Some people breed horses as an interest or hobby or to continue a favourite bloodline, others because they can see a quid in it, still others because they think (they know) their horses are the best and would like to populate the world with them. However, the road to financial ruin is littered with failed horse studs and many hundreds of beautiful, worthy but unwanted horses are sent to slaughter because of oversupply and lack of any other market for them. Horse slaughter for the horsemeat industry is an ugly, cruel trade. See Horse slaughter and horsemeat: the facts for more information on the situation worldwide.
A contributor to the oversupply problem is the crossing of inferior horses in the hope of producing something better than the parents. It happens, in fact has even produced champions, but not often. Putting an inferior mare to a top quality stallion in the hope that he will “improve” her is also usually a no-win situation, because even if the stallion contributes his best genes to the offspring, fifty percent still come from the mare and that is an indisputable scientific fact. “Breed the best to the best and hope for the best” is a very apt truism when it comes to breeding horses.
No one can dictate whether a particular mare should be bred from or not, but selling the offspring at a loss or not being able to sell at all becomes a great leveler if breeding for the commercial market. It costs no more to rear a good horse than a bad. Stallions in particular need special selection because they can sire many foals in a season. Again no one can dictate whether a particular stallion is good enough to stand at stud, but the proof will be in the offspring. Stallions at public stud should not only have near-faultless conformation and be free of inherited defects, but they should have some feature of performance or pedigree that is above average if not exceptional. Service fees should be in keeping with these attributes; it often pays to shop around when looking for a stallion to put your mare to, because some service fees are grossly over-inflated.
[Breeding season][Artificial insemination][Puberty][Breeding organs stallion][Breeding organs mare][Physiology of pregnancy][Oestrus cycle][Caslick's operation]
An added problem is the difficulty of getting mares in foal in early September, which is necessary if they are to foal 11 months later as close to 1 August as possible. For reasons explained later, they simply do not cycle very well at this time of year without artificial intervention. In fact, research has repeatedly indicated that the ideal time to breed horses is quite a bit later - from late spring to the end of summer (November to February in Australia). The way things stand at the moment, getting a mare in foal even in December is considered late. Many commercial studs end the stud season on Christmas eve.
For many it makes little difference exactly when their horse was born, but in the world of racing it is of paramount importance. In feature races such as the Derbies, which are restricted to three-year-olds, there could be as much as four months difference in the actual ages and therefore maturity of the participants. A few months’ advantage in age becomes even more telling in two-year-old racing, where immaturity of the bones and joints leads all the more quickly to injury and breakdown. This is why every effort is made to have racehorse foals born as early in the season as possible.
Artificial insemination (AI) has traditionally been a more difficult procedure in horses than other species, largely due to the complex storage and transport requirements of horse semen. However, advances in technology have overcome many of the problems and AI is now a viable option. Mainly because of fears it will concentrate the gene pool too much through overuse of only the top few stallions, AI is banned in Thoroughbreds though constantly under review. But it has been enthusiastically embraced by other breeds, including Standardbreds, Quarter Horses, Arabians and Warmbloods.
In some breeds AI is restricted to on-farm use, meaning only the resident stallions can be used for collection. Other breeds allow the use of chilled or frozen semen, which in some cases may be flown in from interstate or overseas. A vet or qualified technician carries out the insemination procedure. Some breeds restrict the number of mares that a particular stallion’s semen can be used on each year, thus preventing overuse of certain bloodlines, which in the end could damage the breed as a whole by reducing genetic variation. Also it prevents domination of the industry by a select few breeders.
In the Thoroughbred world at least, shuttle stallions have become all the rage in the last few years, meaning Northern Hemisphere stallions are flown to Australia and New Zealand for the Southern Hemisphere breeding season, when normally they would be resting. This is another way of widely disseminating the one stallion’s genes, but nowhere near to the extent possible through AI.
In the stud situation in Australia where foals are weaned as a group and then run together, it is advisable to separate the sexes by the time the older fillies are 12 months of age. It is not unknown for Thoroughbred yearling fillies to go through sales rings in foal without anyone realising it at the time. Even without the risk of pregnancy, the games that a group of mixed-sex yearlings play can result in injuries.
The scrotum is an extension of the skin that covers the rest of the horse. Its apparent size depends as much on the heat of the day as on the size of the testicles it contains. The reason the testicles are held outside the body is that they will be at a slightly lower temperature than if they were within the body, and this is necessary for the manufacture of sperm. On a hot day the scrotum hangs down more and appears bigger. Stallions can retract their scrotum in cold conditions, also when covering a mare to avoid the possibility of injury from a kick.
The testicles are paired organs within the scrotum that manufacture the male sex cells or sperm. Sperm contain only half the number of chromosomes normal for the species, as does the female egg, so that when fertilization occurs the proper chromosome number (diploid number) is restored. The testicles also produce the hormone testosterone, responsible for libido (sex drive) and the masculine appearance and behaviour of stallions.
The sperm duct (vas deferens) is an internal tube that carries sperm from the testicles. At the accessory sexual glands (one of which is the prostate) it collects fluids that aid in the transport and survival of the sperm. This mixture of sperm and fluids is called semen. The sperm duct then joins up with a tube coming from the bladder and becomes known as the urethra.
