A Day in the Life of a Breeding Farm

Last week we talked about the daily routine of a boarding barn/riding facility. This week we’ll look at another kind of horse farm: the breeding facility.

In general, horse people and writers who want to write about horses will have some familiarity with a riding stable, if only through the rent-a-horse place they went to while they were on vacation. A breeding farm is a less familiar phenomenon–and yet it’s rather more likely to show up in a work of fiction, what with Lord Studly being a breeder of famous racehorses, and Snotty Princess falling in love with a foal as it’s born in front of her, and let’s not forget the whole “macho stallion and willing mare” thing that makes such a nice bit of drama for our hero and heroine to take advantage of.

The physical structure of a breeding farm will be fairly similar to that of a boarding stable: barn constructed of materials common to or traditional in the area, stalls inside and paddocks outside, and hay and feed storage of some description. There well may be a riding arena or some sort of riding arrangements, because many breeding farms are also show and training facilities, but it may not have the prominence that it will in a boarding barn. Pasture space will have a much higher priority, as baby horses need lots of space to run and play so that their bones and muscles will develop as they should.

Not all breeding farms have a stallion on the property. Many or most do, but a breeder may keep a herd of mares and either take them to outside stallions or, in a higher-tech setting, import them via “boy-in-a-box,” i.e. artificial insemination. AI may be done on site or the mare may go to a breeding station or veterinary clinic for the procedure. It’s not common for a stallion to come to breed mares; for the most part, if breeding happens the old-fashioned way, the mares travel to the place where the stallion stands at stud. This may be a breeding farm in its own right or a stallion station where a number of stallions are kept through the season and managed by experienced staff. And it does take experience to handle half a ton or more of mare-seeking, testosterone-powered missile. (She says from a farm with a stallion in the first flush of spring hormones.)(Oy.)

Mares on the average cycle from about February through about October, with a dormant period (anestrus) in the winter. This is by no means universal. Some mares never stop, and others may be put under lights through the winter to keep them cycling and force early breeding and an early foal–for breeds that have a January 1st universal “birthday,” a foal born during the normal months of April through June is at a disadvantage for racing or showing over a foal born earlier in the year.  However, in nature, that’s the way it works.

A mare’s cycle is rather similar to a human woman’s: she ovulates roughly every 15-21 days, with a period of about 5-7 days of estrus prior to ovulation. During estrus is the only time most mares will show interest in  the stallion, and an experienced, well-socialized stallion will only court them during that period. (And if they say No, he backs off right good and proper, unless he wants to get the living crap kicked out of him.)

This is the rhythm under which a breeding farm operates–along with the other half of the equation: gestation and foaling, then raising, weaning, and training the foals. Getting the mares bred is the first priority; getting them safely foaled out and the foals brought properly is the equally important result.

So, let’s take a day in the life of the breeding farm. It’s well into the spring season, say sometime in April. Foals are still coming–even with January “birthdays,” some mares just won’t budge from their natural inclinations. The craziness of early spring has settled down a bit; the mares have all had their dramatic first or transitional heat of the new season, and the stallions are correspondingly less likely to be maniacs about their job. (Stallions are reactive. Remember this. The mare determines how the stallion will act and react.)

We’ve got a couple of mares in the foaling stalls, which are larger than average–at least 12×14 feet and preferably larger; a double-sized stall is not uncommon (10 or 12×20 or more). Mares need room to lie down and push out that foal, and the more room she has, the better, because she will do her best to go down right up against the wall. One mare foaled in the night, so the foaling staff hasn’t slept–and probably has not slept consistently since about January. Another mare had her foal a few days ago and has been turned out with her baby during the day in a paddock near the barn. She’ll show up later, so watch for it.

5 a.m.  Feeding and watering time. Staff not only feed but check on status of pregnant mares, any foals with their dams in stalls, and last night’s baby, who is under 24-hour watch to make sure all’s well. On a breeding farm, mares and foals may live in pastures 24/7; they may be living on grass on the pastures, but will often receive supplemental hay or grain once or twice or possibly three times a day. (Mares and babies need a lot of provender to keep weight and encourage growth.)

