There's no question that there are some unpleasant aspects of the Thoroughbred world. Breakdowns and drugs are getting headlines these days (and let's hope that the attention results in some positive changes). Stories about slaughter and abuse receive a lot of attention. Another sometimes-ugly part of the racing industry -- one that doesn't appear in the spotlight quite as often -- is on the breeding end.
Last week, I published what I intended to be a sort of "feel-good" post about a successful racehorse that was produced from an older mare. My story opened a floodgate of reader comments and emails -- many of which are published with the original article -- that concentrated on the backstory of older mares and the breeding industry.
So, what are the problems?
1. Well, let's start with breeding older mares, since that was directly pulled from the Archipenko story. How old is too old? Is it cruel to breed older mares? Would only a fool breed a mare whose first few foals weren't huge successes?
I think age 20 is a good rule of thumb for when to pension a broodmare. Some health or physical conditions might bring that down to 15 or 16 for certain horses. Other mares -- especially solid, stout individuals that have had several unbred/barren years -- are fine to breed up to even 22 years old.
Looking at it from a slightly different perspective: I'd pretty much draw the line at about a dozen foals from any given mare -- but that's a personal preference. I like to give my mares off at least every third year, and in some cases every other year, so it's unlikely that I'll ever see more than eight to 10 foals out of a single mare in her full breeding career. (And that assumes I have her from the start of her career and she produces foals of high enough quality to continue breeding her.)
That said... we don't always start out with fresh young broodmares. For the most part, well-bred mares tend to be prohibitively expensive. Small breeders wanting blue-blooded mares often have two choices:
Buy a "failed" broodmare at age 12-15 -- one that has received multiple opportunities with good stallions but hasn't produced a "big horse."
Find a mare that has had good offspring but that -- for whatever reason -- is now a hard breeder and is nearing the end of her reproductive years. Maybe she's been barren two years in a row and her owner is ready to cut his losses, so he enters her in a sale as an open 18-year-old.
Small breeders sometimes can spend the time with an individual mare to increase her chances -- while larger operations aren't set up to do so. A smaller breeder brings other factors into the mix as well -- often including a new set of bloodlines that might cross better with the mare's pedigree than the (higher-priced) stallions she had met previously.
As for whether it's fair to keep broodmares producing as they get older... I think that mares are biologically driven to want to raise foals. I've seen tired, bored old mares perk up when tasked with raising a new little one. Responsible and caring breeders can tell when one of their mares is mentally ready to retire -- and when that knowledge is added to veterinary examination for reproductive soundness, the best interest of the mare can be discerned.
2. And how about pensioning these mares? Do most farms really allow their best producers to literally breed to death? Do broodmares ever live a comfortable retirement? Can they be repurposed?
Unfortunately, "died due to complications of foaling" is a catch phrase used far too often in industry publications. Sure, many of these complications are unavoidable. True horsemen who love their horses deal with such tragedy every foaling season. And undomesticated and feral horse herds experience high incidences of mare deaths during parturition. Sad, but it is a reality of equine reproduction that procreation is not without risk.
What is worrisome is that there are farms that push their mares beyond a reasonable expectation of health and reproductive soundness, intent to get from her all that she can give. In those cases, mares are bred beyond what their bodies can tolerate. Occasionally, something gives, and with horses -- great big fragile machines that they are -- recovery often isn't possible. It's much more than a failure of the mare's body... it's truly a failure of her guardian and caregiver to recognize that the mare has had enough and deserves to be retired.
The cold economic reality is that pensioning a broodmare is not cheap. She might go on to live another five or 10 years, or even longer, beyond her last foal. She's stopped contributing to the farm's income, but continues to require feed, handling, veterinary care, and farriery, none of which become less expensive as she ages. Breeders must plan ahead and prepare for each mare's eventual retirement. The two best options are:
Start an individual retirement account for each mare. If you raced her, contribute a percentage of her on-track earnings every time she's raced. If you sell her foals, set aside a percentage of each sale. If you raise and race her foals, channel part of their winnings to the mare's retirement fund.
Train broodmares to be ready for a new career. If breeders would spend time over the +/- 15-year breeding career of each mare teaching her to ride or drive, she could become a pleasure mount, a trail or carriage horse, or a child's schooling horse. Not only would the exercise be good during her years of carrying foals, but it would give the mare a sense of purpose in her later years. A horse that can be ridden is always more likely to find a new home than a "pasture ornament." Another potential new use for older mares is "nanny" for weanlings and yearlings. You've already spent time and energy teaching these mares the farm routine -- why not let them help instruct the next generation?