by Katherine O. Rizzo (August 2010)

Economic uncertainty has touched all parts of the horse industry, but perhaps the hardest hit have been the breeders.

When the mortgage meltdown began several years ago, breeders immediately dialed back, and we have seen dwindling foal crops ever since. Vets who specialize in breeding and foaling have reported record drops in business this past spring. Mare owners have wisely decided to postpone breeding for a year or two (or more) until the economy improves. While this reduced demand has made it difficult for some stallion owners, it has also provided many with the opportunity to reevaluate what they are breeding and how they are breeding it, to analyze the influence of top lines versus bottom lines, performance versus pedigree, to tinker with their breeding formulas.

In the meantime, we hope there will be some long term benefits to the reduced foal crops: fewer unwanted horses in the future and, once demand returns, higher prices for those few horses on the market.

Top Line vs. Bottom Line
The stallions seem to get all the attention, the marquee billing, the “top line” on the pedigree charts…so it is understandable when those who don’t breed assume that the stallion is more important than the mare (whose name appears on the bottom line in pedigrees). But serious breeders know differently.

Alain Seheut of Olde Country Farm in Glyndon believes that breeders “need to look at the mare line to make sure that it is just as good as the stallion. A great horse comes from a great mare,” Seheut said. As a breeder, Seheut spends a lot of time investigating all aspects of any mare that is bred to his Oldenburg stallion Soprano.

Specifically, he thinks about whether the mare would be able to pass a test similar to those required of top stallions. Mare Performance Tests evaluate the mare’s movement, conformation, performance, temperament and bloodlines, as well as how any previous offspring are performing. If a mare can past this test, then Seheut believes it is a “top notch mare and should be bred.”
Ami Howard, Shetland breeder at Olney Farm in Joppa, agrees, noting that: “Disposition seems to be more strongly influenced by the mare,” she pointed out. CeAnn Shipley of Mythic Morgans in Boyds says, “Both are important, though I place a bit more weight on the mare since she is the one to nurture and raise the foal.”

Dundulk Sport Horses owner Lori Granant feels that, while both the mare and stallion are important, “the mare accounts for over half of the genetic influence of any resulting foal, so she better have everything you want.”

Not all breeders, however, weigh the mare’s influence more heavily than the sire’s. Renee Delisle Howes of Hawk’s Run Trakenhners in Huntington gives mares and stallions equal consideration in her breeding program. “We want the very best qualities in the stallion and, of course, the mare. We want the very best of both to maximize chances of success,” she explained.

The Right Stuff
In addition to pedigrees, local breeders look at performance, movement and conformation of both the stallion and mare, and they look to see whether the mare and stallion are “proven,” meaning whether or not existing offspring (or get) have been successful in their careers. Breeders seem to agree that all of these aspects (pedigree, performance and proven offspring) need to be considered when selecting a breeding, however the order of importance differs greatly from breeder to breeder.

Howard puts performance on the top of her selection list: “If they can’t do it, why would their offspring be more likely to?”
Elizabeth Callahan, DVM, Cool Na Grena Sporthorses in Oxford, places temperament above all other traits.

Sue Doll of Windsong Arabians in Mt. Airy ranks bloodlines first in her list. Meanwhile, Standardbred breeder Tom Cooke of TBC Stables in Rockville looks for mares that produce offspring that develop harness racing speed early on. “I want horses that will get to the races at age two,” he said.

Kathleen Farris of Ensigns Grace Farm in Ellicott City looks for quality movement when selecting a stallion for her Morgan mares.
Howes puts conformation first, as does JoAnn Dester of Whispering Oaks Ranch in Virginia and Ridgely breeder Debra Ober, who breeds Chincoteague ponies. Shipley also looks at the stallion or mare’s conformation above other traits saying, “If I don’t like the individual standing in front of me, having a great pedigree has limited value.”

Garnant spends more time looking into a stallion or mare’s offspring than anything else: “Looking at what they have produced before is the most important. I am most interested in prepotent mares and stallions that are consistent in what they produce.”

Seheut also tends to look at a stallion and mare’s previous offspring, stating that one needs to look for several offspring performing well. “There are those random flukes, foals that are tremendous that don’t come from great breedings, but that is very rare,” he said.