6 a.m. Stall cleaning begins. Horses kept inside–very pregnant mares, mares recently or just foaled (though not yet the newest mother and baby), and stallions–will go out in paddocks now or throughout the day, depending on how much paddock space there is and how long each horse can spend in it. Optimally that’s all day. In crowded facilities, that may be as little as an hour. If a mare looks like foaling any minute, she’ll stay in under observation. Mares prefer to foal in the wee hours, but have been known to get down to business in the daytime, so it pays to be cautious.

8 a.m. Morning check of the mares–looking to see who is in estrus and who is coming in or going out. The breeding manager’s most valuable assistant is the “teaser stallion”–an experienced stallion who will be led down the line of stalls and pastures, and the manager will take careful note of who’s interested, and of those, who responds most strongly. The stallion will tell her which ones are just enjoying the experience, and which are indeed ready to be bred. Individual stallions have different ways of doing this, and the manager will be familiar with the teaser stallion’s signals. (Mine sings an aria when the mare is within a day of ovulation–i.e. in standing heat and most likely to conceive. He’s a Heldentenor; it can blast your eardrum out.)

The teaser stallion may or may not be used for breeding. In general it’s a good idea to let him have at least one of “his” mares or he turns sour.

8:30 a.m. Teasing’s over and stallion’s out of the way. Barn staff takes one of the mares and her 5-day-old foal out to the mare-and-foal pasture for the first time. One staffer leads the mare. Another leads the foal. He won’t be led by a halter like an adult–baby necks are fragile and can break if babies pull too hard–but with some sort of body harness, such as a soft rope wrapped around him fore and aft in a figure 8 with a “handle” above his back. Mom leads, baby goes right behind, down to the pasture. Once they’re there, both staffers will stay with the pair for a while after they’re turned out to make sure the herd accepts them and the baby doesn’t get in trouble trying to see if any other milk bars are open (mostly, they will emphatically not be).

9 a.m.and throughout the day: Staff will handle and play with the babies, both the newborns in the stalls and the older ones in the pastures. This socializes them and makes them familiar with humans, and teaches them basic skills: wearing a halter, leading, tying, etc.

9:30 Vet arrives. In season he may be at the farm daily, sometimes twice or more depending on what needs to be done. He may have been at the farm overnight if there was a foaling emergency. Now he’s here to check on the new baby and the recent foals, make sure their mothers are recovering well from the foaling (no infection or damage), and verify the teaser stallion’s findings with regard to the mares that are to bred, as well as check the bred mares for pregnancy. In an older setting he’ll do this by palpation–arm up the anus, feeling the shape and texture of the uterus below. In a higher-tech era he’ll ultrasound.

The ultrasound machine used to be a big, clunky, megabucks machine that rolled around in a cart, and it was much easier to haul the mare to the clinic to have it done. Now, if the vet is up to the minute, it’s a laptop with specialized software and a USB-connected sensor, that travels to the farm in a protected case.

Whatever the means, the vet will determine which mare has “caught” or conceived. Palpation can detect the blastula about three weeks in at earliest. Ultrasound can find it down to about 12-14 days, though my vet prefers to check around day 15 after ovulation.  The truly old-fashioned signal that the mare is pregnant is that she doesn’t come back into heat; but if she does, she still might be pregnant. That’s what the vet will be checking. The pressure there is to get the mare rebred if she’s not in foal, so there’s tricky timing involved, especially with a high-value outside mare whose owner may be hauling her back and forth each time she’s in heat.

If the vet is checking a mare who has already been confirmed pregnant, he will want to confirm that the pregnancy is still in process. At 30 days he’ll check to see if there are twins–if so, he’ll want to pinch off one of them, as twinning in horses is not good. Too often it ends with late-term miscarriage, or one or both of the twins dies in the womb;  if in rare cases they survive until birth, one or both may be stunted or weak, and they may not thrive.

If all’s well and there’s a single fetus in there, the next check will be at 45 days, to make sure the fetus has implanted in the uterine wall; if not, the pregnancy “slips” and the foal is lost. Once the fetus implants, the pregnancy is considered to be secure, and mare and breeder settle in for the duration–an average of 345 days, with vet checks at 5, 7, and 9 months to make sure everything is going as it should.

