Golden Oldies: Breeders share advice on managing older mares

Source: Text and Photos by Jennifer Horton

Julia Pezold

Your mare is sound and in great shape, has wonderful pedigree and a beautiful temperament. When do her breeding days end? While there are certainly special challenges that accompany getting an older mare in foal and maintaining that pregnancy, many breeders are doing it successfully.

Tony and Julia Pezold, of Ashland, Illinois, are small breeders building a successful program matching quality, producing mares to popular, proven sires for the Western Pleasure and all- around worlds. First and foremost, for Pezold, is good nutrition and care for her mares, who range in age up to 20 this year. They have used ICSI and embryo transfers with mares, as well as some of the girls carry their own foals.

“We feed Purina Strategy twice a day to my girls plus good alfalfa hay and grass hay free choice,” Julia said. “In the spring and summer months they are turned out daily on pasture for a few hours.

All the mares have free choice access to mineral/salt and the Pezolds have automatic horse waterers in the pasture with rural water.

“You want your mares a little fat, I think it’s better than a little thin,” Julia said. “They need to be in good flesh to be cycling normally.”

Pezold feels that if, as the mare gets older, she shows signs of a thyroid issues, you can pull blood and check them and put them on a thyroid powder on their feed to help them or a prescribed medication for that.”

“They mostly live outside and they have turnout sheds for protection,” she added. “I do have stalls for all of them and when we have bad weather we bring them inside.  I foal them inside.”

Pezold puts a special emphasis on preventative care and top maintenance to prolong their life and keep them healthy and happy.

“I think good nutrition, proper dental care, and a strict vaccination program are key,” she said.

All mares get Pneumabort shots at their third, fifth and ninth month of pregnancy, along with regular spring and fall vaccinations. This is in addition to their pre-foaling shots four to six weeks before foaling and boosters right before they foal. They deworm mares every other month, rotating dewormers, making sure they get it 30 days before they foal and the day they foal as well.

“All my broodmares have their feet trimmed every eight weeks,” she said. “I have a couple that require front shoes for comfort. We do each mare’s teeth two weeks after foaling.”

Proper after-foaling care is essential to the health and well-being of her mares, she said.

One of the Pezold mares, A Formal Duty, is 18 years old and continues to be a good, consistent breeder. She settles on the first breeding and she’s like clockwork. Another older mare, A Star Born Blazin, 20 this year, is carrying her own foal by Only In The Moonlite due this year.

Ms Scotch Times Two

Shes Surely Good, a Congress Champion Producer by Good Asset, is a 1998 mare that Pezold has used ICSI to breed to four different stallions, including frozen semen of Absolute Investment (1995-2013).

“She just doesn’t build embryos on her own,” Julia said. “We work with Dr. Foss of Equine Medical Services in Columbia, Missouri. He aspirates her eggs, we normally get four from her, and they are fertilized and then placed into a recipient mare.”

Pezold does have one mare that is a mystery to them.

“She’s not our oldest mare, she’s 17,” Julia said. “I purchased her in a sale a few years ago and she’s only had one foal for us. She has a huge cyst on one side, but Dr. Foss tells me that it’s not causing her infertility, but rather it’s an oviduct-related fertility issue. He’s going to perform a laparoscopic flank-approach procedure on her this year to flush the oviduct. It’s a minimally invasive technique.”

Brenda Lindvall, farm manager of Stauffer Farms in Barneveld, Wisconsin, takes very good care of all the Stauffer broodmares, who are mostly 5-10-year-old Hunter Under Saddle mares. The queens of the farm are their three remaining daughters of Scotch Bar Time, who are now 17, 20 and 21 years old.

“They’re the end of an era,” Lindvall said. “They might be the only ones left. They get anything and everything they want. We have nice pastures here. They live up closest to the barn. In addition to the good grass, they have grain and hay and we do supplement with a foal mineral – anything that might help their nutritional needs.”

With mares of any age, but especially older mares, Lindvall finds that good maintenance and care, with attention to nutrition, is key.

“Years ago, I bought a Silky Fox mare that was 23 or 24 years old. She was already bred, and in poor condition when I got her. The foal was born with severely contracted tendons and we ended up losing them both.”

That’s when Lindvall learned just how much nutrition plays into the health of the mares. Anything nutritionally that the mare lacks, she will pull from that fetus.

“As Scotch (Scotch Bar Time) aged, I learned a lot about nutrition and hormones too,” she added. “He actually got studdier as he got older, because his hormones changed.” Nutrition became an important component in keeping the stallion healthy and breeding in his older years.”

