Article by Annie Lambert
Pasture breeding might not fit into just any equine program, but if the shoe fits it could be an economical option. While modern technological advances have overshadowed the practice of pasture breeding mares, stepping back toward natural breeding ideas can provide benefits for back-to-basics horsemen.
The technique of pasture breeding is fairly simple. A single stallion is turned out with a band of mares, which he inseminates via live cover as Mother Nature intended. While the practice seems incredibly simple, there are a few rules of thumb that ensure success and the safety of the livestock involved.
Arena or Pasture?
Trainer Benny Guitron, Merced, Calif., has bred a lot of horses in the pasture. Although he appreciates the advantages and has never had horses injured while pasture-breeding, it is a questionable option, he says, for wary mare owners.
“It is hard to sell to the public because you’ve got to put your mares together, let them get comfortable with the stud and leave them there,” Guitron states. “It doesn’t suit a lot of people in today’s deal because they’re still riding the mares and showing so they won’t take the time to get them accustomed to being in a band. Pasture-bred mares are usually broodmares, no longer show mares.
“You could take them out after they’re bred and leg them back up, but most people would rather ship semen, artificially inseminate or do the embryos so they can keep showing.”
After hand-breeding his stallion, Doctors Kit, for a year or two, Guitron found himself short on time and turned to pasture-breeding his own mares with great success. The Dry Doc stallion, out of Kit’s Smoke by Mr Gun Smoke, had 41 performers with nearly 1500 AQHA points, and total dollar earnings of $131,322 from AQHA, NRCHA and NRHA. Those figures and the demand for Lazy K horses should dispel any stigma that pasture breeding is not for producing quality animals.
“It worked well for me, but I don’t have a stud now, so I breed to outside horses and it can be a pain in the butt,” Guitron reminds. “I’ll find another stallion one of these days, one that I really believe in conformation wise and other ways. I’d go back to pasture-breeding in a New York minute. It is a good alternative.”
Sherry Knapp, of Lazy K Ranch in Chowchilla, Calif., says it is important to have good fencing and large enough pastures, to handle a stallion and his band of mares. Getting the mares’ pecking order lined out is handled before a stallion is added to the mix.
Once they have a band of mares organized the group is left alone in a field to adjust for three or four weeks before the stallion is added. Because their mares are used in the family’s various summer businesses, the Knapps don’t worry about early foaling dates and breed from late October through March. But the rules of pasture-breeding apply no matter what breeding dates are used.
Each of the seven or eight stallions at the Lazy K oversees 25 to 30 head of mares. With enough acreage one might perceive combining two stallions with their separate bands of mares. Knapp advises against it because, as in nature, the stronger stallion would eventually run the weaker off and steal his mares.
“You need enough mares to keep a young, aggressive stallion busy,” Knapp says. “Unless your stallion is older and pretty seasoned, a stallion is usually circling just a few mares and keeping them in a group, so they don’t get too spread out.”
Knapp also warns about trying to add a mare to the band once it is established. The only time they have successfully introduced a new mare, she was in full estrus.
“We knew the mare was in a good heat, we caught the stallion and had him live cover the mare in hand,” Knapp recalls. “The stallion then accepted her into the group. Otherwise, it is not doable with most stallions.”
Guitron agrees that it is best to keep the broodmare band segregated once it is established with a stallion.
“You don’t add or take away mares once you turn the stallion out until you’re done breeding,” Guitron says. “That’s the key. Taking mares in and out will make the stud mad and it upsets the mares. That’s what will get horses hurt. If those mares are comfortable with their own pecking order, there is no problem. I never had horses get hurt.”
Knapp went so far as to recommend moving the entire herd, even if just one mare needs to be doctored or check apart from the band.
“If you’re going to take a mare out for any reason and then add her back to the herd you need to sequence the event,” Knapp advises. “You’d better bring your stallion up and isolate him in a separate pen somewhere. Then pull the mare out to treat overnight or whatever. After you put the mare back out into the pasture and they have resettled, you return the stallion to his band.”
This might sound like a complex solution for a simple problem, but Knapp is adamant about not upsetting the pecking order.
Marilyn Mowry Bowling and her husband, Pete Bowling, own and operate Oasis Ranch, Inc., in Herald, Calif. The 80-acre, state of the art facility stood 10 stallions in 2009. Because non-resident mares come and go throughout the breeding season, they do not currently pasture breed. However, both Pete and Marilyn—who have foaled over 2,000 mares—have experience on the subject and see it as a good option under the right circumstances.
The Bowlings both warn about underestimating a stallion’s opinion of when a mare is ovulating and ready to breed. Mowry learned from her all-time favorite stallion, King Fritz Two, who died in 2003 at the age of 29.
