Fitness Routines for Breeding Stallions
Fitness Routines for Breeding Stallions
By Kate Bradley Byars
How does a stallion focused on breeding stay in good mental and physical shape? It comes down to following a routine with a consistent nutrition program, quality exercise and definitive job parameters.
“For a horse to have great semen, the nutritional program needs to be good and he needs to keep exercising,” says AQHA Professional Horseman Dewey Smith and stallion breeding manager. “A breeding stallion is asked to mount a (breeding) dummy three times a week. To do that, he needs to be physically fit.”
Many of the components are common sense, like good nutrition and physical activity, according to Dr. Margo Macpherson, a veterinarian and professor of large-animal reproduction at the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine in Gainesville, Florida.
“We advise keeping the animal fit and on a good nutrition plan as good health approaches,” she says. “While specifics get down to an animal-by-animal situation, what drives us veterinarians is common sense. Exercise, condition and routine are all important for a breeding stallion.”
Exercise and Turnout for Breeding Stallions
When a horse moves from performing to breeding, several factors should be weighed, including the current feed program and future routine. Physical activity and nutrition will directly impact a stallion’s reproductive attitude and ability.
First, consider the horse’s current routine and slowly adjust to the new lifestyle. It does no good to take a show horse from five or six workdays a week to none when the stallion is retired to breed. The horse is accustomed to regular work, and the people who manage the horse are used to the stallion behaving in a certain way, and that behavior has a lot to do with the amount of daily activity to which the horse is accustomed.
For former competitors like AQHA world champion halter stallion PF Premo were used to exercising daily before transitioning to the breeding shed. "Premo," Dewey says, was exercised 15 minutes daily at a trot or lope with a pony horse, and also walking 1 mile on an aquatic exercise system.
Today, Premo continues those activities, but not to the extreme he was worked as a show horse.
“We like him to think he’s still part of the team,” Dewey says. “He goes on the pony horse once or twice a week for five minutes. We use (an aquatic treadmill system) for about two-tenths of a mile with the water (level at) his knees. The water and the amount of pressure pumping against the bottom of the hoof helps with blood flow, keeps his muscles loose, and he stays limber.”
Dewey describes Premo as a mild-mannered horse, but after a long show career, the stallion can become agitated when he must stay in his stall. This is where exercise and turnout come into play. Premo is turned out daily to allow him to move around and release tension from breeding.
Dr. Macpherson says turnout and exercise are key to keeping a horse mentally sound.
“Any equine veterinarian would agree that having a horse turned out is much better than stalled. A young stallion, especially, needs to be exercised,” she says. “In our program here (at the University of Florida), part of the daily routine is turnout. Depending on heat and the time of year, they are turned out for two to eight hours. The horses have to have a chance to move around.”
Each horse’s routine is tailored to the nutrition and exercise that horse needs to maintain “breeding lean,” says Dr. Macpherson.
Show horses are ponied for exercise. When show horses retire, their exercise routines should be reduced – not removed completely. Turnout is also an option to keep a horse in good mental health.
Nutrition for Breeding Stallions
The second major consideration in a horse’s transition is the nutrition program.
“Stallions being used a lot in a breeding program tend to lose weight,” Dr. Macpherson says. “An increase in their nutrition plan needs to take place to accommodate that, and conversely, a stallion not in the breeding season should be backed off. There isn’t one recipe that fits all horses. What drives us as veterinarians is common sense. We don’t want an overweight or underweight animal.”
An overweight stallion that must rise up to mount the breeding dummy adds excess strain on its body. Dewey balances Premo’s diet with concentrated feed and then allows all-you-can-eat grazing of coastal and alfalfa hay.
Dr. Macpherson says that a body condition score range of 5 to 6 on a 9-point scale is optimum for a breeding stallion. (Read on horse body condition scores.)
“A body condition score of 7 is a little heavy. There are a lot of physical reasons being fleshy isn’t a good thing, like added pressure to the horse’s joints,” she says. “Being underweight causes other problems. The basis of all good equine diets, in my opinion, is a balanced feed and quality forage.”
The nutrition program is working when a stallion maintains good body condition while breeding. Alternately, the horse is receiving enough exercise when he is mentally sound and not overstimulated without a way to release that tension. Once the exercise and nutrition are set, it is best to keep the stallion in a consistent routine.
Changes in Stallion Routine
On a ranch or in a show arena, horse owners value a horse that “knows his job,” and that is also true for a breeding stallion. When testosterone flows, it’s expected for a stallion to become “bowed up,” but other times, he is expected to behave like a gentleman. Adhering to a routine sets expectations for the horse.
“Consistency in your program and making sure that horse knows when it is going to be brushed, worked or turned out, instead of going to breed, makes all the difference in the world,” Dewey says.
Varying a stallion’s expectation of what is coming next can be as simple as changing which halter is used to lead the horse. For Premo, a regular nylon halter means he is going to be turned out or worked. If he wears a halter with padding, the stallion has learned that he is headed to the breeding area.
A change in halters can set expectations for stallions. A nylon halter means it’s time for PF Premo to work.
According to Dr. Macpherson, stallions know what is expected based on learned behaviors.
“They are aware and accustomed to the routine of the breeding shed, but they are smart enough to separate their jobs,” she says.
This was the case when Dewey began breeding Premo while still showing the horse. Dewey says the stallion never acted “studdy” because Premo understood the difference in breeding time versus his normal routine.
Many successful stallions can separate performing from breeding, but Dr. Macpherson says that it can be a challenge.
“I will argue that it is better to have a separation of those two jobs because all too often we are asked to take a stallion and collect semen while working it into a busy show schedule,” she says. “From a logistical point of view, it is challenging. I advise our clients to schedule their semen freezing for the off-season.
It is better for the horse because he needs to put his energy into his performance activities, then if there is a downtime or off season, you can freeze semen at that time.”
Allowing the stallion to be a typical horse outside of breeding by participating in turnout and a physical fitness routine only helps the horse mentally. It takes planning, but with a good exercise program and quality nutrition plan, a stallion can seamlessly transition from the show pen to the breeding shed.
“It is like a top athlete who retires. If he exercises at all, he still looks fit. It is the same way with your halter horses,” Dewey says. “A good athlete always looks fit, especially when you feed him right.”
Read on for "How to Handle 8 Stallion Behavior Problems."
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