Breeding a successful racehorse is enormously rewarding, but requires a great deal of planning and takes a lot of time, effort, energy and money! Preparation and patience are key to breeding successful racehorses.
Thoroughbred breeders in Alberta are represented by the Canadian Thoroughbred Horse Society Alberta Division (CTHS Alberta). There are about 200 CTHS members, and in 2014 there were 258 foals registered in Alberta. Breeding Thoroughbreds is big business and in 2015 the direct economic impact of breeding and raising Thoroughbreds was $19,479,913 (Serecon Report on The Economic Impacts of Horse Breeding, Raising and Racing in Alberta).
The CTHS office is in Calgary, and there are nine Board of Directors who guide the breeding industry. Directors sit on the CTHS National board and the Horse Racing Alberta board to provide input from breeders at the national and provincial level.
The Canadian Thoroughbred Horse Society (C.T.H.S) was incorporated in 1906 under the Federal Live Stock Pedigree Act (presently called the Animal Pedigree Act – 1988) as a national breed organization to assist breeders of Thoroughbred horses in Canada. The National Office determines the requirements for Canadian-bred status of foals, maintains the Breeder Membership Roster for Canada, compiles statistics and represents Canadian Thoroughbred breeders nationally and internationally.
The Canadian Thoroughbred Horse Society Alberta Division mandate is to promote the purchase of Alberta Thoroughbreds, keep records, organize sales, disseminate information, compile statistics and assist members with foal registration.
Breeding racehorses is a blend of nature and nurture, science and art. Thoroughbreds are purebreds, and unlike many other breeds cannot be registered unless conceived by live cover. Artificial insemination and embryo transfer technologies cannot be used with Thoroughbreds. Although it is possible to ship mares to other provinces and states to be bred, it is more practical (and less costly and risky) to stay within a local area.
- Choosing a stallion – “Breed the best to the best and hope for the best” is a phrase commonly heard in the racing world. Statistically, good racehorses make the best breeding stock, but in racing injuries or circumstances can force a horse into a retirement before proven on the track. Pedigree, conformation and different breeding theories come into play to choose the right stallion for a mare.
- Pedigree – a diagram of a family tree. Pedigree charts are used to track ancestry with the sire information on the top and dam information on the bottom.
- Conformation – a breeder with a small mare might choose to breed to a large, bigger boned stallion in hopes of producing a foal with more balance.
- Inbreeding – when the same ancestor appears two or more times within the first four generations of a pedigree. For example, if the same ancestor appears in the third generation and again in the fourth, the horse is referred to as being “inbred 3×4.” The significance of inbreeding is that the ancestor to whom the particular horse is inbred will have greater influence, thus emphasizing certain characteristics. Most believe it is radical for a horse to be inbred closer than 3×3.
- Outcross – Outcross breeding is the opposite of inbreeding in that there is no repeat presence within four or more generations. An outcross is believed to offer greater variety and avoid concentration of good and bad characteristics.
- Nicking – The theory that certain bloodlines have an affinity for one another. Nicking takes compatibility of stallions from one male line with mares from other sire lines to provide a hypothetical pedigree which will predict the future success of the foal. This system assigns a grade from A++ to F based on the degree of affinity between the sire and broodmare sire.
- Dosage – A Dosage index is a mathematical figure used to quantify a horse’s ability to handle various distances based on the appearance of influential sires in the bloodline. The dosage can quantify the amount of speed versus stamina in a horse’s pedigree. The Dosage Index (DI) and related Center of Distribution (CD) largely represent the ratio of speed and stamina. The CD is a number between -2 and +2 which indicates the distance a horse could potentially be successful over.
- Breeding basics
- The best time for mating is determined by several factors, including the length of daylight, the daily temperature, the mare’s general nutrition, etc. As increasing daylight stimulates the receptor centers in the brain to trigger reproductive hormones, these hormones begin the pattern of regular periods of estrous, also known as heat. The estrous cycle is the time period from one ovulation to the next. The average cycle is 22 days and this can vary by a few days especially at the beginning or ending of breeding season. Estrus usually lasts for six to eight days, when the pituitary gland releases a follicle-stimulating hormone that causes egg follicles within the ovary to grow and produce increasing amounts of estrogen, which prepares the reproductive tract for mating and fertilization. When the egg follicle approaches maturity, a second hormone is released that causes the follicle to ovulate, usually about 24 hours before the end of estrus. Mares are carefully monitored using ultrasound technology and “teasing” to determine when ovulation is most likely to occur, and the mating should occur as close to the end of the heat cycle as possible. A pregnancy can be diagnosed using ultrasound about 14 days after ovulation.
- Gestation is the period between conception and birth. A normal pregnancy in horses lasts approximately 11 months or 340 days. Mare nutrition is fundamental during gestation and lactation as they need more fuel, especially when producing milk. It’s hard work for a mare to maintain her own body condition and produce milk for the young foal!
- Foaling basics
- Signs that a mare is within hours of going into labor include: distended udder, swelling of the vulva, waxing of the teats, teat secretions, and milk leaking.
- Foaling process is divided into three phases. During the Preparatory Phase there is contraction of the uterus and dilation of the cervix. Mares may become restless, refuse to eat, walk in circles, look back toward their flank, and switch their tails. The Labor Phase is very fast and intense. Once contractions begin, delivery of the foal should occur in 20-30 minutes. The third and final phase is Passage of the Afterbirth, when the mare stands, licks the foal, and begins to bond with the foal. The placenta will be expelled during this phase. As soon as the foal gains it’s feet it will attempt to nurse.
- Foal health
- It is vital for a foal to receive colostrum from the mare as soon as possible after birth. Colostrum contains high levels of antibodies and foals must drink the colostrum to gain the antibodies. Failure of the passive transfer of maternal antibodies puts the foal at significant risk of infectious diseases. IgG (Immuno gamma globulin) levels are measured in the blood of neonatal foals. If IGG levels are low, a they may be tubed with more colostrum or receive plasma.
- Foals nurse frequently during the first few weeks of life, and stay close to their mothers. As they grow older they are introduced to hay, grain and grass and gain independence. The weaning process takes place at about six months of age.