Natalie DiBerardinis, Hilltop Farm
First published in Elite Equestrian, January 2015
It’s a wonderful time of year for anyone considering breeding a mare . While stallion shopping is perhaps the more glamorous, exciting part of planning your next breeding, I think this winter research time can be even more effectively spent if we first start by defining our breeding goals and critically evaluating our mares. We need to put equal research into exploring our mares’ backgrounds at much greater depth to have the best chances of breeding our next champion.
Why do you want to breed a foal? Will this be a future performance horse for yourself, a future broodmare for your growing program, or a sales prospect? Each of these is a great reason to breed, but the goal will help define if your mare is the right one for the job.
If you’re breeding a performance horse for yourself, start with your mare’s own qualities as a riding horse. Was she suited for the sport you compete in? Did you enjoy riding her? Did she have enough talent that even if you ended up with an exact replica of her you would be happy? If the answer to any of those questions is no, then perhaps she is not the right breeding candidate for your goal.
If you are a long-term breeder and would like to produce a new filly for your broodmare herd, the depth of your mare’s pedigree is critical. Look at the stallions represented, but even more importantly, look at the mares throughout her background. What have they produced and done in sport? Is there a consistency and strong tie from one generation of mares to the next? Experienced breeders know its these strong producing mare families that they can rely on for the development and continuation of their own programs.
If you are breeding for sale, consider the commercial appeal of your dam and her pedigree. Does she have a fashionable or well-recognized pedigree? Did she have a strong sport career or have other siblings/offspring competed well? Breeding is an expensive endeavor and key to financial success is being able to sell the offspring you breed. Stallion names may catch buyers eye, but you can differentiate your offspring from the other offspring of the chosen stallion by the appeal of your mare.
So, you’ve established your breeding goals and believe in general your mare is a good candidate. Now, we look towards more specifics to create a blueprint of our mare’s strengths and areas that we may need to improve upon with our stallion selection. Temperament, character, and rideability are an excellent place to start when evaluating your mare. Break these into different categories as you evaluate your mare. Temperament includes sensitivity and reactiveness. Think of an energy scale here -- is this a cooler, slower reacting sort of horse or one who may be considered hot or reactive to aids, environmental changes, etc. Character, to me, is the evaluation of how a horse interacts with its people, how consistent it is from day-to-day, how honest it is in its responses. Rideability includes not only willingness to work, but also evaluates if the horse gives a rider a good feeling naturally through the body, if it is willing to listen and wait for the rider’s aids, and how quickly it learns. Where does your mare rate in each of these areas?
Conformation is the next area to consider in your evaluation of your mare. What are her strengths and where are her weaker areas? With a potential weakness, evaluate how severe it is - did it impact her success under saddle, did it contribute to an injury? No horse is perfect, but animals with a significant conformational defect are not good breeding candidates. There are a lot of wonderful books available discussing sport horse conformation traits as well as seminars run by organizations such as USDF, USEA, and some breed registries. If your mare has an injury that is leading you towards a broodmare career, it would be a good idea to discuss with your vet if he/she has any concerns related to her conformation or way of going that could have contributed to that injury and how inheritable that trait may be.
Your next step is to evaluate the riding strengths of your mare. What made her a good mover, gave her good technique over fences, etc. What was easiest for her in work and what areas did she struggle with? Your trainer’s input could be very valuable here. Again, as we identify areas that we would like to improve in the resulting foal, we need to be aware that breeding isn’t an exact science. I always cycle back to one question. “If I got an exact replica of my mare in the foal would I still be satisfied?’ If the answer to that question isn’t yes, I don’t feel she’s a strong choice as a broodmare.
Now we get to pedigree evaluations. This can take a lot of time, but can also be one of the most fun processes in research. Find out everything you can about the stallions, and dams, in your mare’s pedigree. Does she embody the characteristics those lines are known for? What are the most successful horses from these lines and what bloodline crosses do you consistently see with this pedigree. That can give you a guide a potential nicks to follow in your breeding plans as well.
After all this evaluation, I’d suggest picking two or three things that you most want to improve on your mare. Use those specific traits to guide your stallion selection. Enjoy your winter research and evaluation of your mare. Best of luck in your breeding decisions this coming season!