Today the vet is checking mares in the early stages, and ascertaining which mares will need to be rebred. The results of these examinations will determine part of the breeding manager’s agenda for the day.

11 a.m. Score! Two of the mares are pregnant; they’re off the hook until the next check. But one, whom the teaser stallion was especially interested in, is close to ovulation–probably tonight, the vet says. (Mares tend to ovulate late at night.) The breeding manager makes a note, and lets her assistant know they’ll be breeding today.

12 noon. Midday feeding and watering. Horses in stalls and paddocks get hay. Horses in pastures may get supplemental feeding.

1 p.m. Breeding staff gets to work prepping stallion for breeding. They’ll bring out his special breeding halter (doesn’t need to be anything specific as long as it’s different from the one he wears for everyday), clean the equipment with warm water (soap is a spermicide–don’t want that), and make sure the breeding pen is open and ready. Meanwhile other staff are prepping the mare. They’ll wash her under the tail with very mild soap, and  may wrap her tail to get it out of the way, and put on breeding hobbles to keep her from kicking the stallion. Some farms “twitch” her (put a clamp on her upper lip)–this is supposed to trigger endorphins and make her more passive, though I personally think it just hurts so much she can’t move. I do not like the twitch.

1:30 Show time.  Mare goes to the breeding pen first. This may be a round pen used for training as well, or a shed or barn, or an area or paddock–any safe, unobstructed space with a good fence or solid walls will do. Some farms use a breeding chute or stanchion, with the mare loaded into a padded chute. Our farm is using a round pen, and the mare is led in and positioned near the middle. When she’s in place, the stallion is brought in–which can be an Adventure–and encouraged to court her, talk to her, introduce himself to her face and neck first, then breed. A good stallion will take his time and follow the mare’s lead, and good breeding handlers will make sure everything proceeds safely and as calmly as possible. This may take anywhere from a couple of minutes to half an hour or more.

2 p.m. Breeding’s done. Stallion’s cleaned up and put away. Mare has been cleaned and walked for a while, preferably downhill, to make sure everything stays in there where it belongs.

4-5 p.m. Evening feeding and watering. Horses in paddocks come in for the night.

9-10 p.m. Bed check. Horses may get one last ration of hay. If a mare is ready to foal–they can and will foal in clusters–staff will camp in the house or office for the night, and either check on her every hour or so (if low tech) or watch her on a monitor. If she’s truly imminent and this is a lower-tech operation, someone will watch or camp by the stall, in case tonight’s the night.

A breeding farm in foaling season truly never sleeps. And so the farm settles down for the night, until morning feeding comes around, and it all starts over again.

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A Day in the Life of a Breeding Farm — 10 Comments

  1. Do the mares travel to the stallion because they’re easier to manage than he is, or is there another reason?

    Also, do horses ever manage successful twins, where both come out healthy? Off the top of my head I can’t think of any I’ve seen in fiction, but I’m willing to bet there’s at least one author out there writing sparkly horse fiction where there’s a special twin birth.

  2. Marie, it’s mathematics. A stallion will stand to multiple mares in a season–a very big-name stallion may be bred to several dozen, and a few see over a hundred (though that’s seriously taxing their resources–breeding is hard work and takes a lot out of a horse). Whereas a mare will, unless something happens to make the first breeding not work out, only see one stallion in a season.

    There have been cases of viable twins that survived to adulthood. My stallion’s sister had a set–a colt and a filly who turned out OK, and I believe didn’t end up stunted, either. But that’s extremely rare. Those two were lucky to have very experienced breeders, a mother who milks like a Jersey cow, and plenty of supplementation to make sure they got all the nutrition they needed to grow and thrive. There’s an article about the phenomenon in one breed here: http://www.southwestlipizzan.com/files/March_2005.pdf

    It’s not good news when the mare produces one foal and then keeps on going, but it isn’t invariably a disaster; however it is a big management issue. The mare does have two teats at least, so there’s one for each, but the question is whether she has enough milk for two since the system is designed for just one.

    I have also heard of one case of triplets who survived until birth. One however was very tiny and only lived a couple of days.

  3. This is great stuff–another for the bookmark.

    Re the tendency for certain hours for certain activities, that’s especially interesting. Human babies tend toward the wee hours as well. I wonder why, as the mother is most tired then.

