Breeding mounts, also known as phantoms or dummies, are an integral part of a modern breeding operation. They serve as a substitute for a live mare when collecting semen in an artificial insemination program, whether inseminating on farm or shipping cooled or frozen semen to another location. Even when not being used for breeding, stallion semen may need to be collected for evaluation and analysis, for pre-season checkups and for sales or insurance purposes. Most importantly, breeding phantoms greatly reduce the chance of injury to the stallion during semen collection. Another plus is that phantoms can be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected between mounts, minimizing transmission of disease and potential pathogens.
A properly designed phantom is of utmost importance in relation to the quality of the ejaculate. Stallions must be comfortable, free of pain and full partners in the collection process because they have the unique ability to ejaculate while withholding sperm. Causes for this may include poor collection procedures such as artificial vaginas (AV) that are too hot or too cold, wrong pressure, poor technician technique or uncomfortable height, angle or width of the phantom. I have seen stallions, apparently so angry with the collector, mount or situation, that they ejaculate volumes of seminal fluids with little or no sperm cells. When the situation changed, their ejaculates returned to normal, though some stallions with uncomfortable collection memory can become accumulators—a situation that causes a backup of sperm cells, possible blockage and occasionally hemospermia, which is blood in the semen.
Phantoms may be either homemade or commercial and are constructed in different styles. Most homemade models are two legged, and are not adjustable for height or angle. This can create several problems, such as injury to the front legs of some stallions. Also, the collector must be able to position him/herself in such a way so as to get the most satisfactory response from the stallion. (You want your left foot, assuming you are collecting from the near side of the horse, behind the right, and close to the phantom.) I have seen mounts built with the back post at the very end of the body of the mount, which led to the stallion repeatedly hitting the post with his back hooves while thrusting, rendering him sore. Remember, not all stallions collect quietly—some move around and will attempt to move up or cross to the side. And, with the double-post configuration, I have seen a stallion learn to mount and thrust from a far back position, which does not give him the support he needs for a strong ejaculation because his chest is against the mount. Therefore a single post, set sufficiently back, is more effective.
Most stallions prefer only a slight angle in the phantom body and it should be a little shorter at mid-body than the height of the stallion. Again, adjustment may be necessary, taking into consideration the preference, age and physical limitations of the horse you are working with.
The width of the mount is also vital, but its shape is seldom considered by builders. When building a phantom, it is often suggested to use an old water heater tank or log, covering it with foam and vinyl and voilà, you have a breeding mount. This is where the story goes wrong. These objects, being round, are widest on their side-to-side points. Now watch a stallion breed naturally. Upon mounting, he grips the mare in front of her hips. Notice this area on your mare. Nature has indented her here, and it is her least round and narrowest area. When a stallion ejaculates, he straightens and tenses his forelegs in order to totally ejaculate, so a round breeding mount does not allow his forelegs to fall straight, thus straining his shoulders, forearms and neck. A stallion who does not have a heavy or regular breeding schedule may not show signs of distress, but those with heavy collection schedules may become sore from the unnatural position. And if the cause of the discomfort continues and is not fixed, the stallion may begin to dismount prematurely or during ejaculation.
Remember too, that breeds of different stature and weight will often have a similar width between the forelegs. Just because your stallion is 17 hands, does not make him wider between the legs than a 14.2 Arabian. In fact, he may even be narrower. Many commercial mounts are too wide—I recommend 22 inches for standard horse breeds and 24 inches for drafts.
However, size does matter when it comes to weight. The stallion must never feel insecure on the mount. (And, remember, a 15.2 Shire will weigh more than a 16.2 Thoroughbred.) Have you noticed that when stallions breed in the wild, they first check the weight-bearing ability and intention of the mare? They will only partially mount a number of times and use their neck as a weight, to test the waters. This posturing will be imitated upon covering the phantom. Make certain the phantom is secured firmly and that the body of the mount does not give and can support the stallion’s weight while thrusting. Foam padding and a non abrasive cover should be of sufficient depth and density to add to his comfort.
