Sport Horse Breeding: The Mare



* * editors note: this is the first in a series of four articles aimed sport horse breeding * *

People love to breed things. I don’t understand the mentality, but this goes for dogs, cats, horses, and the obvious….people. Just because a living thing has a reproductive system doesn’t mean said living thing should be reproducing.

“I love my mare”. That, along with many other statements, does not qualify your mare to reproduce. I realize breeding seems tempting with the availability of quality stallions, but just because you have a mare doesn’t mean that you should breed her. Most mares are not that nice, and most nice mares need to be bred carefully.

Example #1: A woman owns a mare, she’s a cute mare. Let’s say the mare had done some hunters in the past, the big shows, let’s even say the mare did pretty good in the adult amateur ring. Now, the mare is doing dressage. Let’s say the mare is doing okay at 2nd level, but the mare is definitely not going to be progressing any further than 2nd level. The woman has seen all these fancy Grand Prix dressage stallions in the magazines. She loves her mare. Her mare is a 15.2 hand TB mare, 12 years old, chestnut, small frame, cow hocked with very small hocks, has Navicular but is sound with corrective shoeing (hence the inability to jump anymore), very small, shallow feet with no heal. Cute head, downhill, pretty straight shoulder even though she moves better than she is built to; pretty flat gaits, short neck, and long back (not extreme). But, she is a sweet mare, not mare-ish, very nice temperament, not “hot”.

This woman wants a Grand Prix horse. She rides at a pretty nice dressage barn. Most of the other boarders have Warmbloods. There are a few exceptional Thoroughbreds that are doing some of the upper level stuff, but this woman is definitely one of only a few to own a horse that isn’t going to go much further than 2nd level (we aren’t talking about rider ability at this point). Finances don’t allow this woman to buy a “going” Warmblood with upper level potential, nor is she able to fork out 10-20k for a young horse. So, she figures “I’ll breed to one of those REALLY fancy Warmbloods in the magazines that are doing Grand Prix dressage and I’ll have my next star!

Most mares are not that nice, and most nice mares need to be bred carefully.

Let’s examine this scenario. First let’s start with this woman’s “experience” in breeding. None, she has none. Her trainer knows of two younger “up and coming” stallions that aren’t approved yet, but are “gorgeous”. Her trainer also, has no experience breeding. So, the woman starts calling stallion owners. I’m not going to cut on stallion owners (at least not in this segment), but the woman hears nothing but rave reviews about each of these stallions. She picks one, a 17 hand Hanoverian, big boned, fluid movement with lots of impulsion, rhythmic gaits, has a large head though it fits him, long neck, average back, sloping shoulder, uphill build, straight legs, big feet (all from pictures and from inspection results), but all in all a very nice looking horse.

What is she going to get out of this breeding? A Grand Prix dressage horse (chances are much less than 1%)? Is she going to get the equivalent of her mare? Now that is much more realistic. But, with the conformation of the two, there is a much better chance that she is going to get much less than she had in her mare. There is a chance of course, slim, but a chance that she could get a tad nicer than her mare. But, with the clash of conformation, build, & movement, the chances are she is going to get a 16h horse with a long neck, long back, big head, big body, small frame legs, terrible feet, that doesn’t have much for athleticism. Of course, this horse has a good chance of being sweet (though we didn’t discuss the stallion’s temperament), but is this woman going to be happy with something less than her mare? If so…..great. But with the money this woman spent breeding her mare, raising the foal, and paying for training, she has probably already spent 15-40k when it is ready to be ridden.

Is she going to get the equivalent of her mare? [Not with the] conformation combo; she’ll probably get much less than she had in her mare.

Example #2: A jumper mare maxes out at about 3’6”. This mare is pretty fast and has done pretty good in the AA jumpers with several owners. She has never been able to get a lead change and has had many lameness problems. This mare also is a bitch. She HAS to be on Regumate. The only reason she has done well in the AA jumpers is because it took her 10 years to get there. She is 16 years old now. She has only been doing the AA jumpers for about 4 years. Before that she went from owner to owner because she is such a pain to train, ride, and generally deal with. She is spooky, she is hot, she is nervous, she is herd bound, she has a nasty buck AND rear. But, now she is a little better. I mean, she doesn’t like to be brushed, or tacked up. She pins her ears, swishes her tail, and often gives you the warning hind leg in the air when you have done anything more than she can tolerate. You cannot use spurs, but a crop is okay. She has never been “abused”, she is just that mare….the one that is just a bitch!

