but works out at only 250 pounds per month – it’s not always easy to find an experienced youngstock livery yard that matches that price.

Saving costs for a suitable livery yard, is saving at the wrong end. In the worst-case scenario, you get your horse back three years later with a severe metabolic disorder and pay the price in high therapy and veterinary costs. Before you know if the growing foal will be a suitable riding horse as an adult you have to further invest over the next 3 years while the juvenile is at an appropriate youngstock livery yard maturing, the costs that need covering on a regular basis are monthly livery costs, getting the hooves done every 6 weeks as well as worm checks all in all this is estimated £9-10k to cover this period.

If you however make the decision to sell the horse before the age of 3, then point 1 will apply again: the purchase price needs to be £12,000 at least to cover the costs incurred so far. As the growing foal usually looks out of proportion due the growing process it’s difficult to show off it’s final confirmation and movement, and there isn’t really a market for that age group as nobody wants to pay high prices for dangly looking immature equines.

Foals from your own mare require a lot of considerations up-front.
©️Adobe Stock / Ines Hasenau

The Mare

It’s wonderful to hold your own mare in high regards, but bear in mind if that automatically means she is going to make a good broodmare. It’s not just the character that’s important . It goes without saying that a mare that is aggressive towards other horses or humans even should not be considered for breeding, any ‘behavioural quirks’ needs to be assessed prior, the mother’s temperament plays a big part in the foal’s behavioural development long term. If the mare shows difficulties to be handled, then it can be assumed that the foal is not going to be much different.

Also, the confirmation of the mare should be taken into consideration and accessed realistically without any emotional involvement, after all its important to breed a foal with a healthy prospective future ahead. What looks good on paper doesn’t necessarily mean is what the foal will look like once born. The list for confirmational faults is endless, a long back, too high or low set on neck, hindquarter angles to be optimal and so on. Confirmational mishaps can lead to early onset of wear and tear, leading to chronic pain and as a result a short riding career or even early retirement.

It is often assumed if the mare has a long back for example, to naively just choose a stallion with a short back to even this out. Sadly, it doesn’t work like that, some research and study in genetics and hereditary should be undertaken to further that knowledge. As it isn’t easy to compensate for such physical deficits in one generation of breeding. Several generations are often necessary to make desired changes, as in human genetics, some traits ‘skip’ a generation and then appear even stronger in the following.

It can be beneficial to get support from an experienced breeder to access the blood lines of your mare. Ideally someone who has experience breeding the blood line your mare is related to as they will have a good understanding of the character traits and physical weaknesses this line is most likely to pass on. This person will also be of great value in terms of choosing a suitable stallion. As simple producing a foal for the sake of it “I want my mare to have a baby” brings us back to point 1 and 2: A foal is an expensive undertaking. It is important to take all aspects into consideration, as it would not be fair on the foal to have physical or mental defects that will impact his or her whole life negatively, or even a life of pain. It is best to walk away whilst it’s still just an idea.

The age of the mare also plays a part. Generally speaking, a mare that has already had a foal at a young age can usually give birth to another foal at an older age (i.e. around 20) without any problems. If a ‘first’ foal is considered for the mare at an age of around 15 years this is already considered boarder line.

Beyond that age, the risk of complications increases disproportionately, which can ultimately lead to the loss of both the foal and potentially the mother. Most mares are still fit and active as riding horses at the age of 15-16 and a little too young to be ‘out of work’ to retire to a job as broodmare. At 20, however, that is too old for the first foal. Therefore, this should be considered an important aspect of the decision-making process if it’s the right choice for your mare. In terms of livery yard and all other costs for daily management there is no real difference in a horse that can be ridden or not.

