Written by: Andrea Pietrzak
Tips for transitioning a racing stallion to stud service.
Standing a stallion at stud can be a tempting idea. The prospect of collecting years of steady and possibly lucrative stud fees is undeniably alluring for many racehorse owners. However, there’s a world of difference between standing a stallion and being successful at standing a stallion. This means that, for owners, the decision to transition a racing stallion into a stud requires careful and adequate preparation.
Breeding soundness and health
It is advisable for a newly-retired racing stallion to arrive at breeding facility at least 90 days before breeding.
Although stallions are often treated as a class of animal unto themselves, a stallion is horse like any other. As a herd animal, stallions need the company or close proximity of other horses and respond to a pecking order. As a prey animal, stallions thrive on quiet consistency, react to anger and aggression, and will fight when threatened. Consequently, a young stallion will often experience a drop in weight and a decrease in sexual behaviour, and other aspects of reproductive functions, in response to the stress of a new environment. They are also likely to develop stress-related behavioural ticks like pawing or weaving and can readily develop gastric ulcers.
Studies also show that young stallions – even when not turned out near other stallions – stop sexual behaviours and show a reduction in overall sperm count when housed in the same facility as older breeding stallions. This is likely a response to both hormone production levels in the older stallions and pecking order behaviour cues.
Often a three-month period of turn-out, housing with other young stallions, as well as exposure to mares in controlled situations like teasing or within visual range of turnout pastures, will bring about an increase in sperm production. If anabolic steroids have been used during a stallion’s racing career it can take as long as six months to re-establish normal fertility levels.
During this period, a stallion should be evaluated for any racing-related injuries to the muscles and skeletal structure of the hind legs, back and feet that might make covering a mare painful or risky. All health and injury records from a stallion’s racing career should be forwarded to the veterinarian involved with the stallion’s stud services.
Tests should also be conducted for any if thyroid problems are suspected, or there is the possibility of exposure to infectious diseases that are known to cause infertility. If a stallion’s health records warrant it, bloodwork and swabs can be taken for Equine Arteritis Virus (EAV) and Contagious Equine Metritis (CEM). EAV is known to affect reproduction in stallions and mares, and typically causes abortion in mares after the third month of gestation. CEM is a venereal disease carried by stallions and that causes infertility in mares.
A breeding soundness examination (BSE) will be needed prior to breeding. A BSE involves a physical examination of the stallion’s external reproductive organs, as well as a check of the prostate and sex glands through rectal palpation. The physical exam should also include a check for inguinal hernias and testicular torsion. As painful as it sounds, it is not uncommon for racing colts to have a 180-degree torsion, or twist, of one testis. Usually, the torsion has no clinical significance in healthy stallions but can sometimes cause an understandable decrease in sperm count numbers.
A complete BSE will test the quality of the semen produced in at least two ejaculates collected one hour apart. Both ejaculates will be examined for the number of sperm per millilitre, the number of live sperm present, the number of motile sperm, and sperm morphology. To be considered fertile, a stallion needs to produce two ejaculates within one hour that contain a minimum of 60 per cent live and motile sperm.
A newly-retired racing stallion that fails to produce a sufficient BSE sperm count may need extra time to clear steroids or other drugs from his system and should be retested after a further three months of rest.
Behaviour and good handling
The expectation that all stallions should be able to immediately do “what comes naturally” is a bit of a fallacy. Not all racehorses can go from the track to the breeding shed without some training. At the very least, professional handling will be needed to make the transition smooth and safe for horse and humans.
It is important to alert breeding farm staff to past aggressive incidents, vices and general temperament and demeanour.
Generally, most racing stallions are reprimanded for exhibiting sexual interest in mares during their career, which is understandable since a distracted horse not only races poorly but can be dangerous. Depending on their inherent personality, stallions typically respond to those reprimands aggressively or passively.
For naturally-aggressive stallions, discipline for sexual behaviour frequently results in frustration which can trigger hyper-aggressive and over-eager behaviour in the breeding shed. Behaviours like charging a mare, biting, kicking, striking, rearing, dragging a handler or pinning a handler are dangerous and should be addressed by breeding farm staff during the three to six-month transition period from racehorse to stud.
