IF we picture a mare that competes athletically we’re aware that a lot of time, money and expertise has been dedicated to ensuring she consistently performs to the best of her ability. Nobody expects a horse that has just been pulled in out of a field to function as an elite athlete.

However, the same cannot always be said when a mare commences her stud career. Conceiving, carrying and rearing a healthy foal may be viewed as ‘an act of nature’, and we sometimes expect the mare to just get on with it. The reality is that there is a lot that the breeder can do to ensure their mare has the best possible start to her stud career, and maximize the chances of her successfully carrying a healthy pregnancy to term.

In the same way as you would be selective about who will train, ride or produce your equine athlete, you should pick a breeding team. Having identified a potential stallion, talk to the stud manager and ascertain what health checks, vaccinations and paperwork, etc. will be needed well in advance of the stud season.

You’ll also need to have a stud vet lined up to look after the routine swabs, scans and checks that your mare will require. Having a complete and up to date set of your mare’s medical records will be extremely helpful. The mare’s passport will need to travel with her, so keeping a copy of her microchip number, markings and vaccination records, etc. is useful.

Unless horses are your full-time job, it’s a good idea to have an experienced box driver or horse transporter lined up – a mare’s expected ovulation date rarely coincides with their owner’s day off from work!

Try to make sure your mare is good to load. Transport problems are, at best, a time-wasting nuisance and, at worst, a danger to both the horse and the people involved. A mare that comes off the box dripping with sweat and highly stressed is more difficult to handle and less likely to conceive. Plus, once she gives birth, there is the foal’s wellbeing to consider during transport. Having a calm and relaxed mammy makes for a safer and smoother trip for the foal.

Plan ahead

Mares may become pregnant by natural cover, or artificial insemination (AI) with fresh, chilled or frozen semen– these techniques all require different preparation. If you are planning to breed your mare at home (most common with chilled semen) then you will need to plan for this and ensure you have the necessary facilities to hand – discuss this with your vet well in advance to give yourself time to get set up for the job.

Stocks are a major contributor to a safe and efficient breeding service – as long as the mare is used to them. It is a really good idea to get young or maiden mares used to being quietly and calmly walked in and out of stocks, until they are relaxed while being restrained in them. Stocks also facilitate a thorough breeding examination. Schedule one of these with your vet before the start of the breeding season. The early detection of minor issues (so that they can be addressed before they become major headaches) is a good use of time and resources. Don’t wait until the mare has failed to go in foal after three covers to find out that there is a problem!

A breeding examination will focus on the health of the mare’s reproductive tract, basically from her ovaries backwards. Don’t forget about the rest of her – she needs to be pain and infection-free and in good body condition, with sound feet and teeth.

Being overweight has a detrimental effect on fertility and a mare in ‘show condition’ may benefit from a reduced energy diet before being bred. An intermediate body condition score (where the ribs are not visible but may be easily felt) is ideal.

While it is tempting to want to keep horses as warm and sheltered over the winter, it’s important to recognize the importance of working with nature as much as possible. Horses evolved as grazing animals and would naturally be in their peak condition after a summer’s grass.

Over the winter grazers tend to lose some weight naturally, as the nutritional value of pastures decline. As the days lengthen into spring, there is a rise in temperature and grass growth, coinciding with a mare’s natural return to cycling ahead of the breeding season.

As mares meet the spring on a rising plane of nutrition and increasing daylight, and having experienced a seasonal temperature change, their fertility is naturally optimised. While it might be tempting to wrap a mare up in rugs all winter, keep her indoors and feed her a high concentrate diet, by doing so we are removing the cues nature intended to transition this seasonally cycling species into their natural breeding season.

Every horse needs access to shelter from bad weather and an adequate diet over the winter, but it’s important to try to balance modern equine management systems with the horse’s natural environment. Light exposure and hormone therapy can be used to facilitate an earlier start to the breeding season, but these techniques should be used to complement good husbandry, rather than relying on them in isolation.

Track cycles

Once the days lengthen and the mare is coming in heat every three weeks or so, track her cycle as accurately as possible. Some individuals make it obvious when they are in season, while others may not. Exposure to (but not necessarily direct contact with) male horses also promotes normal hormonal cycles, breeding behaviour and ovulation in mares. This may not be feasible for every owner, but it’s worth keeping in mind if possible.

Once the mare is covered, it’s important to ensure any post-breeding interventions, such as a uterine wash out or oxytocin injections are administered as scheduled. Gentle exercise is also really beneficial in improving uterine clearance post breeding. The goal is to produce a pristine uterus that provides a clean and healthy location for the embryo to enter a week after covering (it spends the first few days developing in the fallopian tube while the uterus clears itself out in preparation).

Finally, don’t forget a pregnancy scan at day 14-15 post-ovulation, knowing that you have given your mare every chance of successfully going in foal and producing a healthy youngster in 11 months’ time.