Understanding Horses: Winter Dreams, Spring Foals


Any gardener in a temperate climate knows that winter is the season of fallow, but it is also the season of hope. This is when the seed catalogs begin to arrive. The garden is asleep, but once the days start to get longer, it won’t be long before it’s time to plow and plant.

The same thing happens to horse breeders. With an average gestation period of 345 days – eleven months and a week is the rule of thumb for calculating the approximate due date – waiting for a foal can seem like an eternity. The mare mostly talks about her business, but sooner or later she will start showing signs that something is going on in there. She may barely round out, or she may become so spherical that observers wonder how she stands on those spindly legs.

As to how she got there, it all started over a year ago. Horse breeding in modern times is rarely a random or accidental process. There will be occasional Oops (the stallion goes over or through the fence, the mare tries the same maneuver, the farm manager doesn’t stop to think that the Mini stallion he put in the meadow to help him determine which of his full-size mares is ready to breed (it’s a horse too, even a very small one, and Nature is wont to find a way), and there are horse breeders of barnyard as there are barnyard pet breeders. But with such a large and expensive animal to keep, breeding is a big decision.

A lot of thought goes into it. First of all, why breed this mare? Is she a quality mare, whose personal traits deserve to be reproduced? Does she come from a well-regarded line with a consistent record of producing animals that meet or exceed the standards of her breed or type or discipline?

Once the foal is born, what will become of it? Will it be a personal horse for the breeder? A sales horse for the breeder or the farm? Does he have a home waiting for him or is there a reliable market for foals from this particular kennel? Is the breeder hoping to sell him right away, or is he willing to breed and train him until he is ready to perform to the specifications of the breed – riding, driving, racing, show halter (essentially, the equine equivalent of a beauty pageant or dog show), or anything else that her type and lineage suggests might be suitable?

And that’s only half the picture. The other half, the stallion half, is just as complicated, with many questions to answer. Stallions however, in most breeds and disciplines, are the most profitable.

A mare can produce one foal a year, then the breeder has to nurture and train that foal. Mare owners rarely recoup their expenses. If they breed a mare for a special caretaker foal, they will end up spending many times the price of an adult, trained horse. If they sell the foal, assuming they can find a buyer who has the desire or ability to raise and train a baby, it is rare to receive a price equal to, let alone greater than, the cost of l breeding and maintenance of the mare and any foal. .

The stallion, on the other hand, can be expensive to keep, campaign and promote, but he also recoups a fee, sometimes a significant fee, for each mare he is bred with. There are all sorts of nuances and finicky details, and it all comes down to his ability not just to produce offspring, but to replicate the traits that made him a winner on the track or in the show ring, or anywhere. where his race and type wants him. excel. Keeping and campaigning for a stallion is not a trivial or inexpensive operation. It can pay off, sometimes hugely, but it’s a serious, long-term endeavor with lots of risks as well as rewards.

Horse breeders know all this and factor it into their decisions. They must consider not only the individual mare and stallion, but also the likelihood that this particular cross will work. Will breeding result in a foal that equals or exceeds the quality of its parents? Will this foal carry the traits the breeder wants to pass on? Are there any genetic issues to consider, positive or negative? If there are such problems, are the other aspects of the cross worth the risk? (And are these issues such that the breed or type registry restricts or outright prohibits the breeding animals that carry them?)

All of these real difficult and sometimes daunting factors influence the decision to bring a new horse into the world – and they should. It is a living and sensitive being. He deserves to have as good a life as possible. And that starts with careful and thoughtful breeding.

And yet, like the gardener with the seed catalog, the horse breeder finds joy in the process. Evaluate the mare, her lines, her physical attributes, her performance if she has any – many do; many of them will have at least basic training in the discipline for which they are designed. Browse stallion guides, glossy advertisements, show reports, check compatible genetic mixes, weigh the pros and cons of different candidates. Choosing between the proven champion with the strong production record the breeder is looking for, and the younger, less certain option whose bloodlines and potential might be worth the bet, could produce that dream colt that lives in the imagination of each breeder.

Even timing is a factor. Horses in the wild tend to breed and foal in the spring. Horses in modern show and race disciplines may have an artificial deadline: the January 1 “anniversary” which makes life easier for show and race management. All foals in a calendar year are considered to be the same age and are therefore placed in the same classes and show races.

This is a great way to organize a show list or race card, but it also means that a horse born on January 2 is the same official age as a horse born on December 31 of the same year, but the first will actually be a year old. in the new year, and the latter will be a newborn. Even foals born in the spring, between March and June, will be at a disadvantage when shown or raced against foals born in January or February. They will be months less mature and may not be ready to compete when their would-be age mates are already up and running.

While many breeds and types follow a chronological age and may breed their mares in the spring when they naturally come into heat, horse breeders with January’s “birthday” will do their best to produce foals as early as possible. . This means artificially inducing mares to ovulate in the winter when they would normally be in anestrus, keeping them under lights and possibly treating them with hormones to ensure they are ready to breed in early February, then hoping that they catch the first breeding and do not foal early. Breeders are praying that the mare due the first week of January will not decide to foal in December and therefore produce a week-old yearling on New Year’s Day.

Ideally, the mares will all give birth in late January, early February at the latest, giving birth in barns sheltered from the winter cold. Luckily, most foals are born with a thick, fluffy coat, and once they’re old enough to regulate their own temperature – within two or three days of birth – they’re good to go as long as the weather isn’t. is not too extreme. In the wild, after all, the March colt can encounter weather at least as cold as January. They are built to withstand it.

The best part of all this care and calculation – and God knows the expense – is the result. Each colt represents a dream and a hope, whether it’s stardom on the racetrack or in the show ring, or a long and happy future as a beloved companion. It is also a whole new living being, all in legs, stuffed animals and boingities, discovering the world as babies have done since time immemorial, and leaving their imprint on it.

It’s a breeder’s winter dream. A strong and healthy foal, above all. The rest will follow in its own way, in its own time, as spring follows winter, and the wheel turns again, year after year.

Judith Tarr has always been passionate about horses. She supports her habit by writing works of fantasy and science fiction as well as historical novels, many of which have been published as e-books. She wrote an introduction for writers who want to write about horses: Writing Horses: The Art of Doing It Right. She lives near Tucson, Arizona, with a herd of Lipizzaners, a host of cats, and a blue-eyed dog.


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