Can Breeders “Improve”?
Ah, the age old question of whether or not a flaw in either the mare or the sire can be compensated for in the breeding process, thus the phrase “improve upon.” There has been, and will continue to be, great debate about whether or not this is possible, and whether or not it is even ethical. Nonetheless, it does seem that most breeders try to pick a sire that will complement their mare, rather than a sire that mirrors the same positive traits that the mare has.

Seheut advises breeders to “pick a stallion that will complement the mare. Once you have selected a good mare, look at the mare’s faults and make sure you don’t pick a stallion with the same faults.”

Howard, on the other hand, tries to avoid fixing problems. “I don’t choose a mare to breed that has problems,” she said.
Callahan, meanwhile, tries to strike a balance. “I look for a stallion to improve certain things about my mare. I don’t pick stallions which are a total contrast in looks or types,” she explained. “You might end up with the worst of both, so I strive for improvement, not a drastic 180-degree turn around.”

“I look for a mare who will highlight my stud’s best traits and minimize his shortcomings,” said Farris. She also pointed out that in Morgans, the mare typically is the dominant sex.

Howes looks for a blend of complementary and contrasting traits when breeding, with the goal to produce high quality offspring. “We look for attributes that our stallion consistently passes on that will improve on the mare and that will also complement both our stallion and mare,” she stated.

Staying Afloat
So how are these breeders finding the resources to continue their breeding programs? Some have been forced to cut back and others continue with their current programs. However, the reason for any changes to their programs is not always the falling economy.

Howard simply got tired of getting black colts. She owns one retired stallion and two breeding mares and has gotten black colts for the past three years. She is looking to produce more fillies with some color. But it is not just genetics and the economy that have caused Howard to dial back:, “I’m getting too old to break 3-year-olds and it’s too expensive to send them out!”

Shipley cut back simply because the cost of caring for a large herd of horses was getting too much. “There are fewer people buying horses, so it made sense to cut back on breeding and have fewer horses to feed the ever more expensive hay and grain!” she said.
Callahan runs a small breeding operation with only two to three foals produced a year, so she has not cut back. Doll did cut back on her 2009 breedings, but due to lack of space, not a down economy.

Farris stated that she did not breed any mares this year. “I need to concentrate on selling the ones I have for sale,” she said. Dester also cut back due to an overabundance of unsold offspring still at the farm. “When my head count goes down, then I will add a few more foals,” she explained.

Cooke is reducing his breeding program here in Maryland, where he currently stands one stallion and six mares. He also has one stallion and three mares standing in Pennsylvania. “I am in the process of reducing the size of my investment in Maryland. The Governor and Maryland legislature have done little to save the Standardbred industry in Maryland. The situation in Maryland is at an all time low,” he said.

Shipley pointed out that today’s breeders have hard decisions to make. She said, “Right now it is a fine balancing act to maintain sufficient stock of sale horses to meet current needs, to have upcoming stock for sale when the market picks up and not being over extended feeding and housing the current herd.”

Howes does see a silver lining in the reduced breeding. “People are thinking twice, or three times, about breeding since they too can’t afford to take on more babies. And it’s the offspring who ultimately suffer if they are brought into the world and their owners do not have the proper resources to take care of them. Which then impacts the horse rescue programs, euthaniziation, etc.”

Maryland Breeding Facts

According to the number of foal announcements received by The Equiery, Maryland breeders are breeding fewer foals.

2008 – 485 announcements
2009 – 404 announcements
2010 – 335 announcements

The following are The Equiery’s top 11 producing stallions of 2010. This list is based on the number of foal announcemens submitted to The Equiery. Each stallion may have more get than reflected here.

1) Rousseau – Dutch Warmblood (34)
2) Donarweiss – Hanoverian (18)
3) Bugatti Hilltop – Hanoverian (15)
4) Contucci – Hanoverian (14)
5) Royal Prince – Hanoverian (8)
6) Crusader Jack – Appoloosa (7)
7) Not For Love – Thoroughbred (6)
7) Riverman – Holsteiner (6)
9) Dances With Ravens – Thorougbred (5)
9) Ligh – Dutch Warmblood (5)
9) Popeye – Westfalen Pony (5)