The Breeding Diaries: Hurry Up and Wait

Secret and I at a jumper/cross-country derby.
Secret and I at a charity jumper/cross-country derby.

By Meghan Blackburn

When you’re deciding to breed your mare, you’ve got a few things (besides the health of your horse) that you need to decide. Here are some that I had to make:

  1. Is your mare of breeding age?
  2. When are you/or is your mare prepared to commit to the breeding program?
  3. What vet will you choose?
  4. To whom will you breed her?

Like I admitted in my first blog, I’ve been ready to breed “my mare” a while; however, the mare has changed. I decided to wait until the spring to breed Secret, who is just 12. In Kentucky, vets that specialize in reproduction are very, very busy right from the beginning of the year, with all the Thoroughbred farms. In the Thoroughbred industry, the earlier in the year that a foal is born, the better, as all babies born within a year automatically turn into a yearling, 2-year-old, 3-year-old, etc., on January 1 of the following year. Babies born in January or February (i.e. mares bred in February or March) have an advantage in age and usually size coming into their first year. Because of this, many Thoroughbred breeders might speed up the mare’s cycles by leaving lights on in her stall before daylight savings time sets in (it helps to “trick” her body into thinking it’s spring!) and/or administering medications to hasten the onset of the mare’s natural breeding season.

That’s not really the case with warmbloods; there’s not a race against the clock. For me, it’s just important for Secret to be ready. I decided to allow her to naturally come into regular estrus cycles without any lighting changes. Estrus is the stage of the mare’s reproductive cycle when her follicle that will ovulate enlarges (about 4 centimeters) and “bursts” (in Meghan speak) or ovulates (in correct vet talk) releasing an egg. This period, estrus, usually lasts 4-7 days and the mare is receptive to a stallion for mating. I am a mare woman; I prefer them, if I have the chance to choose. But any of my fellow pro-mare people also realize how tough it is to have a mare in regular work (not to mention showing) when she’s in heat. The stage when a mare has ovulated and has high progesterone and rejects the stallion lasts about 14 days and is called diestrus.

When your mare comes into regular estrus is the time when your [reproductive] vet comes in. I’ve chosen Dr. Maria Schnobrich from Rood & Riddle in Lexington. Someone that I know recommended her, and I am so glad she did. Dr. Schnobrich is simply awesome. She is personable, patient, and you can tell that she really loves her job. She has a great team too, and even though the visits aren’t super comfortable for Secret, she’s not holding a grudge because they talk to her nicely (and give her plenty of peppermints). She is also so fantastic that she is spread pretty thinly during this time of year, so occasionally I’ll work with another one of the clinic’s repro vets, Dr. Lauren Groppi. I’m so happy to have both of them in our lives!

Secret awaiting a visit from Dr. Schnobrich.
Secret awaiting a visit from Dr. Schnobrich.

The first time Dr. Schnobrich came out, she palpated Secret and did an ultrasound to see what her reproductive tract (ovaries, uterus and cervix) looked like; Secret’s looked A-OK, but the ultrasound revealed that she was just in the early stages of coming in heat. They could see a few follicles, but none that were very big—which is what you’re looking for to know your mare is close to ovulation. Dr. Schnobrich told me she considered Secret to be transitional—as there was no evidence that she had had her first ovulation of the season. Secret was also taking her time to come into full heat. 

The next two appointments were about the same. Not yet, not yet. However, by the fourth, Secret had a 36-millimeter follicle (on her right ovary), which as told to me by my super intelligent breeding team, is good news! That time, they took a culture of the uterine lining, to be sure that she wasn’t harboring any bacterial infection that would make establishing and holding a pregnancy more difficult. In the cases where the culture isn’t clean, they will treat the infection with antibiotics, and start over again. Luckily, ours was clean.

Dr. Schnobrich wants to observe an ovulation before breeding, as often the first ovulation of the year does not ovulate in a timely manner. This can cause contamination if the mare is bred multiple times when trying to breed near ovulation time, so she was obviously looking out for my sweet horse’s best interest.

The plan was to see an ovulation and then “short-cycle” Secret, which is giving her an IM shot of prostaglandin that artificially shortens diestrus, and brings the mare back into heat early. When the RR team came to check Secret the appointment after we saw the big follicle, we were hoping that it would be gone (meaning that she had ovulated). When the egg passes from the follicle, it kind of goes, ‘poof,’ and it’s not there anymore. It leaves evidence in its wake for the vets to see that the mare has actually ovulated (the evidence is called the corpus luteum or “CL”). However, the ultrasound showed that she was still hanging on to it. So, Dr. Schnobrich gave her a shot of hCG (human chorionic gonadotropin), a hormone that helps induce ovulation. Normally after a horse gets that shot, they will ovulate within 2 days.

On April 11, Secret was again evaluated, and it showed that she had ovulated! Hooray! Then, today, April 15, Dr. Groppi gave her the shot to short cycle her. Dr. Schnobrich will retur early Monday morning to check her status on coming back into heat. This will tell us what day (next week!) that we can perform artificial insemination.

Who’s the Daddy?

IMG_2848I’ve had my eye on a young stallion for a couple of year. He has presence, talent (proven show record—not just my bias), and is absolutely adorable. Secret is a jumper; it’s in her blood, and I wanted to breed for a jumper in hopes that in a few years I could do the Young Jumper Championships with the foal.

When I approached the Flury family about breeding Secret to their stallion, Carrasca Z (Asca Z—Carraleena, by Calato), they were welcoming and hospitable. I’d worked with Taylor, who rides and shows “Hank,” for a few years at another publication, and I knew how scrupulously she trains each of her horses to be not only successful competitors, but respectful horses as well. As much as I am looking for ability to be passed along to the baby, I’m also keen on doing all I can to breed for a kind-hearted horse too.

Adorable!
Adorable!

Janet, owner of AliBoo Farm in Minooka, Ill., and Taylor’s mom, told me about their search for an Asca Z foal, and how Hank joined their family. Hank is named after Janet’s father, Hank. Carrasca Z has shown flair and consistency this season as a 6-Year-Old in the Young Jumper series.

But arguably the coolest thing (and when I felt this whole decision came full circle) was that when I told Dr. Schnobrich who I was breeding Secret to, she did a double take. “Taylor’s horse? I know him!’” she said. It turns out that the Flurys bring their young stallions to Rood and Riddle to train them in the breeding shed. She gave me a glowing recommendation.

This is such an exciting endeavor for me! And a huge learning experience. Although I have more than 20 years of hands-on horse experience—caring for my own, riding multiple disciplines, and learning from professionals around the world, I have never been through the breeding process, and if you can believe, I’ve still never seen a live birth.

IMG_3271

Each appointment with Dr. Schnobrich is like a lesson. I love learning, and I welcome new knowledge about anything out there—not just horses; but in this case, I’m soaking up all that I can in hopes that I’ll be an intelligent breeder after we see this to the end.