Responsible horse breeding

Mass versus selective breeding – we take a hard look at the ethical and financial aspects of the horse breeding industry.

Highly controversial and difficult to change, the horse breeding industry is sitting on a precipice between human freedoms and rights, and animal welfare. This article looks at the problems of overbreeding, and how selective horse breeding is less costly and more humane.

Let’s break down the argument that calls for mass breeding to get one good horse. To understand how top-quality foals are acquired, you start with a quality mare and stallion. Preferably, both parents must have a show or performance record, and the same applies to their parents and grandparents. Both have to be models of great conformation and type for their breed. Finally, both parents should have already produced quality foals that showcase the best of both parents. These are the minimum qualifications.

Given that the above requirements are sound and sensible, let’s now consider that overbreeding is argued to be necessary in order to get lucky, because that’s exactly what this is about. It can involve breeding 100 horses to get one perfect foal.

Think of a single farm stallion used in such a manner. That one lovely foal would not likely come from the stallion, since his inconsistency is obvious – he was bred to 100 mares with only one good foal. The odds are that his genetics and bloodlines are not high, considering he had 99 other chances and failed. If any of the mares he is bred with throws consistent, reasonable foals, breeders consider them keepers if their lineage and performance is significant.

But what about the other 99 mares? The genetics of each mare should be looked at individually to ensure a decent stallion match, both in DNA and bloodlines. However, it is unlikely that anyone breeding 100 to get one worth keeping has taken time to study the genetics of each mare to ensure a quality fit with the stallion.  But sadly, this is the questionable state of many non-professional breeding farms. This is where poor animal welfare exists – because the inevitable outcome to this style of horse management is poor performance, lack of sales and eventually slaughter, as cheap horses are expendable.

Below, I present a financial comparison of breeding 100 mares to one stallion, versus breeding one exceptional mare to outside stallions.

Cost of mass breeding vs. selective breeding

Breeding 100 mares to the same stallion

Round bale (1,200 lb @ $80*), 30 lbs per horse/day @100 horses = 3,000 lbs hay/day (2.5 bales x $80) = $200/day x 180 days = $36,000.00 (winter hay costs only).

Add vet bills, farrier and other expenses: approximately $40,000 minimum annual cost (including hay).

100 foals: 99 @ $750 average (cheaper sales and auction prices combined) = $74,250. Top weanling @ $3,000.

$74,250 + $3,000 (top weanling) = $77,250 revenue minus yearly costs of $40,000 = $37,250 annual profit (this does not cover the initial cost of the mares and stallion, as in the example below).

This figure of $37,250 CDN translates to approximately $47,307.50 US.

Selective breeding

Now let’s breed selectively for a top performance horse. We will use the Hanoverian (warmblood) as an example, along with the same hay costs.

Proven broodmare (with show record and top genetics, $30,000 avg. foal sale price): $40,000. Stud fee: $3,500. Shipping costs, annual care and feed: $2,000.

Foaling potential of mare: eight foals @ $30,000 = $240,000. Subtract costs (mare, care, fees over eight years: $10,500/year x 8) = $84,000. $240,000 – $84,000 = $156,000 revenue over eight yrs. ($19,500/year).

Given that mass breeders feed their own hay based on $36,000, add this to the Hanoverian annual revenue ($36,000 + $19,500) = $55,500 CDN ($70,485 US). You have only one horse to deal with, and you get hay sales. If you keep the foal and raise it to potential, you may see  higher profits.

*Costs are based on Canadian dollars

Preventing slaughter

The most pressing point here is that selective breeding keeps 99 of 100 horses out of slaughterhouses and away from cheap buyers who often cannot afford a horse long-term. Selective breeding also saves wear and tear on your time and energy. Other factors to consider with the 100-horse scenario include economics, recessions and feed price fluctuations. Here is where a single quality mare increases in value. You can sell great foals in poor economies easier than you can sell mediocre foals. During economic downturns, the average foal value can drop to meat prices of around $150.

Selective breeding keeps 99 of 100 horses out of slaughterhouses and away from cheap buyers who often cannot afford a horse long-term.

The ethics of breeding must be considered. Stallion owners need to be highly selective with the mares in order to maintain quality and pricing. They should be experts, turning down unsuitable mares. The standards in the registries must be tight as well (Germany currently leads the world for high standards).

Many other factors play a part in overbreeding. Tax breaks and incentives in the racing industry mean a proliferation of unwanted young horses that have little value if they cannot run. These youngsters end up going for meat long before they get a chance to be homed with a suitable family; they are pawns in an industry that favors greed and profit over life. The Quarter Horse Association record for quarter horses sent to auction, from where many are purchased for meat and shipped for slaughter, ranks the highest (51% of all quarter horses born end up at auctions, Freedom of Information Act, USA, 2004). In other words, for every two quarter horses born, one will be shipped to auction. Unfortunately, this is another multi-billion-dollar industry that may never change.

Horse rescues work tirelessly at acquiring funds to maintain unwanted horses until they find homes. These homes are not always in the horses’ best interests, regardless of the scrutiny given to buyers. Many come from auctions, the dumping ground for horses with imperfect conformation and temperaments. Rescue buyers with the ability to see quality are few and far between, and some rescues use horses for financial gain.

Irresponsible breeding of pasturing marginal mares and stallions, and the hoarding of horses, almost always ends up poorly for the animals. Breeding for color often clouds the judgment of the breeder, and this nullifies breeding up for better traits and increases the dumping of incorrectly-colored foals (called “cleansing”).

Many politicians are demanding the return of U.S. slaughterhouses, but this is not a fix for the problem; it’s only a way to keep horses away from Mexico’s horrendous slaughter techniques, or the long arduous haul to Canada. The consumption of horse meat, called hippophagy, has not waned; in fact, it has spawned a large number of breeders who rip two-month-old foals from their mothers and ship them to Japan. Some of these foals don’t live through the entire trip, due to the absence of water and feed.

Overpopulation encourages devaluation

I know one thing for sure: overpopulation encourages devaluation, which increases the problem. We have far too many horses and far too few good trainers. It takes years to become a good trainer; you need to have ridden hundreds of horses, done many hours of study, participated in and audited good clinics, and have a desire to be one of the best. For some reason, however, horses don’t always attract such quality people, at least not en masse. Horses have been mankind’s crutch since the industrial age, when they moved from a necessity to a luxury.

So, what can be done? I am not sure you can legislate responsibility. Whether you are at the height of racing, or own a backyard equine pet, the welfare of horses rests on every decision you make. I stare at my own Hanoverian mare and hay fields every day, and know my horse will always recognize the scent of the show ring over the stink of the slaughterhouse.