(Originally published in the November 27, 2010 issue of The
Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and
the bottom of the column.)
When a hyper-profit motive intersects with animal welfare, a contradiction results. With regard to Thoroughbred racehorses, this statement is amplified during breeding season. In the past, a stallion’s book was limited to the 40 or so shareholders. Today a popular stallion may breed 300 times during a season. Some are then sent overseas for additional work. This schedule may generate an impression that breeding is a callous and greedy practice. The industry must remain sensitive to this perception.
A technology that can help address changing market dynamics is artificial insemination (AI), yet its practice is not permitted by The Jockey Club. The rule states that to be eligible for registration a Thoroughbred foal must result from a stallion physically mounting a mare with “intromission” of his reproductive organ. A portion of the sperm may be collected and placed immediately in the broodmare being bred. This is called “reinforced breeding,” which sounds incredibly similar to AI.
Why is the “natural cover” rule in place? This practice was a way to guarantee parentage. Also, bringing mares to the stallion generates additional income because a mare might board at the farm. This rule appears to have merit—at least in a bygone era. The 1970s saw a total North American foal crop of 280,315. In the 1980s the number increased to 463,827 and in the 1990s stood at 375,297. Physically mounting mares was, mathematically speaking, more practical four decades ago. Interestingly, in modern times 125 stallions help produce more than 40% of the annual foal crop.
Some assert the TJC rule is a way to control the market. Keen breeders used to recognize that managing the supply of stallion progeny could stimulate demand and higher prices at auction. Hardboots harangue the rule as a way the “haves” kept the “have nots” out of the upper echelon of the breeding world. Whatever the reasons, the health and welfare of the horse must remain in focus.
In Kentucky about seven out of 10 mares bred will produce foals. Veterinary experts contend this ratio could improve with AI. For example, what happens when several mares are ready to breed on the same day and that exceeds the physical limit of a stallion? This scenario represents lost income for the stallion syndicate, increased re-breeding costs, and missed opportunity for the mare owner.
Optimizing stallion and mare productivity is economically provocative. Take cases where semen from less-fertile stallions could be improved and then utilized. Horses with physical issues are excellent candidates, too. The rigors of racing, breeding, and disease cause handicaps that hamper efficient mounting. Wouldn’t it seem logical and ethical to help these horses via AI technique? The semen from one AI collection could provide three or four individual inseminations. Cutting a stallion’s workload by two-thirds would provide relief.
There are famous “shy” breeding stallions and AI could help promote their genetics. Lest we forget that aged mares with valuable pedigrees, physical issues, and breeding shed phobias may also be assisted. AI is a tool to help manage stress and promote a positive experience. These are modern-day cases where reproduction and technology create opportunity.
Recently contagious equine metritis (a sexually-transmitted disease) has spread in the United States. To the credit of the Thoroughbred industry, no cases have been reported. However, what if a mare or top stallion were infected? This would equate to a substantial economic and emotional loss. AI semen can be extended in special solution with antibiotic. This would virtually eliminate disease. Aside from STDs, the threats of equine influenza, strangles, and herpes virus are everyday concerns as scores of outside mares come into contact with stallions. With AI, the farm owner could require the mare be on the premises yet breed in a quarantined setting without direct stallion contact. While this would make Federico Tesio cringe, it creates a safe zone between the transient horses and the resident herd. Biosecurity became front-page news when influenza outbreaks occurred in Australia and Japan. This was probably initiated by foreign stock and biosecurity lapses.
Modern DNA typing would assure foal owners they got what they paid for. TJC could rest easy that AI registrations reflect reality, too. Overall, the benefits of AI technology, and supporting regulations, are worth further evaluation. Extending the longevity of breeding stock and increasing conception rates boost the bottom line. More importantly, AI will positively influence the health and well-being of the horses and their caretakers.