The urethra is a tube that runs through the middle of the penis before opening to the outside world. It is a common passageway for semen and urine, urine being a waste fluid produced by the kidneys, stored in the bladder and voided when necessary. Semen flows out through the urethra (ejaculation) only when the horse is sexually aroused, either by the act of copulation or by masturbation.
The penis is the organ of copulation and normally it is wholly contained within the sheath. During and after urination stallions and geldings will generally protrude it to some extent but it is flaccid. Only if sexually aroused does the penis achieve an erection so that mating can take place. Usually this requires the presence of an in-season mare, but some stallions and colts kept in isolation will masturbate, that is, achieve an erection and ejaculate on the ground. Some geldings are capable of an erection and will actually serve an in-season mare, but it is a rather weak affair compared with an entire’s effort. Of course, a gelding cannot get a mare in foal.
The vulva forms the entrance to the vagina, a hollow muscular organ with collapsed walls which receives the erect penis of the stallion during mating. There is a negative pressure within the vagina, thought to help the stallion ejaculate. The bladder opens into the floor of the vagina via a very short urethra, and urine is voided out through the vulva several times a day. Mares have a clitoris, a small swelling which is often pigmented, just within the lips of the vulva at their base. After urinating, mares will briefly evert the vulval lips a few times in quick succession, displaying the clitoris and the pink lining of the vulva. This is known as “winking” and is exaggerated in in-season mares.
The cervix is a ring of muscular tissue separating the vagina from the uterus (womb). In pregnant mares and those not in season, the cervix is tightly closed, totally sealing off the uterus from the outside world. It is only open when the mare is in season and when foaling.
The uterus or womb is where the unborn foal (foetus) grows and develops. The blood vessels in its walls supply nutrients to the foetus via the placenta. The uterus is made up of the body of the uterus and a left and right uterine horn, all wholly connected. Each uterine horn terminates in a narrow fallopian tube (oviduct or “tube”), the ends of which are enlarged and partially enclose the ovaries.
The ovaries are the organs that produce the female reproductive cell or egg (ovum). Eggs, like sperm, contain only half the species number of chromosomes. The diploid number is restored when fertilization takes place.
Ovaries are masses of follicles, each follicle being a collection of specialised tissue that produces an egg. When the mare comes in season, a follicle in one or sometimes both ovaries begins to ripen, that is, grows and moves to the surface of the ovary and after a variable number of days it ruptures, releasing the egg. This is known as ovulation.
The egg enters the fallopian tube and, if the mare has been served, is penetrated by just one sperm (conception). The egg is now said to be fertilised. It is just a single diploid cell but the beginning of a new life. It slowly travels down towards the uterus, which it enters some six days after conception. Due to cell division it has grown considerably in the meantime and become a fluid-filled sphere surrounded by many cells.
Though still not much bigger than a pinhead, this beginnings of a horse is now called an embryo. It continues to drift around inside the uterus, being nourished by the fluid medium in which it is suspended. It is not until 37 days after conception that its lifeline to the mother really forms. This is the placenta, a structure that completely encloses the developing embryo which is in yet another membrane, the amnion. The placenta is intimately attached to the inner lining of the uterus and grows with the embryo. It is via the placenta that the unborn foal receives oxygen and other nutrients from the mother and has its waste products removed into her bloodstream. The fixing of the embryo to the uterine wall by the development of the placenta is known as implantation. The afterbirth that comes away with the foal at or shortly after birth is a combination of the placenta and amnion.
The main indicator of pregnancy is that the mare does not come back in season after being covered. Also ultrasound techniques can be used to diagnose pregnancy from 16 days or so after conception, and manual pregnancy testing can be carried out by a vet at 42 to 45 days. This is done by placing a hand inside the rectum of the mare and feeling the reproductive organs below, through the bowel wall. The embryo is easily palpable as a distinct swelling about the size of an orange at the base of one or other of the uterine horns. This is not a job for an amateur, unskilled operators can easily penetrate the bowel wall with their fingers, which can cause death of the mare.
Once the mare is diagnosed pregnant, it should then just be a matter of sitting back and awaiting the happy event. Unfortunately this is not always the case. A percentage of mares will slip (abort) due to infection, illness, accident, poor nutrition, hormonal imbalance or no known reason. The average length of pregnancy in mares is 11 months. Rarely do they foal more than a week early, but up to a fortnight overdue is not uncommon and some will go even longer than that. Mares that foal late seem to do so every year. Late foals tend to be smaller than the average, though there are no hard-and-fast rules.
Most mares are sexually inactive during the colder weather. The main trigger to them coming into season in spring is an increase in daylight hours. This can be mimicked by keeping mares under lights for up to 16 hours a day from mid-winter onwards, as is done on some large commercial studs. The brain of the mare registers the increase in light and sends a message to the pituitary gland, which releases a hormone known as follicle stimulating hormone (FSH). This hormone travels via the mare’s bloodstream to the ovaries and tells them to get going and do something, because spring has sprung.
