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So You Think You Want A Foal?

At long last the evenings are getting lighter and (we hope) that the really cold spell is over. Everyone is looking forward to spring and those with foals due can start to get excited. For those that would like a foal next year it is time to start planning.  If this is the first time you have bred your horse or pony the multitude of factors that must be considered can be daunting and being prepared helps you and your vet keep the process efficient.

The first choice must be whether your mare is suitable to breed from.  Conformational problems are an obvious worry and these are often passed on.  Less obvious can be temperament, both in the stable and with regards the mares trainability / aptitude for work.   These both breed remarkably true.  A common scenario for wanting to breed is with a mare whose competition career is cut short through injury.  You should discuss in detail with your vet how heritable any cause of lameness etc may be and whether they are compatible with a healthy pregnancy.

Also important is the mare’s reproductive anatomy.  Your vet can examine this and give you a good idea of how well formed she is, both externally and internally.  Many older mares, and some younger ones, have poor vulval anatomy that can hinder the process of getting in foal, and also decrease a mare’s chances of staying in foal.  Getting your vet’s view on this is probably the first step, as you can assess her anatomy in the winter in time to follow any conditioning advice you may be given prior to the breeding season.

Mares are seasonal breeders, meaning they are only sexually receptive at certain times of year.  Although some mares will cycle all year round, most rely on there being approximately 16 hours of daylight in order to be cycling normally.  In practice, the majority of mares show their first season around the end of March.  This ‘transitional season’ can drag on, or come and go, as the hormonal response necessary to ovulate (release the ovum) is insufficiently strong as yet.  For this reason the first season of the year is rarely used to breed.  A second consideration is when you want a foal – equine pregnancy lasts between 11 months and 11 months 11 days in most cases, and no-one without facilities, or hardy animals, should be planning a foal in the colder spring months.

An exception to this rule is for thoroughbred breeders aiming to get an early foal to get the outside edge in their racing career.  A foal born as close to the 1st January as possible, but not before, is the aim, so breeding starts in mid February – to cater for the occasional early one.  Mares can be induced to cycle early with manipulating the light pattern in their stable.  From December 1st onwards artificial light of a calculated intensity is turned on between 4pm and midnight. To further mimic spring conditions it is important to provide sufficient rugs to keep the mare warm and a gradual rising plane of nutrition.

Choosing which stallion is an exciting part of the process, glossy pictures of competing sires start dreams of what we could produce ourselves.  However, if you can go to see the horse in the flesh I would advise you do so in order to gauge his temperament, get your own view of his conformation, and properly size him up.  So many horses look different in the stable to their photoshoot in an arena, and you must be sure you are still happy with your choice.  As a rough rule, a foal will end up half way between the sizes of each parent, but ask a stallion owner what they know of his parentage – is he a small one from a family that produces giants?  Was he bred to be a pony, but grew just a bit too big?  And most importantly, research what he has already produced.  Ask questions, look him up online, and ask to see any of his youngstock that they might have at the stud. Try to be realistic about what you can produce from your mare and what you are planning to do with the foal, if you are planning to keep a foal for yourself to hack then temperament has got to be more important than a dazzling competition career.

If coat colour is important to you it is worth looking into the genetics.  For example,  two chestnuts will only produce a chestnut;  you can only get a grey if one or both parents is grey; being coloured (piebald, skewbald) is a dominant gene, but many coloured stallions carry only one coloured gene, so 50% of foals will be solid colours unless the mare herself carries two copies of the coloured gene, and so on….

Breeding can be costly, and before you embark on it you need to be sure you have made the right choice.  The amateur owner should always discuss costs carefully with their vet, not just of insemination, but the ongoing cost of extra vaccines, extra feed, possible farriery and so on that might be necessary for a pregnant mare and for the foal.  Don’t forget to broach the subject of the mare’s likelihood of conception.  If her breeding record is poor, and her anatomy a worry, be prepared to lose money on the exercise and try not to count your foals before they are conceived!

Breeding horses has been an exciting hobby of ours for many years and between us we have a broad knowledge of stallions standing at stud both locally and abroad.  For advice on any of the issues outlined above please do not hesitate to contact me via the website or directly at the office.

If that is not enough to put you off, happy breeding, and good luck for 2010.

Richard Stringer BVSc MRCVS of Stringer Equine Veterinary Practice