  4. Aren’t the major predators mostly diurnal? The wee hours seem to be quiet even for nocturnal animals–3 a.m. or so when everything goes still. Mares like to pop their foals between midnight and dawn if they can, though they perfectly well will foal at midday if they feel secure. One of my mares once foaled at 3 p.m. in front of a visiting troop of Girl Scouts. She also had one at sunrise half an hour before the arrival of a late winter storm (THAT was fun), another right after sundown when I had a houseful of guests, and one actually, you know, at the normal time of 3:30 a.m.

    At a breeding farm, if a mare is imminent and the farm’s setup allows it, management may finish up the chores early and close the barn to see if the mare will go in the late afternoon. That’s most convenient for people who have to monitor the foal for several hours to make sure it stands, nurses (to get the all-important colostrum with its transferred immunities), and passes meconium (the “plug” of stored solid waste from gestation–first milk should trigger release). This can happen quickly, in an hour or two, or take all night. The best foaling in captivity is the one that happens around 4 or 5 p.m., and baby is all done and tucked in by 11 so the mare-stare brigade can get some sleep–waking up at intervals to check and make sure there haven’t been any reversals.

    First 24 hours is crucial for mare and baby, as mom will be undergoing some processes as well. First 48 nearly as important. Then the first two “newborn” weeks require close attention to any changes in the combined status quo. After that, things ease up as the baby grows and gets stronger.

  5. In humans (and I expect in all mammals) it is actually the fetus that triggers the birth process. There are a multitude of hints and superstitions for bringing on a human birth — my favorite is Mexican food, and walking is another classic hardy perennial. All of these things naturally take place in the daytime, and then the mom gives up and goes to bed, thus setting the stage for a sudden wakeup and a trip to the hospital in the wee hours.

    An experienced ob-gyn will never commit to a ‘when will the baby come’ prediction. Even a vague forecast tends to blow back — when I was nine months along my doctor (after examination) allowed that the baby wasn’t going to come for at least one week. The baby arrived one day later.

  6. With horses, the foal determines the day and the mare determines the time. She can actually put herself on hold for up to three days if conditions are adverse (which does not include bad weather: mares loves to foal in storms when the predators have gone to ground). If she’s disturbed or fussed, she’ll hang on. And on. And on. Will press her butt right up against the wall and hold that baby in.

    The key fact here is, birth for a horse is rapid and violent. The foal has no more than 45 minutes from the time the water breaks to get out there before it suffocates. She can stay in Stage 1 labor for weeks if she has to, but the minute stage 2 starts, it’s a race against the clock for the baby’s survival.

    You can predict some mares pretty easily: there are certain signs that tell you it’s going to happen Soon. But then it’s like with your OB: even experts can miss the call and everybody gets a surprise. That’s how I ended up with that winter-storm baby. Two weeks early, she showed signs she was 48 hours out according to her previous pattern, we were set to get her moved into the foaling stall that morning–and she jumped the gun. It was that storm. She just had to take advantage of it.

    After that I made triple certain sure I had everything in place at least a month before due date.

  7. I think mares prefer to foal in the wee hours of the night because a herd usually beds down for the night, and starts moving at dawn. A foal who is several hours old can more easily move with the band. A mare who stops to foal during daylight hours is going to be left behind by her herd, and both of them may die.

  8. This is great stuff about the reasons for foaling, and I did not know that mares could in effect put the initial birth process on hold.

    Re human babies, last time I checked, the so-called experts still insist that full moon bringing on births is old wives tales, but every single ob-gyn nurse or nurse-midwife I know says HAH! to that. They KNOW that babies pop when the full moon happens. I know mine sure did–hospital was going crazy–and five days later, when I was recovered enough to be aware of my surroundings, zipperino. Place was totally quiet, and almost empty, except for us recovering c-secs.

  9. I bet there is an equivalent body of superstition/old wives’ tales about how to bring on a foal. (Good odds that Mexican food does not feature in it, however.) That would be a great opportunity for inventing something culturally appropriate and demonstrative of the culture of your fictional universe. “You’re still waiting for your mare? Have you tried spitting twice and then pouring red wine onto her left front hoof? Foals always come if you sign them up for Twitter and Skype…”