Another trigger to the commencement of cycling in spring is shedding of the winter coat. A personal observation is that there is not much point trying to get mares in foal until this occurs. The mare that refuses to “clean up” in the coat is invariably the one that either does not come on season for some time or stays on for many days, adding insult to injury by failing to ovulate. Usually mares like this will come right naturally if given time, or in some cases they can be given hormonal treatment. Some studs deliberately flush mares, that is, graze them on rapidly growing green feed early in the season. This appears to have a beneficial effect on coat shedding and the onset of oestrus (heat).
With some or all of the above factors in operation, a follicle within the mare’s ovaries will begin to grow. As it does it releases another hormone, oestrogen, the “I’d like to get to know you better” hormone. Oestrogen is responsible for the signs displayed by mares when they are in season. At first, this is just a mild interest in the stallion or teaser, an inclination to approach and even touch noses, but then walk away again. If the stallion is unrestrained and starts to get serious with the mare, she will lay her ears back, squeal and kick and perhaps dribble a bit of urine. Such a mare is not ready to serve and the stallion, too, will recognise this and leave her alone - at least, he should recognise it, provided he has been managed as naturally as possible and allowed to exercise his natural instincts, as discussed in the section on mating procedure
But the story will be different by about the third day, for the mare will really be starting to “show” or “horse”. She will come up to the stallion and allow him to nip and sniff her all over, especially her genital region. She will straddle, lift her tail, urinate and wink her clitoris for an extended period of time. She will turn her hindquarters towards the stallion and often lean towards or against him, showing all the time. The lining of the vulva appears very red as she winks, because it is more engorged with blood than usual. Some mares are not as demonstrative as this, also none of them show continuously. They exhibit waves of sexual desire if in contact with a stallion or teaser confined to a teasing yard, wandering away for awhile and grazing before returning for another horsing session some 20 minutes later.
The smell of an in-season mare is quite characteristic. One can walk into a yard full of mares and know that one of them at least has been horsing, even if there are no males in sight. Some mares will horse to anything including other mares, geldings, a cow on the other side of the fence, even trees!
Another way to pick an in-season mare if not actually being teased is the presence of a crusty exudate below the vulva. This is dried mucus and is an indication that the mare has been horsing in the paddock. It can look like pus but seldom is. If it was pus it would, of course, be reason for alarm and on no account should the mare be served. Grazing on lucerne can be another reason for the presence of a crusty, whitish material around the vulval lips. This is not a problem, but merely indicates that the mare has been secreting surplus minerals in her urine from the lucerne.
On a commercial stud, after a mare has been in season for about three days, a vet will follicle test her. This involves palpating her ovaries through the bowel wall. This is not painful for the mare but does require her to be adequately restrained, either in a mare crush or by the use of sidelines or hobbles. What the vet is feeling for is the size and tenseness of the developing follicles on one or both ovaries. If one follicle is large and beginning to soften, it indicates that ovulation is likely to occur within 24 hours and the mare should be served within that time. If the follicle is still very tight, serving her would be a waste of time so she would be left a couple of days before being palpated again to see if there have been any changes. Follicles can also be assessed through ultrasound techniques.
Follicle testing is important where a stallion has a large book of mares. It allows a juggling of his use, thus ensuring that services are not wasted and mares are covered at the most opportune time. In a smaller breeding operation, normal healthy mares do not have to be follicle tested. The standard practice there is to begin covering mares the third day they are on, then every second day while they remain in season.
As mentioned previously, the peak breeding season for horses is summer (November to the end of February in Australia) but the industry is geared to trying to make them breed at least two months earlier, therefore studs will be serving their first mares by 12 September - any earlier and there is a risk of having foals born before 1 August the next year.
The standard length of oestrus ("heat") at the height of the breeding season is five to seven days. But early in the spring some mares will be in season for much longer, even up to a month in a few cases, exhibiting what is known as a long spring heat. Usually they are strongly in season and have a good follicle, but it never advances, in fact eventually regresses without ever ovulating. It is a waste of time covering these mares, they should be forgotten about until they do eventually go off and come back in season normally again. A personal observation is that these long spring-heat mares that are repeatedly covered but do not ovulate are candidates for genital infection.
Mares that have cleaned up in the coat and are on a rising plane of nutrition can be got in foal early in September, but the majority do not start to have shorter cycles until into October. By the time November comes, they should all be exhibiting the five to seven day oestrus (heat) period quoted as standard for the species.
The ideal time to cover a mare is a few hours before she ovulates, which is about 24 hours before the end of her oestrus period. This is not always possible but does not mean she will not conceive. The sperm of some stallions will survive for quite some time in the female reproductive tract, waiting to fertilize an egg. It is very unusual but not unheard of for a mare to conceive to a service five days before going off season.
A remarkably constant feature of the mare’s reproductive cycle, irrespective of its actual length, is the time between the end of one oestrus period and the beginning of the next. Almost without exception it is 17 days, give or take half a day. The whole heat or oestrus cycle thus becomes 22 to 24 days at the height of the breeding season in summer. It can be much longer early in spring, when mares might be in season considerably more than the standard five to seven days.
Sometime between four to 17 days after giving birth, some mares come in season again just for a day or two. This is known as foal heat and, because of the long gestation in mares, seems nature’s way of trying to ensure they have a foal every year. Other authorities believe it is a sort of cleansing period, not a time to be getting in foal but rather a decontamination period for the recently pregnant breeding tract, because antibacterial substances are released into the reproductive tract when the mare is in season. An argument against this theory is that all else being equal, foal heat mares stand well for service and get in foal, and no doubt do so in the wild.