Select Breeders Services
The horse is a seasonal breeder meaning that natural mating occurs during certain times of the year to ensure that the timing of birth is optimal for survival with regard to ambient temperature, food and water availability, and even changes in the predation behaviors of other species. Alternative breeding behaviors used by animals include opportunistic breeders that mate whenever the conditions of their environment become favorable and continuous breeders that mate year-round. Seasonal breeders are controlled by the length of daylight, i.e. the photoperiod, and can be divided into long day breeders, e.g. the horse, that start cycling when the days get longer (spring) and short day breeders, e.g. deer, that start cycling when the days get shorter (fall). The length of photoperiod can be manipulated in order to hasten the onset of the breeding season. This is a popular management technique used in Thoroughbred breeding, so foals can be born as close to the standardized January 1st birth date as possible. It is also common with show or halter horses, with the goal being to maximize maturity for age determined competition.
Putting Your Mare Under Lights
Breeding season in the Northern hemisphere mare typically runs from late spring (April) through early fall (September). The mare, being seasonally polyestrous, has multiple heat cycles during the reproductive season. During the winter months (mid-Nov to mid-Feb) the mare is considered to be anestrous, demonstrating no behavioral signs of sexual receptivity and a failure to develop follicles that ovulate. Although it is estimated that 75-85% of mares are truly anestrous, it is possible that the remaining mares may show some estrous activity, albeit erratic and usually anovulatory. Either side of anestrous the mare is in a transitional period that is also characterized by inconsistent heat cycles with inconsistent ovulations. Year round estrous behavior can be seen in mares closer to the equator.
Females are typically more “seasonal” than their male counterparts. Thus, unlike mares that enter an anestrous period, stallions remain fertile year-round, usually showing only a mild decline in sexual behavior and sperm production out of season. Consequently manipulation of the photoperiod is predominantly targeted to the mare and is accomplished by “putting the mare under lights”, which is (almost) as simple as it sounds. Supplementing the length of “daylight” with artificial lighting is referred to as phototropic stimulation. The mare should begin to cycle 50 to 60 days after the beginning of a lighting program. So, beginning a lighting program on December, 1st will allow for normal estrus cycles and breeding during February. The results of this lighting program usually allow for a foal to be born in January of the following year.
There are a number of different lighting programs that can be used to accomplish the same goal. The first and most preferred method is to provide from 14-1/2 to 16 hours of continuous light each day. If the mare is turned out during the day she must be brought in and put under artificial lights before the natural light outside fades. If you want to coordinate the breeding cycles of a group of mares, this can be accomplished by lighting their shared paddock.
Lighting can be started abruptly on December 1st or can be increased gradually over a period of 60 days. For example, under the constant regime the lights are turned on from 4.30pm to 10 or 11pm for 10 weeks prior to the desired breeding date. With the stepwise regime 3 hours of light are added the first week and then another 1/2 hour of light each additional week until a 15-16 hour “day” is achieved.
Another lighting plan involves turning on the indoor lights, for a short period, starting nine hours after sunset, and continuing that program until the nine hours coincides with sunrise. However, since the time of the sunset is constantly changing, this program requires routine management to make sure you change the timing of the lighting to coincide with the changing sunset. Success has also been achieved with turning on the lights for as little as two hours when programmed to occur 9 hours after sunset. Whatever lighting program you decide to utilize, consider using an automatic timer to save both time and money.
How much light is required?
A critical factor is the amount of light that must be provided to simulate daylight. A minimum of 10 footcandles of light (107 lux) is required, either incandescent or fluorescent. A good rule of thumb is to provide enough light to comfortably read the small print in a newspaper seated anywhere in the stall. A 100 watt light bulb (or two 40 watt bulbs) provides enough light for the average sized stall.
The lighting program is usually discontinued once the mare is cycling and ovulating regularly. Research suggests that a period of short days is required prior to entering a photostimulation period, so there is no advantage to starting your lighting program earlier than November and a year round lighting plan may actually be disadvantageous. In this respect, if the lights go out and the mare is subjected once again to short days (even for as few as 3 days), this may reset the system, so care must be taken to ensure the lighting regime is maintained. Research also suggests that ambient temperature may play a secondary role in seasonality, so mares in colder climates that are exposed to lengthening daylight may start cycling later than mares similarly exposed in warmer climates. Remember, that not only does the lighting regime hasten the onset of the breeding season; it will also cause early shedding of the winter coat, so don’t forget to bear this in mind for those mares that spend all or part of their time outside and provide blanketing in colder climates if required.
