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Breeding Basics: Preparing Mares for Breeding
Thursday, December 29, 2016 - by Marvin Pave

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Breeding Standardbred racehorses is both an art and a science. For those who aren’t breeding at the commercial level, but would like to optimize the success of their breeding product either in the sales ring or on the racetrack, Hoof Beats presents part two of a seven-part series on breeding basics.

 

This month’s topic is increasing conception rates for your mares. We asked veterinary and breeding experts what they thought were the most important factors in having the mare in optimal condition and what steps to take to hopefully assure the mating will produce a healthy and marketable foal.

 

Offering a range of opinions including health care, nutrition, putting mares under the lights and monitoring are: Scott Madill, assistant professor at the University of Minnesota’s Veterinary Medical Center; owner and breeder Jim Avritt Sr. of Lebanon, Ky.; Richard Arnold, president of Willow Oak Ranch in Tennessee and Montana; and Lynne-Marie Plouffe, manager of Dupuis Farm in Saco, Maine.

 

Get Them Checked and Feed Them Right


Not having your mare in optimal condition to conceive when you are ready to breed her, said Madill, results in lower fertility, frustration, and financial losses that can extend through this season and into the next.

 

His check list: Is she having regular heat cycles? Does she have a uterine infection? Is she in good body condition?

 

Madill suggested a health-care regimen including vaccinations, deworming and preventative dental work that should be reviewed and annually updated several weeks before breeding begins.

 

Avritt said maiden mares should have a complete exam for breeding soundness in November or December prior to breeding and that all barren mares should be cultured sometime over that same time and treated if “dirty.”

 

Avritt said he prefers a “good teaser,” in other words, one that is loud and moderately aggressive, starting no later than mid-January in order to pinpoint heat cycles before the breeding season begins.

All mares should be in good physical condition,’’ he said, “not too fat or not too thin and fed accordingly,’’ and that you should line up a trusted reproductive veterinarian.

 

Many stud farms, said Madill, require a uterine culture (pre-breeding swab) on open mares before they will accept them for breeding to rule out infection.  This can also benefit the mare owner, he said, as an undiagnosed infection can waste several heat cycles.

 

“Even the occasional maiden mare will be infected if she is a windsucker, and a complete veterinary examination of the reproductive tract can check not just for infection, but also for injuries and anatomic defects that affect fertility and cycling,’’ Madill said. “For barren mares, a full investigation should have been performed at the end of last season and periodically rechecked.”

 

Unless Arnold’s mares foaled in February, he said, “we attempt to rebreed on her foal heat assuming a clear sonogram reading after four days. Otherwise we depend on our vet, who is very adept at reading and anticipating the mare’s ovarian follicles development into a mature egg.   

 

“This is an essential skill for a high mare conception rate.”

 

Her barren mares, Lynne-Marie Plouffe said, have already been cultured in late summer, treated if they needed to be and a Caslick procedure performed, which is a surgical procedure to close the upper part of the vulva to prevent infection. She also makes sure that breeding soundness exams are performed on maiden mares before breeding.

 

“We try to avoid overweight conditions,” said Plouffe, who gives her mares access to excellent quality hay and also feeds them grain and mineral supplements.

 

From a nutrition standpoint, Madilll said “the critical aspect is her body condition. Mares in moderate to good condition are more likely to cycle and conceive than those that are too thin or grossly overweight.        

 

“Ideally, at the time she is bred, the mare has been in moderate condition and is adding just a little weight.”

Plouffe’s mares are teased, “and along with palpations,” she said, “we can usually get off to a very early start, between Feb. 15 and March 1. That’s our target date. I’d rather be a little early than a little late.”

 

One of the advantages of being a small operator, said Arnold, is that “it is less complicated to individualize all of your management practices including the handling, foaling and breeding the broodmares in your care.

 

“At Willow Oak we have maiden mares, bred mares and occasionally barren mares. Also, in evaluating the handling of these mares an important consideration is their age.”

 

Mares 5 and under (young), 6- 12 (prime age) and over 12 (aged) are evaluated and managed differently by Arnold.

 

“Young mares are still growing and developing themselves and have greater nutritional needs than prime-age or aged mares,” he said. “We feed them with more energy prior to foaling than the other groups. All mare groups need high energy after foaling because lactating mares use many calories.”

 

Show Them the Light


To ensure she is having regular cycles and ovulating, the mare, Madill said, needs to be exposed to increasing day length starting about 2-1/2 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 right after Thanksgiving or early in December,” he said. “Even if you want a March or April foal, it is a good idea to start mares under lights as early as January, as it isn't unusual for mares that have not received light treatments to not cycle naturally until the early part of May.

 

“The old standby of 16 hours of continuous light a day is easy and highly effective,” he added. “The supplemental light is added in the evening, and in winter, this generally means the lights need to be on until 11 p.m.”

 

The rule of thumb, he said, for supplemental light intensity, is being able to read a newspaper comfortably anywhere in the stall, provided by a 200-watt incandescent bulb or two 40-watt fluorescent tubes.

 

Pregnant mares that are due to foal early in the season should also be put under lights, said Madill, “as it isn't unusual for them to stop cycling for a while after their foal heat.”

 

Both maiden and barren mares, Avritt said, should be put under lights no later than mid-December before breeding and that they should remain on from before dark until midnight.

 

Plouffe puts her maiden and barren mares under lights in mid-December.

 

“It usually takes 60 days of extended light to effect the mare’s cycle,’’ she said, noting that mares are brought into their stalls at 4 p.m., lights are turned on and remain on until 11 p.m. which adds up to those 16 hours of total light. She also prefers 200-watt bulbs and adheres to the “reading the newspaper in the stall” theory.

 

Arnold’s maiden and barren mares go in their stalls under lights from sundown to 11 p.m. starting Dec. 1 to bring them into season in time for breeding when the stallion seasons open in February.

 

“Nutrition is more easily managed while putting the mares under lights as they take morning and evening meals in their stalls before turning out for the day,” said Arnold, who brings his bred mares in overnight starting about 45 days before foaling, which allows for tighter control of their nutrition and familiarizes them with the environment.

 

Watch Over Them


To monitor her mares, Plouffe has set up a cameras in her 10 foaling stalls and also utilizes foal alerts.

 

For owners of fewer than 15 mares like Plouffe and Avritt, such technology makes breeding life a lot easier because the breeding and foaling seasons overlap.

 

“It makes for a busy six months because the foaling season runs from mid-January to mid-June,” said Avritt, “and the breeding season from mid-February to the end of June. “It’s not as difficult for the big farms because they all have several employees. I have one full-time employee.”

 

That makes round-the-clock monitoring imperative, so Avritt said he uses a foal alarm system and a wireless video system. The first consists of a belt with a transmitter that goes around the mare's belly just behind her shoulders. When she lies down and stretches out on her side, the transmitter emits a signal that is picked up by a receiver that is tied into his cell phone.

 

He has also installed video cameras over his four foaling stalls, as well as in the 1-1/2-acre foaling paddock that is located between his house and horse barn.

 

“This is also tied into my cell phone, as well as my iPad and a monitor in my home,” he said. “I can access the system any time from any location and with my cell phone I can move the paddock camera left or right and zoom in on any mare. I couldn’t get by without these systems.”


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The views contained in this column are that of the author alone, and do not necessarily represent the opinions or views of the United States Trotting Association.