Mares should not be covered at foal heat if they had any foaling problems such as a difficult birth or retained placenta. Also it does not by any means always occur on the ninth day, that is only the average. It is the height of idiocy to tie mares up on the ninth day and rape them irrespective of whether they are in season or not.
Once a mare has been served and gone off she should start being exposed to a teaser again about a fortnight later. If she has not come back in season by the time 21 days have elapsed, it can be assumed she is in foal. Many mares will also start to visibly “do” well, that is, begin to bloom even at this early stage. Some in-foal mares will continue to show when in the presence of a stallion or teaser, but not very strongly, and with experience it is not difficult to pick them from genuine in-season mares.
Occasionally mares are served, do not appear to come back in season, but return a negative manual pregnancy test at 42 days. It means a month has been wasted, precious time given the relatively short breeding season and the pressure to get foals born as early as possible. Ultrasound pregnancy testing, which can be carried out from 16 days or so after conception, has provided a way around this problem. If the mare is not in foal, then she can be brought back into season with a drug if she does not return of her own accord.
The average foaling percentage for Thoroughbreds worldwide is in the low seventies. Individual studs and other breeds may have better figures, but the fact remains that sending a mare to a stallion is no guarantee she will produce a live foal. Many things can go wrong along the way, and although it is not the intention here to discuss infertility in detail, mention must be made of the Caslick’s operation.
Some mares, because of their conformation or age, have a vulva that is not perpendicular when viewed from the side but slopes forward from bottom to top. This allows air to be sucked into the vagina (vaginal windsucking) along with faecal material and bacteria, which can set up infection in the genital tract and stop the mare getting in foal. This is preventable by a Caslick’s operation, a small surgical procedure whereby a veterinarian stitches the upper lips of the vulva together. Although it prevents windsucking it still allows the mare to urinate - and to be served in most cases. Usually (but not always) windsuckers are easy to diagnose by the characteristic noise they make - give them a bit of a fright and you will hear the sharp slurp of air being sucked into the vagina as they jump away.
Not all mares with sloping vulvas windsuck; conversely, some mares with apparently good vulval conformation do windsuck, though not audibly, so that some infertile mares will benefit from a Caslick’s operation whether they appear to need one or not. The suture line should be opened just prior to foaling and later repaired, although this may not be necessary if only the very top part of the vulval lips has been sutured.
[A natural process?][Booking procedure][Taking to stud][Teasing][Preparing mare][Managing stallion][The service]
It does not have to be like this. Ideally stallions should run out with their mares and handle their own affairs, but where this is not possible the mating procedure can still be managed in a much more natural way to the benefit of both stallion and mares, as explained later.
Most commercial studs of necessity hand serve, the main reasons being that it decreases the risk of injury to the stallion, allows for accurate record keeping and permits easier and safer management of the total stud, given the high stocking densities often involved and the need to keep different groups of horses separated, such as wet mares from dry mares. Other factors include better management of the stallion’s services where large books are involved and better diagnosis and treatment of disease and fertility problems.
Many studs charge a booking fee, which is usually 10% of the service fee and not normally refundable. Others charge a usage fee which might include some of the agistment and routine veterinary fees as well. Usually the balance of the service fee is payable on a 42 to 45 day manual pregnancy test. If a free return is offered, it means the mare can be returned to the stallion for a free service the following year should she slip (abort). Some studs offer a live foal guarantee (LFG), which generally means if the foal dies in the first week of life, the mare can return for a free service.
It is the right of the owner of the mare to inspect the stud facilities. The quality of the grazing, the safety of the fences and yards and the condition of the horses already there should be on the check list. It is the responsibility of the stud owner to provide a safe environment for visiting mares, including keeping paddocks as free of hazards as possible. The resident horses may well have learned to survive half-fallen-down fences and agricultural machinery left lying around, but these can be death traps for visitors.
Occasionally mares are served and taken home the same day. This requires either follicle palpation or very accurate knowledge of the mare’s cycle. If she has not gone off two or three days later, it means another trip back to the stallion. Some mares appear to go off season if travelled even though they have not ovulated, and may need a bit of time to settle down on arrival.
It is not wise to transport a recently foaled mare. Foals should be at least four days old before being subjected to any sort of trip. Very seldom is the stallion transported to the mare, though this was not uncommon in days gone by.
Every second day on average all the mares in a group are teased to detect oestrus. If on, they may be follicle tested by a vet or simply served every couple of days until going off, beginning on the third day. Teasing involves running the mares into a safe yard then leading the teaser amongst them, or confining the teaser to a small yard to which the mares have access and observing their behaviour, or leading the teaser amongst the mares out in the paddock. The teaser can be a small pony unable to serve large mares anyway because of the height difference, or a horse of inferior quality trained to the procedure, or a testosterone implanted gelding, or the stallion himself.
The author has had first hand experience with a number of stallions (mainly Thoroughbreds) over some years, and all of them did their own teasing. A teaser stallion was never kept on the property. None of the stallions was ever hurt, none of them ever became difficult to handle or sour. Stallions handled in this way soon get the message that their turn will come, they cannot go raping everything in sight. Also, in the author’s experience, they are never slow servers or rough or savage with their mares, and although not in constant contact with them as they would be in nature, they still build up a definite rapport with all members of their harem.