Lighting programs also have an effect on your foaling mares. Research has shown that foaling mares, exposed to 16 hours of daylight during the last portion of their gestation, will foal on average 7-10 days prior to mares who are not exposed to lights. More importantly, if you plan on breeding the mare again following her foaling, a lighting program will helps prevent her from entering a post-foaling anestrous period that would coincide with a natural anestrous period. If foaling mares are not exposed to a lighting program, a proportion may not cycle until March or April when the natural breeding season begins.
How it Works
The hypothalamus of the brain is considered to be the central endocrine or hormonal control for reproductive activity. Hence, factors that determine when a seasonal breeder will be ready for mating affect this portion of the brain. In humans and other mammals, the light signals necessary to set circadian rhythms are sent from the eye through the retinohypothalamic system to the suprachiasmatic nuclei and superior cervical ganglion to the pineal gland. The pineal gland produces melatonin, a hormone that affects the modulation of wake/sleep patterns and seasonality. The production of melatonin, also know as the “hormone of darkness”, by the pineal gland is stimulated by darkness and inhibited by light. Melatonin has an inhibitory effect on the production of gonadotropin releasing hormone (GnRH) by the hypothalamus in long day breeders. The decrease in melatonin production due to longer days in the spring, results in a reduction in the suppression of the hypothalamus and thereby an increase in GnRH pulses. GnRH subsequently promotes an increase in the release of luteinizing hormone (LH) and follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) from the anterior pituitary. Luteinizing hormone (LH) and follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) are called gonadotropins because they stimulate the gonads - in males, the testes, and in females, the ovaries. In mares, these hormones, LH and FSH, control the cyclic nature of estrous periods by promoting follicular development and ovulation.
Lighting programs for mares are the most common method for advancing the breeding season. There is, however, extensive research for alternative methods that would not require 45-60 days of artificial light. Hormonal therapies using various forms of FSH, GnRH analogs, prolactin, or dopamine antagonists have been proposed and shown various degrees of success in stimulating a fertile estrus period during winter anestrus. Speak with your veterinarian or call your local SBS-affiliate for more information regarding these historical therapies and some potential new therapies that are promising.
A lighting program is a cheap and effective way to manage your mare’s seasonality, but remember that it doesn’t shorten the transitional period of the mare’s reproductive cycle, it just advances it forward in the calendar, so be sure to start the lighting regime 50-60 days before the date you would like to get your mare bred. Also, a good practice in reproductive management is to perform a pre-breeding exam on the first heat cycle of the year. If your aim is for a January foaling date, then lighting should commence in December. The efficiency of any lighting regime is subject to a number of factors, e.g. lack of sufficient lighting, interruption of lighting, significantly low ambient temperatures etc., and therefore must be well managed to be successful and may benefit from combination with hormonal therapy as well.
The 2016 Rio De Janeiro Olympics began on August 5 and we’ll start with a little history of the Olympics and Equestrian sports. The first Olympics was held in Olympia, Greece in 776 BC and featured track and field disciplines, chariot racing and boxing. Yes – horses were included in those first games! However, over many centuries, the Olympic tradition has evolved to include water sports, team sports, winter sports and, of course, our traditional equestrian sports. The first time equestrian sports were included in the Olympics was at the 1900 Summer Olympics in Paris, France. The separate disciplines of dressage, eventing and show jumping were not present in this Olympics but they did perform a military test. The military test was very similar to eventing as it consisted of both dressage and jumping portions. Eventually, in the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden, the equestrian sports separated and formed the three factions we recognize today as dressage, eventing and show jumping.
The athletes, both horses and riders, that will compete in the 2016 Rio Olympics will come from all parts of the world. The United States, alone, has horses that were born in seven different countries. The US is not only being represented by their riders, but also by the horses we have bred here in this country. Four US-bred horses, competing for four different countries, traveled to Brazil: Selten HW, competing for the Danish team; Quincy Car, competing for the Columbian team; Blackfoot Mystery competing for the US; and Muggle as the traveling reserve horse for Brazil.