But, it might be retirement time. The woman who owns her is moving up in the jumper ring and she can’t part with the mare. She has bought a nice warmblood gelding that she is hoping to show in the A/O jumpers in the next year or two. So the mare, an appendix quarter horse, 16.2 hands, with great conformation throughout the body; nice shoulder, nice croup, nice back and neck, nice head, great topline, kind of falls apart in the legs. Not terribly, but she has sickle hocks, toes in, has terrible “tube” quarter horse feet (surprisingly no Navicluar detected YET), long cannon bones, short, and very short pasterns (astonishing that she can jump 3’6”).

The woman decides to breed the mare to a stallion that was shown in Grand Prix jumpers. She wants the mare to have something to do in retirement and she would either like another horse once her Warmblood gelding has to retire, or she will sell the foal. Either way it will be a great horse…right?

No, of course not. Why would you breed this mare? This mare has a terrible temperament, which WILL get passed on at least a little bit to the foal, and the conformation ALONE is not okay to breed. Worse case scenario, you get a horse that is WORSE than the mare! Best case scenario, you get a horse that is equal to your mare! You cannot improve on BAD faults. Sure, every horse has its conformation and temperament “imperfections”, but if there are blatant FAULTS, NO! Don’t breed!

Through equine reproduction, you cannot improve on BAD faults.

Example #3 (this is my all time favorite and probably the most common): Mare, lame, career ending (but not from an accident); Navicular, Ringbone, Sidebone, OCD, Torn Suspensory (over at the knee being the cause), Bowed Tendon (poor lower leg conformation causing the weakness).

Of course, this mare was not proven in sport in any way. She were started and then had lameness issues because of poor conformation. This is the exact reason NOT to breed, but the most common reason for a person to breed. “Well, she’s retired and only 8 years old, I can get 7 foals out of her.” NO!!!!!!!

Basically, what it boils down to is that a mare isn’t for breeding unless #1 she has proven herself in sport (upper level, dressage or jumpers) or #2 she has an outstanding temperament with equally outstanding conformation. Of course, conformation alone doesn’t qualify an upper level performance horse, nor does temperament, but it’s a good start. Also, not every rider is riding at upper levels, and there is a huge market for the middle of the performance scale, along with the lower end of the performance scale. But, you still want to be producing a physically sound horse that is also mentally sound.

Lameness is the exact reason NOT to breed, but also the most common reason given for breeding.

There are plenty of horses that qualify for the lower level without the need for you to breed to this level. There are also enough horses that performed at the upper levels and are done with that caliber of performance due to age, wear and tear, and rider ability to be passed on to the middle levels. You should not try to breed a lower level horse, or even a mid level horse.

And hey, two high level performance horses (mare and stallion) don’t always add up to offspring that perform, win, and hold-up at the upper levels, but you definitely have a much better chance.

Of course, there are always the horses that beat the odds; terrible conformation, terrible temperament, but manage to overcome those obstacles and win in the Grand Prix ring. But, odds are against those horses. And don’t forget, a horse still need heart, good training, and good riding. But guaranteed, starting off breeding with sound, sane horses and proven athletic abilities is a step in the right direction towards breeding quality offspring.

Let’s try to keep breeding to a minimum. Let’s breed quality, not quantity. Let’s REALLY figure out the costs involved with breeding and buying. If you own a mare, have someone who is knowledgeable, honest (brutally), experienced, and unbiased take a look at your mare and give you their opinion.

I would suggest taking your mare to a breed inspection, but I am unsure how strict they are these days. Anymore, American Warmblood, ISR, and a handful of other “registries” allow anything in their “books”. An evaluation from one of the TRUE, Warmblood breed associations would be a better start; though I have not been to a breed inspection in years.