King Fritz Two was a difficult horse to collect semen from and a tad finicky about which mares he’d cover, according to Mowry. Turning the stallion out with mares to pasture breed taught her more than all the books and classes she’d studied. While reading A Practical Field Guide to Horse Behavior: Equid Ethogram by Sue McDonnell, Ph.D., of the New Bolten Center at the University of Pennsylvania, Mowry realized she had learned those basics through observation and practical experience.
“I actually learned that [King Fritz Two] knew more than I realized,” Mowry says. “He really wasn’t finicky – the mares were just not ready to be bred; he was right even when the vets had miscalculated. I’d pasture breed again with the right horse and enough room.”
Knapp also speaks of the sixth sense her pasture-breeding stallions seem to have for pinpointing the ovulation time on mares in their bands.
“If several mares are cycling at the same time, a stallion seems to know, through smell and so forth, and will breed them at the optimum time,” Knapp explains. “Usually a stallion will not keep breeding the same mare even though she may be staying in heat. He’ll go and pick out another mare that is in heat.”
The Knapps try not to put very young stallions into a pasture situation, at least not until they are a little “mare savvy” and about 3-years-old. In the past, they have collected semen from their stallions for shipping once they have been removed from the pastures. They currently do not have the time to breed outside mares.
“Some people say you can’t pasture breed and hand breed,” Knapp remarks. “If the stallion is trained properly you can. If you are going to be hand breeding or collecting semen, the secret is to train the stallion for those jobs before turning him out to pasture breed. You let them know there are two ways to do this before he thinks he’s just a wild stallion out there.”
The broodmares can also teach stallions a few things about manners according to anyone experienced at pasture-breeding.
“If you have a young stallion that is studdy enough to interfere with his career,” Mowry says, “pasture-breed him and he will learn his manners.” “I have not seen a pasture bred stallion that did not have manners. We always made sure at least one mare was in heat and there were no foals when a stallion went into the pasture the first time. We have also turned out young stallions with in-foal mares just to let them teach him some manners.”
Normally, having mares foaling or foals already on their side is not a problem for the stallion, according to Knapp, even if the foal is by another stallion. Only very rarely does a stallion push around a foal. There can, however, be an occasional problem for the foals from other mares.
“At least once or twice a year we run into a maiden mare or empty [barren] mare that tries to steal a baby from the mother,” Knapp says. “That is why foaling season can be very intense; we watch the pastures very closely.”
When the stallions are turned in with the broodmare bands, the Lazy K is on somewhat of a red alert. Although their livestock is checked all year long by a full-time employee hired for that sole purpose, the pastures are checked repeatedly during the foaling and breeding season.
“We have to make sure the stallions are not hazing,” Knapp notes. “Once in awhile they’ll pick out a mare they don’t like and they’ll keep her out of the herd. When we see that the mare gets pulled out of the field. Most the stallions are easygoing, but some can be picky and reject certain mares.”
The watchperson makes rounds of the fields, supplementing hay where it is needed, watching for bagged up mares ready to foal, foaling problems, injuries and about anything that has gone or might go wrong—everything down to a foxtail in an eye.
“We watch these mares, even though they are in big fields, we go out on four-wheelers,” says Knapp. “They are not just kicked out and forgotten. Our horses represent a large investment. Some people think pasture-breeding means kicking them out and ignoring them; that is certainly not the situation in our operation.”
No matter how intensely the herds are watched in any pasture-breeding program, there are some breeding problems that might go undetected because the mares are not examined daily as they would be if they were being artificially inseminated. Lazy K’s program has involved AI-ing in the past, so Knapp is well aware of the pitfalls.
“When you AI, you can detect problems, flush them, breed them and do preventative treatments,” she acknowledges. “You are more intimate with the problems, you know if they are pooling, you know if they have a scarred cervix, you just know. When they are out pasture-breeding you don’t know those things, so it is easy to miss a year.”
Infection has never been a problem for the Knapps because they have a well-scrutinized, closed herd. No outside mares or stallions—those that might carry transmittable infections or disease—are ever introduced.
“Anybody in the horse business works hard,” Knapp says. “And like anything else in the horse industry, you have to do a lot of management.”
Balancing the scale between hand- and pasture-breeding comes down to economics. The uses of AI and embryo transfer techniques require intensive hands-on handling of both mares and stallions. Teasing, breeding, sonograms and other care are labor intensive. Pasture-breeding all but eliminates one-on-one contact with livestock during the foaling and breeding season, making it cost effective for those employing the practice.
“Pasture-breeding is an option if you have your own band of mares, your own stallion, you want to promote your own product and you believe in your breeding program,” Guitron says. “It is a long process you obligate yourself to, but if you have the type of mares and a stud that compliment each other, then it works real well.”