How Bout Next Time (also by Scotch Bar Time), the dam of the Stauffer stallion, Wait A Darn Minute, delivered her last foal when she was 24 years old.

“Her last foal was pretty small,” Brenda said. “That’s when we decided to stop breeding her. When you’re breeding for hunt seat horses, a small foal is not what you want, so I guess she was telling us it was time for her to be done.”

Ms Scotch Times Two is 21 years old. She is being bred to Living Large this year.

“She aborted last fall,” said Landfall. “I don’t think it was anything related to her age or her health, I think it was just something that happened. We’ve got her under lights now, hoping to breed her in February.”

Stauffer mares carry their own foals. Good maintenance and care ensure the mares stay healthy into their senior years.

“We did try flushing an embryo from one of the older mares, but her uterus got so loose after 15 babies, we put all that fluid in her to flush it out and couldn’t find the embryo,” Lindvall explained.

If a Stauffer mare has a rough time foaling, they may give that mare an off year before rebreeding her. But that’s not always an age issue.

“We haven’t had any issues with foal health or care with any of our older mares,” she said.

“We have a couple of mares who have been on Regu-Mate for the last couple of years,” she said. “We put them on it for 100 days after they are bred and then wean them off it.”

Lindvall says they may watch the older mares more closely through the winter.

“We have a mare who will drip milk in January. We put her on Regu-Mate until about 30 days from her foaling date and she’s fine.”

Attention to the individual mares is important for maintaining their care and breeding career. Lindvall says they haven’t had trouble breeding the older mares every year.

“We have one mare that we do not short cycle, and that’s because she short cycles herself,” she said. “That’s just her.”

Amy Gumz

Amy Gumz, of Gumz Farms in Morganfield, Kentucky, has a special appreciation for older mares in her broodmare band.

“I love working with older mares because that’s where I got the start to my breeding herd,” she said. “I would often buy older mares that many felt were beyond their prime because they were affordable. I had to put more work in it, but I often got multiple foals with great genetics that I would have been unable to afford.”

How old is too old to breed?

“I’m not sure I have a concrete answer on this,” Gumz said. “So much depends on the condition of the mare, reproductive efficiency and if she is in an embryo transfer or a carry program. My oldest mare to carry a foal safely was 28 years old. I have also done successful embryo transfers on mares the same age.”

However, Gumz cautions that success rates are lower with carry and ET (embryo transfer) programs at this advanced age.

“Mares are born with all of the eggs they will ever have,” she said. “So when we are breeding a 25-year-old mare, we are working with a 25-year-old egg,” she said.

As mares age, they naturally have less reproduction efficiency. Many may have conformation issues and traditionally decreased uterine clearance. Gumz advises that this can be managed, but that it may require more management and expense.

“Sadly, we don’t know that a mare is a proven producer until she reaches maybe age 12 or 13, or older,” she said. “So we are seeing more and more older mares entering into breeding programs.”

Older mares in a breeding program can require more management and often a higher quality and/or quantity of semen for successful breeding.

Gloin Around Slow

“I try not to use frozen semen on mares over 18 unless it is in an ICSI program,” Gumz said. “I find fresh or good quality cooled semen is the best for successful pregnancies in older mares.”

Gumz finds supplementing her breeding program with hormone therapy and possible surgical procedures, such as caslik or urethral extensions, may be beneficial to individual mares to successfully carry foals to term.

Kim Dean, of Kim Dean Stallion Marketing Services in Whitesboro, Texas recommends owners of older mares make sure their mares are ovulating when they are breeding them. Some mares will build a follicle but never ovulate. And if she doesn’t ovulate you’re not getting a foal. Dean offers years of experience in breeding mares.

“But I’m not a vet, so I’m going to say you need to follow your veterinarian’s recommendations,” she said.

Dean said they have several customers coming to them asking to breed 14 or 15-year-old mares for the first time.

“They’ve been show mares who were busy in a show career that have retired from showing so they are breeding them,” she said. “It used to be an old wives’ tale that you had to breed a mare before she turned 10 years old, but that’s not really the case.”

Dean suggests to mare owners getting ready to breed their open mares to get them under lights around November.

“I tell them to go to the darkest corner of the stall and if they can read a newspaper then there’s enough light for the mare,” she said.

Dean says it’s important to watch and document when the mare is cycling. Show mares who have been on Regu-Mate to control their heat cycles while they are showing often have irregular cycles when they quit showing. It’s important to know what you’re working with before you start breeding that mare.

Before breeding, have your vet check her uterine tone and culture test to make sure she’s clean.

“A dirty culture will not let her keep that foal,” Dean explained. “The bacteria will absorb the baby, so start clean. We don’t want to keep shipping semen if there’s an issue that way.”

