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Responsible Horse Breeding

Breeders large and small should be the first to assume the long-term responsibility for every foal produced. The first question to seriously consider is: Why do you want to breed a foal? This 12-point list helps to check if you are breeding responsibly.

1 Market:

The first and most important thing to consider is the market. Is your ‘product’ actually in demand? What is your competition? Are mare and stallion from sought-after lines? Is there something else about them that will make the offspring saleable? Temperament should be as important as conformation and bloodlines. It is especially easy for irresponsible breeders to ignore inherent behavioural defects that result in horses with invisible yet defective genes.

2 Costs:

Your plan needs to involve cost planning for feed and labour, e.g. do you know how many man hours it takes to put one or say, five foals on the ground each year and to keep them up to selling age? Your check list could have boxes for calculations up to riding age, when most are sold. It’s no excuse to say they will be sold beforehand, because they mostly do not. Your plan also needs to include extras that tend to come with the territory, such as retirees, horses who cannot be sold, and ones you keep to promote your stud and breed with later.

3 Sales, Checks and Guarantees:

Plan for how you will prepare and present horses for sale, with appropriate advertising and service, to give each horse a good chance. Essentials such as a good website, decent photos, and responding properly to enquiries should be expected of any reputable breeder. It is also irresponsible not to agree to take back a horse that you have bred, with no fuss, if it falls into hard times. Breeders should assess the potential purchaser for suitability just as thoroughly as the buyer should check out the breeder.

4 Value:

Breeders need to realise that the value of their breed and breeding programme is the value they can sell geldings for. It is easier to think only of the horses that you dream about producing, and to forget that in the process you will inevitably breed horses that do not fulfil anyone’s dreams!

Plan what to do with the horses that do not make the grade to be breeding stock or saleable produce; i.e. the horses that are the ‘wrong’ colour/size or with temperament/soundness/conformation defects. Some may lack the ‘looks’ but have a future as a good riding horse if they have a good temperament and legs, but they will need training to show they are going well under saddle to prove their worth.

Above all, avoid the delusion that if any of your stock do not make the grade then they can always be a companion horse/lawnmower/paddock ornament. There are already huge numbers of horses that fulfil the criteria of ‘unwanted’ or ‘wastage’.

5 Selection criteria:

Think very carefully about what you are planning to breed, and what selection criteria you will apply when formulating matings. Are you pandering to fashion? The problem with fashion is that it comes and goes. The trouble with horses is that they live for a very long time and definitely outlive fashions. You could be breeding horses who will no longer be in demand in a few years.

If you are breeding for a certain colour or size (or both) you need to plan what to do with the ones who do not have the right attributes.  The much more important attributes of temperament, soundness and functionality can be overlooked when selecting breeding stock for colour/size because a horse can win in the show ring with a poor temperament or unsoundness.

Temperament and trainability should be top of the selection criteria list (followed closely by conformation and soundness) to give all offspring the best chance to enjoy good quality of life even if they do not make the grade in terms of colour, size, and other cosmetic criteria.

Some breeders think that because a breed is ‘rare’ everyone else will want it (and then exhaust themselves and their family promoting it). Others come up with elaborate cross breeds and complicate it further by aiming for a specific colour or size, producing horses destined to add to the already overpopulated pet market. The more cosmetic criteria (colour, size, etc) you aim for, the more ‘wastage’ there is likely to be.

6 Genetics:

You need a good knowledge of genetics and a good knowledge of the background of your chosen breed and the performances of horses in the pedigrees. Do you know what genetic diseases are prevalent in your chosen breed? Are you committed to helping eradicate them? Do you understand conformation and its influence? You need to be able to read a pedigree properly and to be able to design suitable matings that have the maximum chance of the foal being an improvement on the parents and a worthy representative of the breed.

7 Controlling breeding:

Gelding colts is essential (especially when starting out) and it does cost money, which must be budgeted for. Gelding is a necessary means to promoting yourself as a quality breeder. Having ‘accidents’ and sub-standard colts on your property does nothing to encourage buyers or enhance your reputation. It is the first sign of a hoarder.

8 Breed registers:

Breeders who breed horses for which there is no register are at risk of condemning their horses to a very small and oversupplied market. At the same time, many breeders do not spend time involving themselves with their breed society by helping, learning and networking. They cut corners with registrations because they see that as ‘losing money’.

On the other hand, breed societies could do a lot more to help with the problem of over breeding. They could put together checklists to help people thinking of getting into the breed. They could start to encourage temperament tests at shows so that breeders are rewarded for producing safe and trainable animals rather than just pretty ones. They could educate people about the facts and costs of  breeding horses. Associations could take more responsibility for regulating out genetic diseases within their breed. They could offer gelding incentives and performance incentives for geldings. They could work with genetics consultants and classify breeding stock (particularly stallions) and studs as meeting certain criteria. Quality studs would then be recognised by the breed association itself for adhering to responsible breeding practices.

9 Support network:

Your plan needs to include your family and take into account their involvement. For example if you are relying heavily on your husband to do the manual work and your children to ride the produce of your stud what will happen if your husband decides he has had enough (as many do) and when your children grow up and leave home?

10 Horse Training:

A stud needs a rider (or riders) because it is a delusion to think that you will be able to sell your stock unbroken for good money. A stud must have the manpower to take this into consideration, or the money to employ someone. If not, you are indeed operating under a delusion.

11 Do you need a stallion?

There are too many breeders standing more than one stallion at once with insufficient promotion and business skills. It is not a good idea to start a breeding program by having a stallion first, then getting some mares for him. A stud does not need a stallion unless they regularly breed more than five foals per year – until then, it is best to use AI or send the mares out and gain the experience whilst you pick the brains of other reputable breeders. Learn which stallions are putting out the best foals and which sell readily. Not every named stallion is actually improving on the mares he is bred to and is relying on the calibre of his mares to make a name for the stud.

12  Stallion owner’s responsibilities:

Too many breeders with a stallion accept mares that are not suitable. Once you own a stallion it is too tempting to accept mares to justify having him and to make him ‘earn his keep’. Too many breeders are breeding from mares that have never been broken in and/or are of unsuitable temperament, mistaking ‘cute and cuddly’ for a ‘good temperament’. How can you know the soundness, trainability and temperament of your animal if it has not been performed under saddle?

Ultimately, horse breeding is self-regulating and breeders themselves have to take the initiative and become responsible custodians of their industry. If they don’t, someone, somewhere will eventually start to ask difficult questions about where this surplus of unwanted, often sub-standard horses are coming from, which will lead to regulation from outside the industry.

It is easy to start to think responsibly about breeding and you have a moral obligation to try.

Find more responsible horse ownership resources by Jane and Stuart Myers for responsible horse ownership on their website www.equiculture.net

Jane and Stuart Myers

Jane and Stuart Myers are the dynamic duo behind www.equiculture.net - an educational movement informing on responsible, sustainable and ethical horse-keeping. Together, they have co-authored several books and recently launched an online course bringing Horse Management into the 21st Century.

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