Here comes the broodmare, shaking herself off after her hot-tub soak, nibbling rich, gourmet grass and crunchy feed off a shiny silver tray and daintily sipping Evian bottled water as she watches “Broodmare Idol” on her flat-screen TV. Now it’s time for her massage.
Some of us go to great lengths to ensure mare moms-to-be are pampered, but a happy mare usually leads to a happy foal. Here are the programs several experts follow to get ready for breeding.
PROGRAM 1: RARE MARE CARE
Biology 101 teaches us that all living things are products of heredity and environment, and the careful, thoughtful breeding of horses reminds us of just that. Consider how it’s done at Iron Spring Farm in Coatesville, Penn., revered for both its dressage horses and jumpers. Robert Croteau is in his thirteenth year as equine manager, calling the breeding shots for the farm’s own band of broodmares and outside mares.
The most important task is managing changes in the environment, says Croteau. When possible, he advocates “keeping the horses outside and replicating the natural social order.” Think less stress. That means being aware if a new mare isn’t readily accepted, and then making better arrangements for her. Maybe she’s more finicky, high-strung or just isn’t settling in. Maybe she’s bottom-of-the-ladder and “risks getting kicked to the point she slips (aborts). Change her social structure and move her. Be a good agriculture-based farmer, growing quality horses,” says Croteau, who urges taking stewardship seriously. “You’re dealing with Mother Nature, always breeding for the best possible outcome.”
A mare needs to positively adapt to the physical environment too, he believes, which will allow her to be less susceptible to invasive viruses and detrimental microbes. Once adapted, “the immune system rises to the challenges,” Croteau says.
When temperature and climate permit, natural forage (grass pasture) is preferable, augmented with quality hay. Croteau’s gestating mares receive a light alfalfa/grass mixture: “Eighty percent of the diet should be forage,” he says, eschewing supplements except for horses living in a mineral-depleted geographical area. “Fields appropriately fertilized, analyzed, not overgrazed and properly rotated” always pay off in the end. His turned-out horses do have access to salt blocks.
Croteau monitors his mares’ physical condition regularly. Use your eye to observe body condition and weight, he advises, to spot even minute changes. In addition, Croteau weighs his horses at least every month; mares with foals weigh in weekly until weaned. He cites the useful Body Condition Score (see box, page 28)—developed at Texas A & M University—and its gradients 1 to 9. “Nine would be obese, while ‘normal’ is five to seven,” he says.
PROGRAM 2: THE ART OF BREEDING
Breeding is not just a science but an art, says Dr. John Steiner, DVM , president of the American College of Theriogenologists (reproduction) and esteemed partner at Hagyard Equine Medical Institute in Lexington, Ky. For a horse to reproduce, just like people, “we want them in the best possible shape,” he says.
Steiner supports exercise: “They can be ridden until five or six months along.” He too avoids supplements—except those indicated for joint care. As for hormones, he proffers this advice: “When we get to breeding season, we may want to control the heat cycle. Depending on when we get semen or when we want to breed, we might use various combinations of progesterone and/or estrogen, but it’s not the best thing long-term.”