Whatever the state of the national and world economies at large, it appears that the Thoroughbred breeding industry is still quite a distance from seeing any light at the end of our sport's tunnel of recession. We experienced a rare and significant drop in the number of mares bred in 2009, and it's hardly a secret that prospects for the 2010 breeding season appear even more dire. Even with historic cuts in stud fee -- stud farms are fooling themselves if they think they can get away with a mere 20% reduction this year -- we're going to have fewer owners wanting or able to send their full band of mares to the breeding shed. Culling will be the new driving force for most breeders at the middle and upper levels; no longer will they think it's a worthwhile risk to send a borderline mare to a good stallion and hope for the best. At the lower ranks of the sport, many breeders are trying to figure out what to do with unsold weanlings and yearlings, and will reconsider the wisdom of adding to their problems by breeding another crop of foals.
Culling might be an easy (and necessary) decision to make, but the act of doing is more difficult. Dispersing of unwanted mares isn't as straightforward a task as it once was, because the market for all horses, and especially unrideable ones, has shrunk with the economic downturn. I look to the fall breeding stock sales and wonder whether the outs, RNAs, and no-bids will continue to skyrocket despite anticipated decreases in the number of hips offered. Keeneland's November sale topped 5,700 hips last year; it will be around 4,700 in 2009. I've got to think that most of the 1,000-horse difference is lower-level mares and weanlings; their owners decided to avoid investing entry fees in bloodstock that had little hope for profit. That's a lot of horses that won't go through the ring... but what will become of them? And many of the mares and weanlings that are entered in mixed sales in October and November and December will fail to inspire even an opening bid that would give them a new home... what are their immediate prospects? What happens to the thousands and thousands of Thoroughbred mares whose "value" depended on their ability to produce a new foal each spring -- a service that they won't be asked to perform this year?
The equation is pretty clear: Lots of mares removed from breeding careers, plus high upkeep costs to get a mare through another year, minus any hope of income or profit, equals broodmares at risk.
As we all come to another weekend, I'd like to ask you to stop and consider this situation. The Thoroughbred industry is approaching winter with a glut of mares -- both open and bred -- that have little or no commercial value, and poor prospects for improvement. An owner's iinability to sell his horses, coupled with financial inability to provide appropriate feed and care, can quickly move "at-risk" horses to "rescue" horses. What can we do, as individuals and as an industry, to ensure that we avoid news headlines about dozens of horses starved at breeding farms? How can we reroute younger and sound mares to new careers outside of breeding? What can we do to match up older or infirm ex-broodmares to new, stable homes as pasture ornaments and companion equines?