Any foal’s a goal; should I breed from my mare?

Some of you will currently own your horse-of-a-lifetime. If this is you, congratulations! You have the dream scenario of every equestrian.

This horse might have elevated you to a previously unfathomable level of competition. It could be a horse that you have carefully schooled from scratch, and you know each other inside out. It could be a horse that has an angelic temperament and is so talented that you can’t ever imagine finding and buying a horse like them again.

If this horse happens to be a mare, you have probably caught yourself wondering whether to breed a foal from her.

I found myself in the exact scenario with my top horse, Spooky Lee. When I bought her, I was 19 years old and looking for my next polocrosse pony. I saw a flashy five year old homebred with admirable bloodlines advertised by a horse trainer I knew well, and made an epic four hour journey to have a ride.

I arrived to see the beautiful, flashy black mare tied up in the yard. Next to her stood a scrawny young steed with a neck better suited to a giraffe that a potential equine athlete. Her ears were disproportionately large and speckled along her back were vast bald patches, remnants of the rain scald she had suffered from. The trainer mentioned the ugly duckling was called Spooky and thought it might be worth me trying her. A look of horror crossed my face.

I reluctantly clambered on and, despite my preconceptions, I couldn’t ignore the fact that we just clicked. She’d only recently been broken and she didn’t know much, but her talent was unmissable. Not only that, but I immediately understood her and she understood me. I bought her on the spot.

If you’ve sat on a horse for the first time and had an instant connection, you’ll know exactly how I felt.

My father nearly had a breakdown when I lead the bald young horse off the lorry claiming she was going to be the next big superstar, but eventually sighed and announced, “Well, you haven’t been wrong about a horse yet.”

Eleven years later and her colossal ears still brush the top of the stable door, but now they are the ears of a horse who is a champion in her discipline. Still not the most beautiful, admittedly. But handsome is as handsome does.

Ultimately, she proved me right- my gut feeling that she had the potential to be outstanding was bang on. We worked our way up the levels together, learning on the job and teaching each other valuable lessons along the way. On Spooky I made the UK polocrosse squads, travelling around the world competing for my country.

I owe my mare everything and she owes me nothing, except for giving her a chance when she was scrawny, quirky and no one else wanted to.

A few years ago, I suffered what I thought would be a career ending injury. I left the surgeon’s office in a rage of hot tears when I was told I probably wouldn’t play polocrosse again.

I had four horses who I sold one-by-one, but despite the substantial offers I’d had for her, I could not bear to sell Spooky. But she needed a job, and for years I’d toyed with the idea of having a foal from her. She was 11 years old and had many seasons of hard competition under her belt. She deserved some maternity leave.

I thought long and hard about whether it was the right thing to do. For me, for her.

I didn’t take the decision to breed a foal lightly – this was a life I was choosing to bring into the world, an enormous responsibility.

While I was making my decision, I asked myself the following brutal questions. If you’re contemplating breeding a foal, I suggest you consider them too.

  • I honestly believe you shouldn’t even consider breeding a foal unless you’re prepared to own them forever, or commit to doing the right thing by them. Do you have the means to own a horse for the next 30 years, even if they don’t turn out to be the horse you hoped they would? If they turn out nasty, what would you do? If they are unable to be ridden, what would you do? If the answer is to pass them on, please do not breed a foal. There are thousands of physically and mentally unsound horses doing the rounds- if you breed one of them, they are absolutely your responsibility.
  • Go to any sales yard and you’ll find a number of two and three year olds desperate for a good start. I am also a huge fan of [retraining ex-racehorses for a life off the track](blog/any-foal-s-a-goal-should-i-breed-from-my-mare/). Are you looking for a project? If so, this is a much better option than breeding a foal: you can vet the horse to make sure they’re fit for the job and you can check their temperament. You get none of these insights when breeding a foal.
  • Is your mare a top horse in her discipline? Is she unique in her ability or are her bloodlines exceptional? Does she have a wonderful temperament? If you answered no to any of these questions, why are you breeding from this particular mare? You are better buying a foal bred from a mare who ticks all these boxes instead.
  • Can you afford to breed a foal? It is an incredibly expensive game. Less of a game, more of a gamble. It’s like spending thousands of pounds on a lottery ticket with the slim chance of winning your dream horse. From stud feeds, to vet bills, scans, foaling costs, livery yard fees, feed, farrier... It is the equivalent of owning a horse plus thousands in vets bills and additional costs for years before they reach an age where you can ride them.
  • Do you have the experience to deal with a youngster? Because even though little is more gorgeous than a new born foal wobbling around the field, they start very cute then get very big, and very bolshie, very quickly.
  • Is this decision lead by your head, your heart, or both? This is key; be honest with yourself and be brutal. Is this the right mare? Is this the right time? Do you have the money? How many times will you try and get your mare in foal before you give up? Can you face the grim reality that there are so often complications with foaling? You could lose your mare? You could deliver a dead foal? Honestly, could you deal with that?

I sat with these thoughts for a long time before I made my decision to breed a foal.

Throughout my equestrian life, deciding to put a horse down and deciding to breed a foal are the two hardest decisions I have faced. These dilemmas are part of the enormous privilege of horse ownership: when to end a life, when to bring a new one into the world.

For me, as I had the means and I had the mare, I decided that breeding a foal was a responsibility I was ready for. I was excited, but I had no idea what lay ahead: the lessons I’d learn, the decisions I’d be forced to make, and the events that would ultimately change my life.

But first, it was time to choose a stallion.