Part of equine welfare is quality of life. News stories on the subject tend to focus on the welfare of racehorses at the track, and it's no surprise: these are the horses in the public eye. The welfare of Thoroughbreds in training is much more visible than it is for horses boarded at private farms, including broodmare farms. But less publicity does not make broodmare welfare any less important. If mare owners would make a few easy adjustments to their horse care routine, the average broodmare would benefit by a significant improvement in her quality of life.
Farriery: I'm always amazed at the lax schedule of hoof care at many "mare motels." The filly's foot was one of her trainer's primary concerns during her race career, picked daily or multiple times daily, slathered in hoof ointments, subject to strict scheduling for trims and re-shods, possibly even strengthened by special feed supplements. The same mare at the breeding farm might go three or four months between trims, and in the interim might be picked out only if she's showing signs of lameness or discomfort. Now, there's no doubt that the stresses placed on those hoofs are lessened once she's off the track. And a broodmare's feet naturally expand -- you know the "saucers" you've seen on older mares, especially if you've been stepped on a few times! But her feet act as shock absorbers, they grow out irregularly and cause her to stand and walk off-balance, they chip and crack if they grow too long -- and all of this serves as the literal foundation for a mare carrying the extra hundreds of pounds of a developing foal. The solution is simple: pick out your mares' hoofs daily. You'll find an imbedded pebble before it causes too much discomfort, you'll catch any abcesses early, and you'll see clearly when it's time to have the farrier out.
Pregnancy breaks: A mare that produces a foal for an absurdly long stretch -- 10 or 12 years in a row -- is a testament to the advances of modern veterinary and reproductive techniques. It's also an irresponsible practice in many cases. I'm not going to use this post to argue the merits of a planned barren year for all broodmares, but I will point out that some mares clearly need a year off to recuperate. If a mare is worn down, if she's producing smaller foals, if she's having trouble maintaining condition or keeping up with her frolicking foal, if she's not producing sufficient milk for her newborn all the way through weaning, her body is complaining that it's in stress and needs time to rebuild. Nature regularly settles the problem by avoiding pregnancy (poor follicle formation, lack of implantation, and early abortions). But as the owners and care providers, we need to eliminate the problem rather than have it resolved outside of our control. (Keep in mind that even a "year off" often translates to just a few short months. For example, a mare that foaled in mid-April and was then left barren this year will be suckling her foal through mid-October. As a barren mare, she'll be first in line at the breeding shed in February 2010 -- only four months after weaning her resource-depleting foal.) The solution here is to be responsible, evaluate every mare every year (and throughout the year), consult with your vet and determine if your mare would benefit from some time off of being a mommy.
- Training: The simple truth is: not all mares make the cut as broodmares. They have reproductive issues, their foals are conformational wrecks or slower than the average Clydesdale, they prove to be poor nurturers, or pregnancy just takes too much out of them physically. Some of these culls are passed around at regularly decreasing prices until they're at the lowest ranks of the sport, and when they've reached this phase the next step is rarely pleasant. The best scenario is to recognize early that the mare isn't making the grade with her foals, and have her start a new career outside of the breeding shed. Perhaps it's working as a hunter-jumper (was she athletic and a good turf horse during her time at the track?). Or as a dressage mount (does she have extraordinary balance and a temperament that relishes discipline?). Or maybe as a trail horse (is she level-headed and well-mannered?). The common element here is that she's going to be ridden in a style that is quite different from her time as a racehorse. You can make this transition a whole lot easier and help ensure that your mares will always be useful and wanted by giving them a little ongoing training. Let's clear up a few misperceptions. It is NOT forbidden to tack up and ride your broodmares for a good portion of their gestation. (In fact, the regular exercise might well cause her to produce a stronger foal.) It is NOT going to unduly stress her suckling foal if you ride in a safe pasture or a quiet arena with the foal alongside. (In fact, it's probably a good way to introduce the foal to experiences that won't seem so "scary" when he goes through them himself a couple of years in the future.) It is NOT unreasonable to continue teaching your mares good ground manners, or to pamper them with occasional carrots or mints, or to encourage them to enjoy being handled. (In fact, it might just save their lives one day. There are a lot of horses looking for homes, and the ones that find a good situation are generally horses that are friendly and can be put to use immediately.)
- Social life: I think at some point in elementary school every kid is exposed to the vocabulary word "gregarious," and it is usually accompanied by an illustration of horses as a company-loving animal. Unfortunately, we tend to forget that lesson somewhere along the way and think that a warm box stall in the winter is a nice treat. Or that a couple of months of separation in a private paddock are mandated for a mare and her new foal. The truth is, most horses would prefer to be in a small herd. The herd offers safety and comfort that just aren't possible in seclusion. This is an easy one: where possible -- and making sure that grass and space are ample to avoid territorial battles -- expose your mares and foals to herd life. A run-in shed probably works better than a stall for most conditions (rain, heat, cold) and allows the mares to move about, to interact and mutually groom, and to take advantage of any breaks in the weather to go out and steal a few bits of grazing.
- Retirement: At some point, the mare has given all she can give. Regularly evaluate your broodmares, work with your veterinarian, and determine ahead of time what is a reasonable age to pension a mare. If you're breeding her at 25 because you need one more foal to help the mare pay her way, you've got to ask yourself if you're really providing for the horse's welfare -- or instead putting her at risk unnecessarily because of poor planning. There's no magic cutoff age that is perfect for every situation, and many breeders pick an arbitrary number that is as low as 16 or 17 and as high as the mid-20s. Those are personal decisions but in every case the individual mare should be taken into account and relieved of duty when appropriate, even if she's younger than the preselected retirement age. Responsible breeders will have what amounts to a "retirement savings account" for their pensioned mares. Not every mare will have earned enough to pay for her pension years; it's your responsibility to make sure that funds are available even if she doesn't have "one last foal to get her out of the red."