The success of your breeding program depends on keeping your horses in prime condition year-round. This is essential for both mares and stallions. Even common, everyday stress can take its toll on the overall vitality of any horse if it’s not properly nourished and conditioned. When you add in the rigors of breeding season (for stallions) and the gestational period (for mares), this stress can double or even triple.
Combatting the physical manifestations of stress by keeping a balanced pH in the gut is the first step towards helping your breeding stock stay strong, healthy throughout the year.
Stallions have a difficult job. Producing viable sperm requires that a stallion is in top shape at all times. Some stallions have tremendous production expectations placed on them during peak breeding season. Considering it takes sperm approximately 60 days to mature before it’s ready for ejaculation, this means that even before breeding season begins they must be receiving adequate nutrition and have a low-stress environment.
Even a minor illness or stressful event can have an effect on his sperm’s viability, resulting in low sperm counts or even infertile sperm with poor morphology. They also must be handled carefully — rough handling, isolation or confinement (resulting in boredom) and environmental, nutritional, or social stress can all have a negative impact on sperm production and quality.
Single-hemisphere studs get an average of 6 to 7 months of “down time” to recover before breeding season begins again. In the case of stallions standing at stud for both hemispheres, they may only get a few weeks between the two seasons. A stud that stands in both hemispheres produces semen for an average of 11 months a year. This may not seem like a major issue, however, like mares, stallions have fertility cycles that change with the seasons.
Stallions experience a natural decline in sperm count in the fall and winter months — in fact, a decrease of approximately 50%. Because they are experiencing not only a lower drive to breed but also a lower sperm count, the year-round stud is put under a great deal of physical and mental stress. At this time it’s vital that facility managers don’t overburden him and ensure that he is receiving (and able to assimilate) the needed nutrients to continue working under these stressful conditions.
A mare must be in top condition going into breeding season. If she’s not, there is the very real chance that she’ll experience reduced fertility and may not conceive. This isn’t only frustrating but can be expensive.
There are three vital things that can help ensure a successful conception:
- Is she in good body condition? A body condition score of 5 – 7 will help ensure she’s ready to conceive and carry a foal.
- Are her heat cycles regular? Irregular heat cycles can indicate underlying issues that may have an impact on fertility.
- Is she clear of uterine infections? Infections can prevent the embryo from successfully implanting or even cause birth defects.
In addition, a routine of regular vaccinations, hoof maintenance, dental care and deworming should be maintained year-round. This should always be done a few weeks in advance of breeding so that the vaccines can take effect and any necessary healing from dental work can occur.
Many breeders will start exposing their broodmares to increasingly longer light cycles prior to breeding season. This stimulates her to have regular cycles and ovulate consistently. This can require that she be indoors for the majority of the day in the late winter and early spring months. This type of confinement can lead to boredom and stress. Reducing stress through enrichment and ensuring she has a neutral stomach pH can help prevent the development of ulcers and immune system compromise.
Ultimately, a mare that has an optimal body condition score and a healthy immune system is more likely to conceive and carry to term a healthy, strong foal. Gut health is an integral part of this equation and must be part of the central focus of a good mare maintenance regimen.