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Breeding now - We reap what we sow
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Breeding now - We reap what we sow
on 21 September 2021
Breeding for purpose means healthier, happier horses for longer periods. Dr Joe Collins MVB PhD explores current breeding practices and discovers some recent threats to the industry along the way

POST-CAREER options have been much debated recently; but it all starts with breeding – random or planned, indiscriminate or purposeful? Ireland has long been respected as a source of soundly bred, versatile but fit-for-purpose horses. These have served us well at home in many and varied roles. They have also proved a lucrative export trade to our nearest neighbour and further afield. But Brexit and Covid-19 have caused bumps in the road and blips in the market. And increasing scrutiny of perceived ‘wastage’ means we must be ever more mindful that our breeding programmes are targeted.

Ireland-Inc. rightly prides itself on the quality we’ve produced ‘at the top end’ of the market, elite racehorses for example; proud that we are a source of capable, all-rounders showing that infamous ‘extra leg’ crossing trappy country. But we must guard against producing a glut with average ability. These horses get one chance at a career: when they fall short these animals can become the no-longer-wanted horses that fall into neglect. We must work not to create a pool of unfit, unwanted cast-offs. It all starts with better breeding.

Longer term

How often have vets, me included, heard a client whose filly we have failed to fix say, “Sure, it was time I put her in foal, anyhow!”. Think of the colts nursed and nurtured through their career to retire to a sizeable book of mares.

Difficult sometimes to square with a conscience are those where the patient (patched-up at a client’s behest) goes on to breed having suffered a potentially heritable condition. Are ‘poor-breathers’ and ‘bleeders’ now breeding with impunity? How many youngsters have had umbilical hernias tidied-up, angular limb deformities corrected, navicular disease treated, sarcoids excised or temperament modified? How many twins are not recognised as having survived the squeezing of their pair in-utero? How many race fillies have we stitched (Caslick’s) that go on to a breeding career?

All to the immediate betterment of the individual, but perhaps not the breed in the longer term? A complicating factor here is that the heritability of these conditions varies and for some there is no real consensus as to the risk that the condition will be passed on. Neither is this in any way a plea to those owning or treating horses not to treat them.

More of a request to inquire about and consider the issues your breeding stock experienced in earlier life. You could then choose a mate that reduces the risk of perpetuating the condition into future generations.


Breeding for sale is inherently different from breeding to keep. Many of those who breed can’t afford to or never intended to keep every foal for their whole lives, they are in the breeding business, after all!

They have to sell and thus they have to look to the characteristics the market desires. This should equate with breeding healthy horses, individuals that are fit for something worthwhile, a particular purpose perhaps. But the market can be fickle and fashion even more so. Who is to say that a first-season sire will pass on his sprinter’s speed or stay the course?

Breeding primarily for commercial sale risks that short term gain trumps long term benefits – the individual versus the breed. It’s the buyers who decide what to buy; their choice can be influenced by those with the power to tweak what constitutes ‘success’.

When owners look to choose a mate for their mare, they surely study the race/jumping/showing or other career record – looking for success. Most consider the commercial elements – cover fee, saleability of progeny, current fashion, and colour – what if we get a chesnut filly!

They hopefully consider the ancestry of both parties, looking to concentrate desirable characteristics – the speed gene, anyone? Who doesn’t want some Cruising or Galileo in there, especially now that they’re gone from us!

Do they look to instil some hybrid vigour and not inbreed to an unacceptable level? Can they visit and examine a prospective stallion in the flesh, see how he flexes his joints, does he turn his limbs? He may be slickly promoted with flashy video clips, or reside abroad and breeding only through AI.

It’s not always easy for a busy breeder to gather all relevant information, judge its worth and then make a choice. We reap what we sow. Breeding the ‘wrong’ type increases a risk of horses ill-suited to (any) purpose – creating problems, conferring no credit on anyone, providing ammunition for others to aim.

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