Irrespective of which teasing method is used, the mares must be given time. Some take longer than others to show any interest even when quite strongly in season, particularly wet mares. There is even the occasional mare that never appears to show to a stallion or teaser but only to other mares in the paddock. No doubt they would show if the stallion was running with them all the time, but otherwise it is a case of careful observation. Follicle palpation will reveal whether they are ready to be served or not, and if they are they seem to stand without fuss.
Various forms of restraint can be placed on the mare to prevent her injuring the stallion. These include a twitch and/or serving hobbles and sometimes serving boots. Speaking from experience these items are seldom necessary. They upset many mares, in fact some will go absolutely berserk in hobbles because they are so completely foreign to them. Also the stallion can get caught up in them. Mares stressed and upset by unnatural restraint methods and equipment may even suffer tubal blocking, which although unproven in horses, does occur in other species due to anxiety. Another point, too, is that the severely restrained mare forced to stand motionless like a petrified lump is non-conducive to the stallion ejaculating easily. This could be one of the reasons some horses become “difficult” servers - taking ages to get an erection, preferring to hassle and bite mares rather than serve them.
In the author’s experience, mares that are properly in season, ready to be served and quietly handled, do not kick. The only exception is some maiden mares and those with young foals. Even so, the stallion used to doing his own teasing and mostly allowed to play the mating game his way will get around these mares without getting kicked.
One of the golden rules of successful horse breeding is that if a mare is genuinely antagonistic towards the stallion, she is not ready to be served. Just occasionally this is despite the apparent readiness of her follicle - vets are not infallible when it comes to judging softness of follicles and proximity to ovulation. Mares show rejection of the stallion by laying back their ears, kicking, rearing and sometimes making the most desperate efforts to get away. If such a mare is forced to accept teasing, she can become a danger to whoever is holding her - and do heed those words. Never, ever hold such a mare too casually, even if she is normally your best friend. Arms and legs have been broken as a result. An odd few mares will accept enforced teasing in a sour “do-with-me-what-you-want” sort of fashion and even dribble a bit of urine, but there is no way they would ever stand for actual service.
Irrespective of what restraint gear is on the mare, it is much better if the person holding her does so over a solid rail, or from outside the serving yard provided quick access to her can be gained if required, perhaps through a narrow gap or pophole in the yard fence specially constructed for the purpose. This is considered poor horsemanship by some long-time stud personnel, the belief being that the handler should be at the mare’s head to restrict her movements as much as possible. However, the mare should be able to move and interact with the stallion to some extent, and secondly, it is natural for stallions to begin their foreplay at the head end of the mare and to dance about and kick up at times. Obviously this could cause injury to humans in close proximity to the mare, and chastising and even belting stallions for exercising these natural instincts is yet another reason they can end up as nut cases.
Within reason, stallions should be allowed to be themselves. There is nothing worse than hearing a handler talk about “straightening out” a stallion, or saying: “He wants standing up” or “He doesn’t serve mares the way I want him to.” The origins of these weird beliefs about correct stallion behaviour have been lost in the mists of time, there is little rhyme nor reason to them. Over-disciplined stallions, especially when the punishment is meaningless and severely contradicts their natural instinctive behaviour, can end up with serious problems. Libido decreases because the whole mating experience has become totally negative, to such extent that they may refuse to even try to serve a mare, or if they do, fail to ejaculate. Some become aggressive, rushing at mares (or people!) in an attempt to savage them.
As the stallion comes nearer, the mare will probably urinate. He will approach her instinctively from the side, thus being able to dodge a kick, and if not prevented from doing so by people in the way or fear of punishment, will touch noses with the mare, which will elicit squealing and other vocalisations and body language displays from both of them. The mare will often swing her quarters in to him as he works his way back along her body, sniffing, nudging and usually nipping as he goes, all making her show very strongly. He sniffs and “tastes” her vulva, lifting his head with the top lip raised. This is the Flehman response, also invoked when stallions sniff the ground where mares have urinated.
After a few minutes the stallion will mount the mare, usually fully erect but not always, in nature it has been observed that stallions will test mares out first by mounting them before they have a full erection and often from the side, obviously to avoid damage from a kick if the mare is not quite ready. Much emphasis is placed by stud personnel on training stallions to be fully erect before mounting, also to mount from directly behind the mare, but both behaviours fly in the face of nature. Once the weight of the stallion is across the mare’s hindquarters, he will dance himself around into the proper position behind her. The handler meantime should be standing well clear of flying hooves, but maintaining contact with the stallion’s head via a reasonable length of lead rope. This lead should never be allowed to become slack, or it can get wrapped around the horses’ legs or caught under their tails - a sure way to liven up the proceedings.
Once the stallion has actually begun to tease the mare and particularly during the service act itself, the handler should not be doing anything. Hitting, jerking or shouting at the stallion is unnecessary and off-putting. So also is the very unhygienic practice of grasping the penis and guiding it into the mare’s vagina. Once he achieves penetration, the stallion will begin making very vigorous pelvic thrusts. Within two minutes he should have ejaculated.