Selten HW (Sandro Hit-Hohenstein) was bred by Irene Hoeflich-Wiederhold in Cape Coral, Florida. His competition career began when at 2-years old when he was Reserve Grand Champion of Dressage at Devon. At 3 years old, Selten was started by Michael Bragdell of Hilltop Farm in Maryland. Elizabeth Ball purchased Selten late that year, but had Michael begin his undersaddle showing the following spring. With Michael, Selten won the 4-Year-old US Young Horse National Championships in 2008. Michael qualified Selten for the 5-Year Old Championships the following spring and then Beth took over the ride. She won both the 5 and 6-year-old Young Horse Championships with the talented gelding – the first horse to win the ‘Triple Crown’ of Young Horse Championships here in the US. In 2012, Selten was sold at the Netherlands’ Equine Elite Auction for €500,000 ($647,000) to Fiona Bigwood. She’s based in the UK with her husband Anders Dahl, who eventually took over the ride. Selten and Anders had very successful CDI outings in the small tour with wins at Hickstead, Hartpury, and Barcelona. They moved up to the Grand Prix this year and are now representing Denmark at the Games.
In the showjumping ring, Quincy Car (Galiani Car- Amour Parfait) and Fernando Cardenas will be representing team Colombia. Quincy Car was bred by Fernado’s father, Fernando Cardenas Sr., in Ocala, FL and the Fernando family continues to own him to this day. Fernando and Quincy Car have a special relationship since they have been a team from Quincy Car’s first show to now. Quincy Car is fast and careful as he soars over the 1.6 meter (5’3”) jumps. In 2014, they won the $100,000 Sullivan GMC Truck Grand Prix and in 2015, they won the$25,000 Suncast® 1.50m Championship Jumper Classic, just to name a few. It is very rare to see a rider ride a homebred horse through all of the levels, let alone to the Olympics. They are already part of a fairy tale so let’s hope they have a fairy tale ending!
In eventing, we have traditionally seen higher percentages of US-bred horses – often due of course to the influence of the Thoroughbred in this sport’s history. Blackfoot Mystery (Out of Place- Proud Truth), bred by John O’Meara, also known as Big Red, began his athletic career on the racetrack in California but retired as he lost his first 3 races. Lisa Peecook bought him off the track and rode him up to CCI1* with the occasional help of Kelly Prather. Kelly fell in love with Big Red and bought him from Lisa in 2013 and competed him up to CCI3*. Kelly was a student of Boyd Martin and as Kelly and Blackfoot Mystery maintained her success in CCI3* competitions, Boyd continued to be impressed by Red’s athleticism. In 2015, Boyd and the Blackfoot Mystery Syndicate bought the 17.2 hand thoroughbred from Kelly and progressed to the CCI4* level on Big Red. With Boyd’s experience and Red’s natural ability, the pair dominated the challenging courses and qualified for the 2016 Olympics.
Muggle (Obadiah-Fair Play) was bred by Laurel Hill Farm in Laurel Hill, FL and is owned by the Phoenix Syndicate, LLC. Muggle and Nilson Moreira Da Silva, his rider, met when Nilson moved from his home in Brazil to the US in 2011. Nilson never competed in eventing until he came to the US and met Melissa Stubenberg and Muggle. Melissa owned and rode Muggle up to training level but handed the reigns over to Nilson who took the mount and competed Muggle from training level to CCI3* in 4 years. Even though both horse and rider were green, the team earned 2nd place at their first CCI3* at CHC International in Fairburn, Ga. The pair continued to exceed expectations in CCI4* competitions and earned the Traveling Reserve spot on the Brazilian eventing team.
We wish all of the US bred horses and their riders great success at the 2016 Rio Olympics!
Susanne Manz, Manz Dressage Horses
Twin Cities area, Minnesota
I’ve loved horses my whole life and always wanted to ride. But, in the last couple of years, I’ve been able to devote some of my time to my other passion – breeding dressage horses. Lately, I’ve been thinking about all the things a breeder of sport horses needs to know in order to successfully and responsibly breed sport horses:
· History and Strategy of Sport Horse Breeding
· Conformation and Form to Function concepts
· Genetics and heritability
o Breeding values and statistics
o Selection of breeding horses
· Equine reproduction techniques
· Riding concepts and how they shape your breeding goals
· Registries for Sport Horses
· Business concepts for breeders
· Advertising and Promotion techniques
o Including photography, video, showing, social media, etc.
