Sport horse breeders are making some critical decisions at present. Will I breed my mare? Is she good enough to breed? Does she have the right temperament? Does she have a good enough performance record to justify breeding a foal from her?
And, of course, there are questions that arise on the sire side of the equation. What stallion would best complement my mare's traits? Does the sire have a good performance record? Will he pass on his desirable traits to his offspring? Have his previous offspring been good performers? Will the combination of my mare and this sire produce a saleable and profitable foal?
These are all key questions that breeders must ask themselves before taking the costly decision to breed any mare -- and breeders must answer them honestly.
However, if, after critically examining the mare and a potential sire, you decide that you can breed a healthy, profitable foal, you can start to concentrate on the management of the mare.
The equine specialist team at Teagasc advises that the first step in raising a healthy foal is to have a healthy mare, because if the mare is not in good health, her reproductive system is unlikely to perform to its best. And an under-performing reproductive system can translate into some big veterinary bills.
This is an important factor in breeding mares, the advisers warn. In general, a mare's fertility decreases after she hits 12-13 years of age.
Some 20-25pc of older mares (13 years of age and older) are problem breeders, according to research.
However, that is not to say that young mares are always good breeders. Research has also shown that around 2-3pc of younger mares are problem breeders so when considering breeding a young mare, it is advisable to choose one that is physically mature enough to handle the demands of pregnancy and lactation without compromising her own or her potential foal's well-being. The young mare must also be fed appropriately to meet both her growth and pregnancy needs.
Teagasc advises breeders to assess their mares' body condition well before the breeding season. This will allow you to decide whether your mare is too thin or too fat for breeding and gives you time to take corrective action.
When looking at the mare, she should have enough flesh to cover her ribs and have a relatively flat topline when viewed from the rear.
Excessive fat, which can be seen as deposits of fat around the tail-head, a cresty neck and having difficulty feeling the ribs with moderate fingertip pressure, should be avoided if possible.
Before breeding, a mare should be up to date on essential influenza and tetanus vaccinations.
The typical regime for combined flu and tetanus injections is to give the first injection, followed by a second injection not less than 21 days and no more than 90 days after the initial injection, followed by a third injection no less than 150 days and no more than 215 days after the second injection. Booster injections are generally given at yearly intervals from then on, but your vet will advise on the best routine for your mare.
Mares must be on a regular de-worming schedule. It is extremely important to read the product instructions with regard to suitability for use in pregnant and lactating mares.
Dental problems can affect body condition, temperament and have a negative effect on the mare's overall condition and, therefore, her fertility. The equine dentist will correct any problems by floating or rasping the teeth to the ideal conformation, but this should be carried out on a regular, ideally annual, basis so that the mare will not need stressful emergency dental procedures during late pregnancy.
A mare's feet must be trimmed regularly, ideally every six to eight weeks so that she can support the added weight of pregnancy without any undue pain or distress.
Mares with broken or cracked feet, long toes, flat soles and weak heels can become lame and often may be difficult to get in foal. Teagasc advises that most mares can be kept without shoes but those with bad feet may require shoes in front. They also advise that breeders should never put on shoes behind in case she harms her own foal or other mares or foals.
The mare's feet should be picked out regularly, which provides an opportunity to assess her foot condition and also prevents stone bruises. Broodmares can also be susceptible to laminitis so watch for signs of this painful disease in your mare, particularly if she is overweight.
If you have decided to breed from a young mare, it is essential that she becomes accustomed to being handled. She will need to be caught and handled regularly during her pregnancy so she should be well handled, happy to have her feet picked up, get her tail bandaged, stand in stocks and load into a horsebox before she is covered by a stallion. This will minimise stress on her when she has to do these things during her pregnancy.
Administration is a key part of the breeding process and good records can save a lot of time and improve breeding performance. Detailed and accurate health and reproductive records are extremely important when breeding and foaling mares, advises Teagasc.
The details should include the mare's vaccinations, de-worming schedule, hoof and dental maintenance, medications and any health problems.
Each mare should have her specific reproductive records maintained from season to season in a dedicated diary because mares tend to repeat their breeding and foaling patterns.
The records should include:
Records can be kept quickly and easily by using a system of abbreviated codes. For example, 1R = 1cm follicle on right ovary or 2L = 2cm follicle on left ovary, U = scanned in foal, Ux = scanned not in foal, F = foaled, O = ovulated and S = stitched.
The key to keeping comprehensive accurate results is to ensure that everyone uses the same system and records all events.
Next week, we will examine the best way to tease a mare, timing of breeding and the pros and cons of artificial insemination versus natural service.
In the meantime, the Teagasc equine specialist team of Norman Storey (051 644400), Wendy Conlon (091 845291), Declan McArdle (046 9026718) and Ruth Fennell (058 41211) are always on hand to offer advice and support to breeders.