Failure to ejaculate is rare under normal circumstances although much is made of making sure it has occurred. It is easy to detect by the characteristic flagging of the tail, also by the pulsing of the urethra - which can be seen, it does not have to be felt. Some causes of failure of ejaculation, unless due to behavioural problems, include the absence of dung in the rectum and consequent lack of rigidity of the vagina walls below. For some unknown reason, dung was once deliberately removed from the rectum prior to service; this was known as backraking and hopefully by now is no longer practised on any horse stud. Another reason for absence of dung in the rectum is if the mare is follicle tested immediately prior to being served - the vet needs to remove all the faeces to permit palpation of the ovaries through the bowel wall. Still another possible cause of ejaculation failure is if the negative pressure in the vagina is destroyed, as may happen if the mare is a really bad windsucker or has been examined with a speculum or had some sort of per-vaginal infertility treatment pre-service.
The stallion might rest on the mare for a short time after ejaculation and appear so temporarily exhausted that he almost falls if she moves. In nature mares give the stallion a moment or two to recover from the extreme exertion before quietly moving off, letting him slip gently back onto all fours. It is another wrong practice to yank the stallion off the mare or force her to move out from under him too quickly, because it can cause too heavy a landing for him and another negative experience. Once the stallion is back on the ground he will show no further sexual interest and his penis will be quite flaccid - it should have been from the time he withdrew from the mare.
A common practice is to slosh the stallion’s deflating penis with a container of mild disinfectant. This is not appreciated by the horse and seems pointless unless the stud has a specific disease problem. It is a very hit-and-miss way of trying to disinfect the penis and sheath anyway, also the stallion will soon regather the bacteria that normally live harmlessly in the genital region.
Once the mare has been covered and has moved away, she will strain and get rid of the excess semen in her vagina. Walking her vigorously to prevent her doing this is a waste of time. The semen that will get the mare in foal has already entered her uterus and she will void any excess sooner or later anyway.
In-foal mares do not require any special treatment except to be kept in good condition, which might require additional feeding particularly in the last one-third of pregnancy. It is not necessary to exercise them if they are in a paddock, though there is no reason why they cannot be ridden. Some race mares that will not do their best when “suffering from a seasonal complaint” as the racing journalists so euphemistically express it, are deliberately got in foal. They often race very successfully for some months before advancing pregnancy forces their retirement.
Pregnant mares should have vaccination boosters a month before foaling to ensure adequate antibodies in the milk. Worming should be carried out according to normal routine, keeping in mind that some wormers cannot be used too close to foaling.
At nine and a half to ten months, the mare begins to bag up - her udder starts to enlarge, in other words. Maiden mares may not appear to have much bag until they actually foal, while older mares can develop really large udders. In the last 24 to 48 hours before foaling, some mares will drip a bit of milk, seen as a sticky material on the inside of the hind legs. If this is excessive or has been occurring for some days before foaling, it can deplete colostrum reserves requiring that the newborn foal be supplemented. Overfeeding during pregnancy is one contributor to this problem apart from making the mare too fat, which can lead to foaling difficulties.
Mares can be foaled indoors but this is rare in Australia unless the weather is really foul. It is otherwise inadvisable from a stress and hygiene point-of-view. Foaling mares and newborns seem well able to cope with a range of weather conditions. If they are foaled indoors, cleanliness of the surroundings is of the utmost importance.
Most Australian studs have a special foaling area into which mares are moved a reasonable time beforehand to avoid upsetting them too close to the happy event. These areas are usually near the house and may have other facilities such as floodlighting or a video monitoring system. The mares can then be watched undisturbed unless they get into difficulties. A foaling alarm may also be used, a device attached to a halter on the mare which activates when she lies on her side during foaling.
Unfortunately some so-called foaling paddocks are far from ideal, being a constant procession of people running about with flashlights and barking dogs. Others become a testing ground for 4-wheel drive vehicles that roar around half the night. Even worse, there is often no grass left, just lots of dung, mud and germs. Hardly the right environment for a hygienic, trouble-free birth.
Mares foaling with other mares is not a problem, though geldings in the same paddock should be avoided as they have been known to attack and savage newborn foals. It is possible for mares to switch foals if they give birth simultaneously side by side, it reportedly happens very rarely, but no doubt there are whole lines of horses that have a wrong mother back in the pedigree somewhere. Nowadays blood typing would pick up such cases.
A non-reliable sign of the that foaling is imminent is the appearance of a waxy substance on the end of the teats. This is known as waxing and occurs 24 to 48 hours before the birth. A more reliable sign is the general looseness in the hindquarter region. The muscles on either side of the mare’s tail will lack tone and feel soft, her vulva will be elongated and she might become so sloppy in her action that she knuckles over on her hind fetlocks. Even more significant will be her “I want to be alone” behaviour. Most mares foal between midnight and dawn, which is probably a protective mechanism in the wild, so the mare that is “wandery” and on her own will almost certainly foal that night.