· Nutrition and feeding of breeding horses
· Bloodlines and their strengths and weaknesses
There is obviously a huge body of knowledge that is important in shaping our goals for breeding as well as our ability to achieve those goals and market (or keep) the results. I wish there were a Sport Horse Breeders Comprehensive Handbook, but there isn’t. I haven’t found one source of information that fulfilled all my needs in a comprehensive manner. But, the following sources of information have been helpful to me:
· Organizations such as USSHBA focused on Breeding of Sport Horses
· Organizations such USDF, USEF, USHJA, FEI that determine expectations and standards for competition
· Organizations/Registries that provide standards and criteria for selection and registration of sport horses
o Stallion Shows, approvals
o Auctions and other marketing outlets
· Various books, magazines, on-line forums
· Registry meetings, courses, tours
· Competitions for sport horses
· Riding instructors
· On-line forums and social media
· Formal education such as equine studies, business school, etc.
· Networking, meeting, and talking to other breeders
I have voraciously consumed all the materials I can get on breeding dressage horses. But, there are lots of gaps in the written materials currently available. I live in Minnesota (for now anyway) and I don’t have many opportunities here to interact with other breeders of dressage horses. As such, I’ve had to travel quite a bit to network with other breeders and see horses and inspections/keurings. I take advantage of Registry tours and structured seminars (like the USSHBA Breeders seminar) for educational opportunities. And there are some excellent breeder groups on Facebook that allow good discussion.
USSHBA has a mission to support US Breeders through education, recognition and outreach. They have already conducted seminars and are planning additional seminars. Tell us what areas of education are most interesting to you. We welcome your comments.
Susanne Manz, Manz Dressage Horses
Twin Cities area, Minnesota
Two years ago, I retired from corporate life and embarked on a new journey. I set out to explore one of my life-long passions: breeding and raising warmblood dressage horses. I was so excited. Dressage had always been a passion and now I finally had time to devote to deepening my knowledge! I sought out every opportunity to read, learn, visit, talk to, and explore that I could find. I did quite a bit of traveling, in Europe and the US, to meet other people, share experiences, see facilities, and understand the rich history of breeding warmblood dressage horses. And the horses… I got to see some amazing horses! It is an on-going journey. I’ve learned so much and realize how much more I have to learn. In a series of blogs for USSHBA, I will share some of my experiences. And I hope to hear back from you regarding your experiences and how they shaped your breeding program. It is through the sharing of knowledge and experience, that US Breeders can become more successful in our journey of providing the horse of choice to US owners, riders, competitors, spectators, and friends.
Joining USSHBA has been a rewarding experience for me and has opened up many learning opportunities. In March of this year, I attended the first USSHBA Breeder’s Course at Hilltop Farm in Maryland. It was a great event! The featured speaker was Christian Schacht, author of the book Sport Horse Conformation. Of course, I had already read the book. But, hearing Dr. Schacht’s lecture and stories in person made things so much more real. More importantly, we were able to put our new found knowledge to work by actually evaluating some real horses. Dr. Schacht encouraged us all to evaluate the horses and express our opinions. Verbalizing my opinion made me be more thoughtful, organized, and methodical about my approach to evaluating horses. After seeing the horses in hand we were able to see them again under saddle. It was a great opportunity to link our conformational analysis to movement and performance.
I also really enjoyed hearing form two veterinarians from Select Breeders Services. Dr. Paul Loomis talked about stallion management and Dr. Dave Scofield talked about mare management. They both brought so much knowledge, passion, and enthusiasm to their topics. Dr. Loomis and Dr. Scofield both addressed current technical information but also shared some very thoughts about quality control aspects of using frozen semen. My only regret was that I hadn’t heard this a year or two earlier.
We also had sessions on insurance and nutrition. But, for me, the best part of the experience was meeting some fellow breeders and getting to know them better. A seminar like this provides a unique opportunity to meet and network with others who share the same passion. And, of course, Hilltop Farm is such a professional and beautiful facility. The staff at Hilltop were very generous in sharing their facility, their knowledge, and allowing us to see their beautiful horses!
USSHBA has a mission to support US Breeders through education, recognition and outreach. The Breeder’s Course was a great forum to bring forth issues of concern and opportunity. I know that it really helped this US Breeder of warmblood dressage horses along my journey. Over the next few months, I’ll share more experiences and more details.
A collaborative effort produced by the USSHBA Education Committee, USSHBA members, and our partners.