The Stallion

Some weak areas in the mare can absolutely be improved by using a suitable stallion.
Here also expertise of an experienced breeding with long standing knowledge over generations should be sought – someone who knows this particular stallion’s descendent and also his youngstock, specifically their temperament. It is common knowledge within breeders that there are certain stallions that have dominant (favourable) character traits that they will often pass on.
There are also wonderful sires who have the best character but are not dominant in passing those on to the offspring. It’s therefore recommendable to consider temperament and character traits in the mare and stallion if a pairing is considered.
There is little point in producing a foal with a great colour that it inherited from its sire but has a difficult temperament to manage. The temperament should come first when breeding a foal for an amateur to produce and handle on a daily basis.

Once the decision has been made, the next step is to decide on the method of covering, natural in hand or by using artificial insemination. Due to the high risk of injury, few stallion owners are prepared to simply put the mare and stallion out to pasture for a few weeks or months and see what happens. It is very idyllic, if this is possible for the mare and stallion to have a harmonious time together creating a foal to be raised in a family environment where both parents are present. That is very rare these days as most stallions are ‘sperm’ donors and never meet their offspring.

There is a risk of injury for both mare and stallion when covered in hand with several handlers accompanying both equines. For this reason, chilled or frozen semen is now predominantly offered. Some mares perceive this form of insemination as ‘rape’, which can lead to behavioural problems later on. Generally, the mares are more receptive if they spend some time with the stallion rather than being artificially inseminated by a human trying to scan the follicle to optimise the timings for conception. If the route of artificial insemination is chosen, a stud farm vet is the best option. The experience and training in gynaecology and possible birth risks are very valuable in performing such a delicate procedure, regular practise refines the skill in this case.

Risks and side effects

All boxes are now ticked, the mare is perfectly suited for breeding, you have the financial resources, you have a suitable stallion in mind and an excellent stud vet at your side, then you should pause for one last time and think about the risks of pregnancy, birth, and up-bringing.

As any woman who has given birth knows, pregnancy is no walk in the park. The older a mare is, the more difficult pregnancy is for her too. If she may already have physical limitations such as osteoarthritis, kissing spines, equine asthma, or chronic digestive problems, these will not get better with a pregnancy, but rather worse due to the additional strain put on the body.

Even with the best management a live foal is no guarantee. The foetus can be reabsorbed in the first few weeks and all the effort will feel wasted. Or an abortion further down the line is also not uncommon, this could have several reasons, due to an infection or malformation, twin pregnancy for example. Depending on gestation you may be forced to wait until next spring in order to cover the mare again for a new attempt to achieve a pregnancy, for an older mare this needs thinking through well, as yet another year would have passed.

Complications can occur at birth – especially in first time mares that go over their due date by some time – in the worst-case scenario this can lead to the death of the mare and/or the foal. The risk factor is much greater in older mares, becoming first time mums.
Have a think if you would have the time and ability to hand rear the foal, in case of the loss of the mare in birth, or some mares don’t accept the foal and quite frankly don’t want anything to do with their baby . The new-born foal would need to be bottle fed every 1.5 hours around the clock.
New-born foals are much the same as newborn human babies. Am I capable of being a surrogate mum replacement for the foal? Would I be able to handle the loss of my mare? Feeling guilty for being selfish and insisting on breeding my mare? Nobody every wants to be confronted with such emotions, but as breeding presents itself with a high risk, so these are questions one should clarify for themselves prior to starting the breeding process.

The same risk assessment should take place when organising the finances, as the financial commitment for the next 5 years requires a secure supply of regular funds, not to mention input from a professional when it comes to backing the juvenile starting their journey to back a riding horse. By the time you will gallop across the field on your ‘pride and joy’ you would have run up a bill of a minimum of 20k.
On second thoughts for that amount of cash, you could buy a ready-backed, professionally trained, ridden horse with a good parentage – with the desired height, in the colour of choice and gender. The journey on an emotional level may be quite different following your foal from birth to reaching adulthood or buying a fully developed ridden prospect.

Conclusion

Before you embark on a breeding adventure that is not entirely without risk for your special mare, you should have a think whether you could offer one of the many thousand horses looking for ‘their human’ a loving and secure home. It is most likely more cost effective and certainly less risky for your mare.

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