It is thought that mares can delay foaling for a limited period of time if conditions are adverse, but sooner or later they have to give birth irrespective of the environment in which they find themselves. The first stage of foaling can last for several hours. It includes the general uneasiness and wandering period, during which time the cervix is opening and uterus contracting in preparation for the birth. As the contractions increase, the mare will show signs of episodic pain - sweating, pawing, curling of the upper lip. Between these episodes she may appear normal and even resume grazing. However, underneath her tail bulging from her vulva will be a glistening white membrane. This is the placenta or water bag and it will soon rupture, releasing a quantity of fluid. This “breaking of the waters” marks the end of stage one.
The second stage of foaling is when the foal is actually born. It is a period of extreme muscular exertion by the mare. It lasts from five minutes to one hour from when the water bag breaks, with an average of 20 minutes. Most mares lie right out on their sides while they are straining. The straining is episodic and occasionally they will sit up or even get to their feet between bouts, though most remain lying quietly. The straining effort is so forceful that there is little the lay person can do if the foal is presented the wrong way.
Normal presentation is for the front legs to appear first, one slightly in advance of the other, wrapped in another membrane, the amnion. Sometimes the amnion is already ruptured but if not, it soon will be once the head of the foal appears. The foal breaks it during delivery by reflexively kicking out with its forelimbs and arching its neck.
The hooves of the foal are covered in a soft rubbery material, which ensures easy passage through the birth canal. The soles should be facing downwards with the foal’s head resting on the forelimbs. The hardest effort is getting the shoulders through the pelvic girdle, but once this is accomplished the rest is relatively easy, though the hips will require some extra effort. The end of stage two is marked by the delivery of the foal which still might have its hind legs in the mare’s vagina, but will be free of its membranes and obviously alive - breathing and moving.
Inexperienced onlookers at foaling should stay very quiet and observe from a distance, also carry a torch and a timepiece. Time can be difficult to judge - as when watching a kettle that never boils. Especially at night, a few minutes can seem like forever. If the mare has been lying down and straining for ten minutes with no result, she could be in trouble and help should be summoned. Similarly if one or both legs appear but nothing further happens for 20 minutes.
Experienced foaling assistants on the other hand will gently check from the outset that the two forelimbs and the nose are coming through the birth canal in the normal fashion. Any deviation, such as only one forelimb, or two forelimbs but no head, means a call to the vet - mobile phones are a major advantage in such situations. The birthing process in mares is much more rapid and explosive than in cows, so there is not much an assistant can do physically to rectify an abnormal presentation without veterinary assistance, unless very experienced.
Pulling on the foal to assist the mare can be disastrous and is quite unnecessary if birth is proceeding normally. Once the shoulders are clear, the passage of the foal’s hips is the second most difficult stage, and a pull in the wrong direction in an attempt to unlock the hips can make the problem worse, or result in strangulation of the umbilical cord and a dead foal. Any twisting movements should be avoided as well, because it can damage the foal’s chest and internal organs.
If the birth proceeds normally but the foal is delivered still enclosed in the membranes, then they can be broken gently with the fingers. This is rare and may indicate that the foal is weak, though many weak foals can be saved. The attendant should not urge the foal or mare to get up at this stage, but walk away again and await further developments, unless something is obviously wrong. Newborn foals should not be towelled down - it serves no useful purpose and may remove much of the smell that identifies them to the mare.
The third stage of foaling is the period when the foal becomes independent of the mother and the afterbirth (the ruptured placenta and amnion) is expelled.
At the end of stage two, the foal has just been born and is lying behind the mother. The umbilical cord is still intact between the foal’s navel (umbilicus) and the placenta still within the mare. The mare will continue lying down for some time, possibly up to three quarters of an hour, with the foal behind her. During this time it may whinny and begin making sucking movements with its lips. The mare will reach around and nuzzle the foal, sniffing and possibly licking at it. This is the beginning of the formation of the maternal bond.
On no account should the mare or foal be urged to their feet while the umbilical cord remains intact. If the cord is broken too soon, the foal will not receive its full complement of oxygenated blood from the mother. This can lead to a weak and possibly brain-damaged foal.
Within 50 minutes of being born (under half an hour is the average) the foal will have staggered to its feet. This will break the umbilical cord if it has not already been broken by the mare getting up. In its efforts to stand, the foal will pitch about alarmingly, crumpling to the ground several times before managing to stand. Once the cord is broken, it is traditional to douse the navel stump in iodine or some other disinfectant, but this is probably a waste of time because any pathogenic bacteria that might be present are sealed inside the stump the moment the cord breaks. Iodine on the surface will have no effect on these bacteria, in fact is quite damaging to sensitive tissues, so only a weak solution should be used if at all, or some other milder form of disinfectant. The best way to avoid infections in the newborn is to ensure clean surroundings for foaling.
Expulsion of the afterbirth marks the completion of the foaling process. Many mares will “clean” before getting to their feet, but others will retain the afterbirth for a short time after they stand. It will be seen as a gory, tattered rope of tissue hanging from the vulva. It gets longer and longer and drags on the ground before suddenly plopping to earth. Or the mare might lie down again and strain mildly, and when she subsequently gets up, the afterbirth remains as a heap on the ground.
Mares that are sick or weak after foaling require immediate veterinary attention. They might be on their feet but are depressed, perhaps staggery, and show little interest in the foal. The problem could be very serious, such as rupture of the uterus or blood vessels supplying it, or shock.