Another area of wide debate are mounts with internal orifices. With these models the stallion actually enters the mount, which is equipped with an artificial vagina. As the stallion ejaculates, the handler must operate a lever to lower the artificial vagina’s angle to allow the semen to drop into the filter and bottle. Timing is imperative. There have been accounts of stallions being injured and some seriously impaired by this method of non-manual collection. While some stallions adjust well to this form of collection mount, it is not recommended by many universities and reproduction vets. If you purchase a used unit, simply cover the orifice so the stallion cannot enter, and collect with a hand-held artificial vagina. For those who think that this form of mount carries the advantage of being a one-man method, personal observation has shown me that a bad stallion always requires more than one person present, while a well-mannered stallion can be handled and collected by a single person, using any mount. Libido, temperament and training of the stallion, along with your own experience and ability, are serious considerations before attempting any collection procedures alone.
Training the stallion to mount a phantom is not difficult. Patience, as in any form of training and conditioning, is paramount. First, evaluate the stallion’s past breeding experience, libido and physical ability to mount. I have not seen much difference between training sexually unused stallions and aged veterans when it comes to their willingness to mount a phantom. Libido seems to equal out experience. One situation where I have had to test my patience involves professionally-trained and shown halter horses. They are firmly conditioned to exhibit no libido or sexual interest while in a halter with a chain, so many will turn away from a beckoning mare in heat. Past experiences with dropping or vocalizing have earned him a sharp reckoning. One way to get past this is to use a soft, heavy cotton lead with a strong bull snap, which signals a non-work climate. I have also had great luck with, and recommend the use of, a brightly-colored halter, different from the usual, to signal what is to come.
Initially, I prefer to use a mare in full heat for phantom training. Some stallions can tease to a mare in stocks, a close visual stimulant, and be aroused enough to mount the phantom. This works particularly well with stallions experienced in live cover. If no stocks are available, or the stallion needs the mare to be in closer proximity, be certain you have an experienced handler. I like to scent the phantom with mare urine, preferably the liquid expelled as a mare breaks down for the stallion. I have also rubbed the mount with soiled shavings from an estral mare, which can be a powerful aphrodisiac.
Next, place the mare beside the phantom, her posterior at the business end of the mount. A sturdy phantom should allow the stallion to approach from the near side and tease the mare. When dropped, guide the stallion to the back of the mount, placing his chest at a slight angle, into the near corner. In a state of excitement, when feeling the pressure of the phantom at his chest, his impulse will be to mount. The first sign I have that the stallion is progressing is when he rubs his head and neck on the phantom. Often, they will look and sniff underneath, as they would a mare, to check any indication of a kick. If the stallion has not dropped but wants to mount, let him. Research has shown that stallions in the wild will mount numerous times before becoming erect and actually breeding. When the stallion does mount with an erection, allow him to bump the mount with his penis once or twice, then gently deflect his penis into the AV. Never attempt to collect unless both legs are on either side of the mount.
And, let’s not forget about the mare. As the stallion mounts, the mare handler should walk her forward a few steps to prevent unwanted bite marks.
When training the stallion to the mount, I work in 15- to 20-minute intervals. He is then put back into his stall for 5 to 15 minutes, regardless of the point he has reached. When he returns to the phantom, he is like a kid who has studied his homework. I seldom have a stallion who needs to return to the stall more than once. This also goes for any stallion who becomes aggressive. When displaying ungentlemanly behavior, they should be returned to their stall for two to three minutes, repeatedly, if necessary. They quickly learn to behave in a way that earns a reward.
If all the ingredients are present for a successful collection, most stallions become conditioned to the memory, sight and scent stimulus of the phantom and some will even find the stimulation of a mare unnecessary after a few collections. More important, the stallion and handler are safe. Combining the comfort of a proper phantom with excellent collection technique will put a stallion at ease with his job and provide you with an ejaculate of his highest quality.
Thanks to EquiMount Phantoms, Rancho la Rosa and Grand World Champion Fino Stallion, Vitral and Sabrina Gartner and her Hanoverian stallion, Royaal Z, for their help illustrating this article. Both stallions shown were in their first phantom training experience.
Karen Berk owns Equine Reproduction Services, a mobile lab for stallion collections, semen evaluation, freezing, clinics, and lab training. You can contact her by email at ERSmobileAiLab@aol.com or on the Web at www.frozen-semen.com.