Checking and monitoring the mare’s progesterone level can also help keep that bred mare in foal.

“We suggest putting the mare on Regu-Mate five days after she ovulates and then checking her levels at 16 days and again at 90 days. Regu-Mate won’t alter her test, so you’ll know if she needs to stay on it longer.”

The embryo transfer has become more cost effective in recent years. If a mare is a great producer, Dean encourages mare owners to take advantage of it and get as many foals as they can.

“I don’t want to sound like she’s a baby factory,” Dean said. “But that is her job, so do it.”

Sometimes mares who have been in an embryo transfer program for several years, producing multiple foals, will have start to have issues, simply from the intrusive nature of the embryo transfer process. That’s when it may be time, if the mare is healthy and in good condition, to allow her to carry her own foal.

Ann Luebbers, of Aplington Iowa, owns and stands Real Bonanza, APHA Leading Sire, along with a few other stallions for clients. She admits she has learned a lot over the years of breeding.

“Real is 27 years old this year,” Luebbers said. “Many of my mares I had bought to breed to him, so I have several old mares now.”

Frosted Brick, the dam of multiple World Champion Real Me In, was 18 years old when Leubbers bought her.

“She had two foals, but it had been 15 years since she had had a baby. I bought her and a daughter of hers and they both settled on the first breeding,” she said. “My older mares don’t owe me anything. Many of them I bought older because that’s when I could afford to get the better ones that had good show records.”

Luebbers lets the mares tell her when it’s time to stop.

“When they get to the point where maybe they have big knees or bad hips or legs, then you need to quit breeding them,” she said. “I have a 24-year-old daughter of Real who is now having some difficulty getting up and down, so this may be her last baby. She was still good last Spring when we bred her, but it’s tougher for her now.”

The Time Is Right

Located in the Midwest, Luebbers finds that the snow and ice of winter, and then mud of Spring, can make it difficult on older mares living outside. She’s careful with good feed and nutrition and dental care to keep them healthy. But she doesn’t treat older mares any different.

“I find that maybe especially in the older mares, Mother Nature takes over,” she sid. “We may use Regu-Mate or lights, but they seem to settle more in the months of April, May and June, like maybe their body says that’s when we are supposed to get pregnant.”

Luebbers said she believes it’s important to set the mare up to succeed. Older mares may have uterine issues, such as scarring or webbing, that develop with age and number of foals.

“When I get a mare in, especially an older mare, we have the vet to a reproductive ultrasound so we see if we are dealing with any issues there,” she said.

Tissue scarring and block the oviducts and prevent semen from getting to that egg. The quality or quantity of semen won’t matter if it can’t reach its intended target. Luebbers prepares the uterus by using oxytocin prior to breeding.

“I administer oxytocin about four hours prior to breeding,” she said. “The hormone causes the uterus to contract and that helps kick out any fluid or debris that could be there.”

She collects the stallions around noon so she’s breeding mares between 1-2 p.m.

“In the evening after breeding, I will give another oxytocin shot, after the sperm has had time to move out of the uterus, to expel any fluid still there,” she said.

Luebbers prefers to do the infusion before the breeding rather than after.

“I don’t like to disturb that uterus, particularly in older mares, after breeding them,” she said. “I don’t want to risk a slow-moving pregnancy since certain drugs may have ingredients that will kill the sperm. If you do anything after breeding, you have to let the sperm get through the uterus.”

Luebbers wants to be there when her mares foal, just in case they need assistance, and just for her peace of mind that the foals have arrived safely. She monitors them personally and with the security cameras to keep a watchful eye.  Anyone who’s waited on a mare to foal knows that they don’t always cooperate and seem to prefer foaling alone, often in the middle of the night.

“I had a blind mare who would not foal without me there,” Luebbers said. “Ariel had 18 foals for me. She had been born with moon blindness in one eye and lost the vision in her other eye before her first baby was born. She would foal at any time during the day, but she wanted me there.”

Luebbers recalls a time when she was away from home running errands in the middle of the day when she got a call that Ariel was pacing, getting up and down and sweating a lot. She was 40 minutes from home but got there as quick as she could to find the mare in full labor.

“I walked up to her, spoke to her and touched her face,” Luebbers explained. “She laid down and had her baby right then.”

Experienced breeders insist that the key to keeping your older mares healthy and producing is not much different than younger mares. Proper nutrition, care management and attention to detail are all important factors in keeping your mares going.

While there are some issues that arise with age, the best thing you can do for your mares, and foals, is to take good care of them and work with a good, experienced veterinarian who can help you solve problems if they do come up.


Source: Photos courtesy Kelly Barnes

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