It is essential that foals receive the mare’s first milk, or colostrum. This is different from ordinary milk and contains antibodies, which protects the foal against disease. It is produced for about 48 hours after foaling, but probably only absorbed adequately from the gastrointestinal tract during the first 18 hours of the foal’s life. Should the mare die before the foal nurses, then it will have to be given colostrum from some other source. Studs often keep a frozen supply extracted in small amounts from other newly foaled mares, or it may be available from a colostrum bank. Antibodies can also be supplied in injectable form.
[First drink][maternal bond][Weak foals][Rejection][Constipation][Diarrhoea]
Because of the awkward position of the mare’s udder, reaching it takes quite an act of contortion. The foal might make several attempts, which are guaranteed to drive an onlooker to distraction. The urge is overwhelming to grab the foal and help it find the udder. Unless the foal really does seem weak or sick, this urge must be resisted. It will disrupt the formation of the maternal bond, and if the foal’s head is grabbed, it will probably struggle very vigorously at first then become like a limp rag doll and give up trying to do anything. A hand on the foal’s rump, directing it towards the milk supply, is the most that should be attempted. There is a school of thought that recommends protracted handling of newborn foals to imprint them to humans. This may be a valid idea and no doubt works in some cases, but the mare has to accept it as well. In the author’s experience, unnecessary handling of newborn foals can cause disruption of the maternal bond, to such extent that the mare will walk away and leave the foal, and then you have a real problem. Once the foal has suckled for the first time, it seems the maternal bond is cemented and the risk largely removed.
Others are not so fortunate. These are the weak foals that may take up to two hours to get up, or do not make it at all without assistance. Foals that are weak for no visible reason are an exasperation. Some seem to will themselves to die, even if hours are spent getting them to stand and eventually drink on their own. You can pick the ones that ultimately are not going to make it, you can feel it in your bones. Unfortunately the saying that a weak foal is a dead foal can be all too true, although many can be saved nowadays that once would have been given up as lost causes. This is an expanding area in veterinary science and specialist neonatal clinics and facilities are now available, meaning that many foals that once appeared to have no hope can now be saved and go on to fulfill their genetic potential.
The first thing to do with a weak foal is establish whether it has a suck reflex. It might be quite obviously making sucking noises, but if not, try sticking a finger in its mouth. If there is no response, the vet needs to be called because it will require stomach tubing with colostrum, a procedure that may have to be repeated several times before there is a response.
The next task is to milk the mare. If she is quiet she will permit this without fuss. If not, some restraint will be required - as mild as possible to avoid elevating her blood pressure and causing fatal bleeding into her uterus. Milking mares is tricky - they only have short teats and several exit holes in each. It is a matter of gently pulling and squeezing with a moistened thumb and forefinger. Alternatively, human breast pumps reportedly work well.
If the foal has a suck reflex, it should drink the milk from a bottle fitted with a lamb or kangaroo teat. This process needs to be repeated every hour or so until the foal is stronger, by which time hopefully it will be standing and able to suckle directly from the mare.
Another cause for rejection is disruption of the maternal bond. This may be due to too much unnecessary handling of the newborn, or can be caused by separation of the foal from the mare before it has nursed - if it falls through a fence, for example, in its efforts to rise. Also there are occasional mares that will reject their foals for no apparent reason - in fact will savage and try to kill them. These mares are bad news and would need to be very valuable to warrant the trouble of entirely handrearing their foals, plus breeding from them could be perpetuating a very undesirable trait.
Newly foaled mares may try to shepherd their offspring away from other mares, animals and people for a day or so, but it is out of character for them to actually attack a person, although a very odd few will and it pays to keep this in mind when approaching a strange mare with a newborn at foot.
Constipated foals are easy to pick in a paddock, they are the ones with the elevated tails. Then you will see them straining and often they walk backwards. As the condition worsens they roll frequently and adopt strange postures, such as lying on their backs.
Special enemas are available, solutions of softening agent in a squeezable plastic container with a long nozzle that can be inserted into the foal’s rectum and squeezed gently until empty. Within a few minutes the foal will strain mightily, often grunting with the effort, and hopefully all the dark-coloured and lumpy meconium will shoot out with the enema fluid. If the result is only moderate or not at all and the foal resumes straining, a second enema can be tried. If there is still no satisfactory result, call the vet. The meconium may need to be removed piecemeal with long forceps - a dangerous procedure for the inexperienced, for it is easy to damage the bowel wall.
Scouring foals have messy rear ends, with dung stuck to the hindquarters and tail. If depressed and obviously sick as well, the foal will require veterinary treatment. This should be prompt because badly scouring foals (they might be squirting what looks like dirty water) can rapidly dehydrate and die.
If the scouring is not severe and the foal is otherwise active and normal, treatment will not usually be necessary. This type of diarrhoea is typical of foal heat scours, a misnomer because the condition has nothing to do with foal heat. When foals are a week or so old, they begin nibbling at grass and other things of interest in their surroundings, including their mother’s faeces or that of other horses. Changes occur in the foal’s gastrointestinal environment as a result and this is thought to cause the mild diarrhoea, not the fact that their mothers are in season. Some mares never have foal heat yet their offspring still scour at the expected time, as do orphan foals.