Q: I’ve competed up the levels with my superstar mare and we’ve developed a strong partnership along the way. Recently, she got into some trouble and sustained a career-ending injury. Now I am looking for my next prospect and challenge. I’d love to breed my mare. How do I know if it is the right decision for her and for myself? What can I expect?
– Lynn D.
A: Natalie DiBerardinis, Managing Director at Hilltop Farm
Where to Start
The place to start is the evaluation of the mare. What was she like as a riding horse? What was easy for her in sport? Where did she struggle? What are you looking to breed from her? Are you looking to replicate the level that the mare was performing at or do you want to compete higher?
I always say when you’re deciding to breed your mare, you always want to start with asking yourself: If I get a replica of my mare would I still be happy? If the answer to that is no, you need to step back and ask yourself, do I really want to breed this mare? Is she quality enough to breed?
Talk to Other Breeders
We like to work with all of our breeders in terms of any breeding combination. You’re going to be looking at the pedigree, the phenotype of the individual, what the goals are for the breeder (for themselves or the market). It’s in everyone’s best interest to get the best quality foals we can on the ground.
Some of our breeders are experienced; they know their mares and stallions as well as the bloodlines – they know what they want. Others come in fairly new to breeding and we spend a lot of time going over what to expect and what they are looking for.
We try and make it as scientific as we can, but there is a still lot of luck involved. Just like people, you can have two full siblings that end up very different from one another depending on what genes come through. We try to minimize the pieces left to chance or the unknowns as much as we possibly can by digging into the pedigrees. Then we use that as a roadmap going forward.
Look at the mare’s temperament, size, conformation, and any concerns you need to address. Then look at the pedigree and what can you learn from her family and what those lines have crossed well with before. That might give you a bit of insight into how she will cross with different bloodlines.
Bad Luck Injury vs. Conformation Injury
Look at what caused the injury. Was it bad luck, a bad step, or a turnout issue – something that is not directly related to the conformation of the horse? Or was it an injury that is most likely related to how the horse is built? For a conformation injury, you must weigh the risk factor of replicating that.
For conformation injuries, look at whether the mare can possibly pass on a problematic trait to a foal. If it is an injury that is going to require a long-term break or cause permanent maintenance issues, you do have to balance whether she carry a foal to term successfully. Is she going to be able to have a lifestyle to support a foal developing and growing? Say, for some reason, a year later the mare is still limited to restrictive turnout – that’s not a great environment for a foal to be raised in.
Prepping the Environment
A mare’s life changes a lot not only when she becomes pregnant, but when she is laid up or retires. Suddenly, she is no longer competing. She may also be transitioning to a facility where she is out living with a herd of horses. I think you see changes in the mare’s behavior and interaction with people based on those factors more so than the pregnancy itself. For some of these mares that have always been competing, there is a steep transition time where they gradually need to be acclimated to more turnout. They need to slowly be adapted into life with a herd. You have to plan a little. It’s not an instantaneous thing for horses to settle into this new life of theirs.
Period of Adjustment
Hormones vary a lot per mare, sometimes even per pregnancy. There is an old wives’ tale that if the mare starts to act studdish, then they are carrying a colt. However, mares that have been strong in their cycles might mellow out a bit, simply because their hormones are going to be consistent and not changing each month.
Competition mares are often given Regu-Mate (a synthetic hormone called altrenogest used to suppress estrus) so their behavior is more predictable in the show ring. If a mare has been on Regu-Mate for a long time, there is a letdown period before she is going to be cycling totally normally.
Success is more likely when stress is minimized throughout the process of preparing a mare for breeding and during her pregnancy. However, it depends on each individual mare. One thing to keep in mind, especially with older mares, is that older maidens (mares who have never been bred) can be a little trickier. People shouldn’t go into breeding expecting that the mare is always going to get pregnant. You have to plan ahead and ask yourself if you’re ready to do this for multiple cycles.
Breeding can be a very appealing job to give competition mares, whether they’re injured or need time off. But there are many questions to consider: Do you want a second horse? Do you have a plan? Where are you going to keep them? Oftentimes, a boarding barn isn’t the best setup for a mare in foal. So now you have two horses – can you support both of them? Are you planning to sell the foal? What happens if the foal doesn’t sell? Breeding the mare is the easy part, but you need to have a plan for what happens after that.
There are so many factors when it comes down to cost. What part of the country do you live in? What are board costs (are your horses at home or boarding)? Are you breeding with cooled vs. frozen semen? Can you breed on the farm vs. shipping into a clinic? All of this will factor into the expense.
I always have the breed vs. buy discussion with people. The breeding process is a lot of fun and it’s a whole new journey to go on with your mare, but it is not necessarily the cheapest way to get your next prospect. By the time you get that three-year-old, you’ve probably spent just as much as you would if you went out and bought a nice average three-year-old, and you’ve probably taken on a lot more risk of things going wrong in that timeframe.
Most mares carry foals well and deliver normally, but there is a higher risk. You need to go into it with your eyes open to the reality that it doesn’t always go according to plan. Some people aren’t comfortable with that option for their mare. We’re lucky that science has allowed us to breed a mare without her carrying a foal (through embryo transfer), but again, that increases the cost.
Bringing Your Mare back to the Show Ring
This is very dependent on each mare. Physically, it shouldn’t be a problem for a mare to go back to showing after giving birth, assuming normal delivery. They will essentially have a year-and-a-half off by the time you get through breeding, pregnancy, foaling, and weaning.
There is always a slow buildup to get a horse back in work from that kind of time off. Occasionally a mare will decide they enjoy retired life a little bit more. Others will be happy to get back to work and have all the attention.
Breeding is a lot of fun. I don’t want to discourage people who want to get into breeding. But talk to other breeders and to your vet to try and get a sense of what you’re getting into before you’re in the midst of it.
Natalie DiBerardinis is the Managing Director at Hilltop Farm in Colora, Md., a complete sport horse center that houses over 20 stallions and specializes in breeding, mare management, and young horse raising and training. Natalie serves on the Board of the Mid-Atlantic Hanoverian Breeders, is a member of the KWPN-NA Stallion Committee, a member of the North American Stallion Sport Test committee, Chair for the American Hanoverian Society Inspection Tour Planning Committee, Vice-President of the U.S. Sport Horse Breeders Association’s Board of Directors, and Co-Chair on the USDF Sport Horse Committee.
Photos by Erin Gilmore.