More passive stallion personalities can also exhibit over-eager breeding behaviour but, in some cases, can become very shy or reluctant breeders. For example, some stallions will show no signs of sexual behaviour at all if the discipline they received was physically painful. Likewise, some stallions are acutely sensitive to mare’s behaviour and will simply not cover a mare that isn’t about to ovulate or will need quiet handling (and mares) to gain confidence.
Again, breeding farm staff should be able to address these issues during a stallion’s transition period.
Occasionally, owners want to make a winning racehorse available for breeding in the middle of a racing season. This allows a stallion to hit the breeding market while he is at the peak of his athleticism and popularity.
This kind of double duty does have drawbacks. First, it can be difficult to schedule breeding duties around racing schedules and vice versa. Second, and more importantly, it can be extremely difficult to maintain a stud’s athletic focus and physique. It is best to consult with your trainer before opting to breed a racing stallion.
Before a stallion hangs up the racing silks entirely, owners need to do some serious number crunching. It is important to determine what price range the market is realistically willing to pay for a particular stallion’s pedigree and performance record.
Although some studs generate millions of dollars annually in breeding fees, not all thoroughbred stallions become millionaires in the breeding shed. For example, of the 4,514 stallions currently listed on www.bloodhorse.com’s stallion register, roughly one-third stand for fees of less than $3,000 US.
Given the average number of mare bookings for all 4,514 thoroughbred stallions on the register is 35 per year, one-third of the studs currently being advertised in North America make less than $135,000 annually. That seems like a positive sum, but a stud’s profit margin can be significantly diminished by: multiple ownership or syndicate profit sharing; annual vaccinations and health exams; daily feed, board or turnout expenses; breeding facility maintenance and personnel salaries; advertising; scheduling; communication, and; licensing and breeding contracts.
When determining the cost/benefit balance of standing a stud, stallion owners should also consider the effect a breeding fee can have on the quality of future offspring.
Some stallion owners set a high breeding fee as a way of limiting the number of mares a new stallion services. Producing a small number of foals does have a marketing advantage and, typically, the quality of mares bred to stallions with higher stud fees is better than average.
Lower introductory breeding fees usually increase overall breeding income – at least initially. Low stud fees will generally reduce the average quality of foals, and too many mediocre or lower quality foals in a stud’s first season will often put downward pressure on stud fees in subsequent years.
Location, location, location
Keeping a stallion on a small or private farm can be relatively inexpensive in terms of daily upkeep, but costly and hectic when it comes to maintaining a safe and reliable breeding facility. Usually, small or private breeding operations rely on owners to handle advertising and breeding schedules. Larger breeding farms will take more, or all, of the workload but will charge accordingly.
Regardless of their size, when choosing a stud farm locale should be taken into consideration since geography can affect perceptions of a stud’s quality. Obviously, a stud farm in Kentucky offers a stallion more cache than, let’s say, a stud farm in Alaska. Similarly, a stud farm that houses Grade 1 winners will bring in more monied mare owner traffic than a stable of Grade 3 winners. It isn’t necessary to house a stud in palatial splendour, but ‘better digs bring better prices.’
Furthermore, it is best to survey the locales of close blood relatives. Standing a stallion in close proximity to full or half-brothers, or to your stallion’s own sire can either be a blessing or a curse. If the market is over-saturated by stallions with similar bloodlines to your own, it would be more profitable to move farther afield. If, however, your stallion’s sire or siblings are in high demand then it may be more cost-effective to stay put and offer mare owners a newer version of a popular product.
Trust and communication are crucial in any business and that includes horse breeding. Before sending your stallion to any breeding farm, wherever you decide to stand your stud, it is important to be clear and up-front with farm management about your expectations regarding everything from stud fees to health reports, and itemized invoices.
Do you want to review mare pedigrees before breeding? Is it a certain number of breedings you need this season to break even? Are you offering discounted breeding fees for mares belonging to friends? Do you have mares of yours you want added to the roster? Do you expect to drop by for a visit at any time? Are the important investors heading to the farm to see your stallion?