While the socialization process of transforming fillies and mares from racetrack careers into broodmares might be easier than it is for stallions, biologically it is significantly more complex for distaffers to begin their reproductive duties.
Though potential stallions are, with the exception of injured ones, retired on a firm schedule to be ready for the beginning of the breeding season in February, broodmare candidates are far more likely to be raced into the winter and spring and then retired to be bred. While oftentimes this leads to a quick pregnancy, it can also backfire, given the vagaries of the female cycling process as well as biological deficiencies that don't become apparent until mating is attempted.
Factors such as anabolic steroids, climate change, and lifestyle upheaval also can have a profound effect on efforts to successfully get a mare off the racetrack pregnant. Farms whose job it is to board mares and marshal them through their maiden voyage into motherhood must pay special attention to these young mothers-to-be.
As with stallions, there is a "letting down" period for fillies and mares coming off the racetrack in which their handlers attempt to get the aggressiveness and competitiveness out of their systems and acclimate them to life on a farm. Some farms prefer to turn the mare out in a small paddock immediately, while others keep them in stalls and hand-walk them for up to a week. Still others employ a series of increasingly larger round pens. All pull the hind shoes off when the mares arrive, and if the ground is good and it's not the middle of a winter freeze, most will either put regular plates on the front or attempt to get the front shoes off as well in the first month or two.
You have to unwind the ones coming straight off the track, said Ted Carr, longtime farm manager of what is now Gerald Ford's Diamond A Farm near Versailles, Ky., and before that Allen Paulson's Brookside Farm. "We use a round building for a couple of days and get all the buck and kick and fight and play out of them; get them settled down. The third day we round pen them for 15-20 minutes, tranquilize them, and put them in a paddock by themselves, increasing that time daily until they're acclimated to being out and eating grass. After a few weeks when they're settled in, we'll throw them in with a bunch of mares." Carr will supervise the boarding and breeding of just-retired grade/group I winner Noches De Rosa for Ford.
Unlike with stallions, farms seek to "buddy up" new mares, find them a friend or group of friends they can eventually hang out with in good-size paddocks.
"We'll wait a few days to put them in with other mares so they don't get kicked or kick something," noted Tim Thornton, farm manager at Airdrie Stud near Midway, Ky. "Once they get herd-bound, they're fine. We try to put the new ones in with gentle older mares. They might run a little bit, but the older mares will teach the new ones to be a broodmare instead of a racehorse."
"These mares remember how they were raised in fields with other horses," said Billy Tillery, farm manager at Hopewell Farm near Midway. "They really do remember. I took a mare out of her stall at the Keeneland sale recently to show her, and she looked at that racetrack like she was ready to race. So they naturally take to the field and the herd when they get back to it."
Tom Goncharoff, farm manager at Crystal Springs Farm near Paris, Ky., said he isolates and quarantines mares just off the racetrack "because at the track they're exposed to every bug there is. Those bugs can run through entire shedrows and can mutate and cause devastation in your broodmare band. Even if you vaccinate your mares, they can bring in a different strain."
Goncharoff noted that because there's an established pecking order in the broodmare herd, he prefers to pair up new mares before introducing them to the overall population. "A new horse is like a new kid in school," said Goncharoff. "You ease them into the group and keep an eye on them so they're not picked on."
If horse owners end up retiring their mares during breeding season, things can go considerably easier, since there is no transformation process.
"You're better off taking a mare right off the track and breeding her than you are trying to let her down for 30 days," said Brereton Jones, owner of Airdire Stud. "A lot of times they go through a body change and a rough period in winter. If you can bring one in while the weather's still warm, that's fine, but if not you're better off taking them out of training in February and right into the breeding shed than you are taking them out of training in December or January."
Garrett O'Rourke, farm manager at Juddmonte Farms near Lexington, said he's had problems mainly with mares arriving from California. "If they don't get in foal the first time, we're into March and they start to grow winter coats because they've been in cold weather then for two months. It often affects their cycle as well, and with a maiden mare you don't want to get into April with them not in foal. You're looking at her having a foal into May in the second year, and then you're needing to skip a year in their third year instead of the seventh or 10th year, like you'd want to with a young mare."
Mares can have a more difficult time adjusting to their new surroundings than their male counterparts. Dr. Walter Zent, a leading reproductive veterinarian employed by several high-profile Kentucky farms, said such difficulties usually don't amount to any long-term problems.
"This is a transition to a life they're not used to, and their metabolic system can turn itself inside out for a month or two," Zent said. "They don't gain weight, their hair coat looks bad, sometimes they go off feed. You can't usually find anything wrong with them other than the severe change in the routine.
"Usually the farm changes what it does with them and starts treating them more like a racemare and keeping them up a little more and turning them out with one other mare instead of in a group. We try to get them back to a routine they're used to and then wean them from there."
Most farms will cut back on a mare's food when she arrives as part of the letting down process, keeping them on a maintenance diet. Grass is considered one of the safest foods to get them on. "Come January, you want to increase their nutrition," said O'Rourke, who has taken in older filly or mare champion candidate Sightseek, along with group I winner Nebraska Tornado and group winner Phantom Wind this season. "You want them to be putting on weight and getting stronger with their organs functioning better, but you don't want to push them to colic and give them ulcers. Hopefully when you hit February everything's firing on all cylinders and they're cycling properly and feeling good."
Zent stated most maiden mares are fertile enough so that at least 80% of them can be expected to become pregnant on one cover in one heat period. He added, however, that some recently retired racemares take a while to get themselves into a reproductive state of mind. "Some may not cycle quite right immediately," he said. "It's not unlike human female athletes and sometimes their bodies are doing something else and they're not in the reproductive mode. Horses with small ovaries can take some time to get over that. We'll usually try to give them time to cycle properly, and if we think they need some help there are different drugs we can try, but with unpredictable success. Usually that's not necessary.
"It's amazing to me how many mares ship in off the track in, say, March and can be bred in the first four or five days. They'll be in heat and breedable very quickly, so we like to look at those right off the van. But if you miss that, it can take them a while to come back around again."
One problem with horses just off the track is the anabolic steroids they've been administered. "Behaviorally that can be a little tricky," noted Zent, "because they might not be very interested (in the reproductive cycle). They still have their flight shoes on. That becomes a matter of giving them time."
Jones said knowing the trainer who had the mare at the races is beneficial. "Some have been given things at the racetrack to make them more masculine-acting," Jones stated. "You have to know the trainers and some train more on the needle than others. If you get a mare from Bruce Headley you know it's been hay, oats, and water. If you get one from Joe Blow, it's a different story."
Beginning in December, farms bring their mares up at night and put them under lights to simulate the longer hours of springtime. This causes stimulation of the ovaries and hopefully an earlier and easier ovulating process. Mares that have raced overseas get cultures taken and are registered with the state veterinarian's office before breeding.
"You want to start to get to know your mare as soon as possible," said O'Rourke. "We'll have the vet palpate her, and if any of them are cycling we want to know sooner rather than later. You want to find out if their ovaries are normal before you buy a no-guarantee season to A.P. Indy or Storm Cat."
Another tool in bringing the maiden mare into her cycle is the teaser, a male horse who earns his keep by determining a mare's receptivity to accepting a stallion. Teasers are employed as early as November. "Right after the November (Keeneland mixed) sale, we'll start teasing some of the girls that are more used to the program," said Suzi Shoemaker, owner of Lantern Hill Farm near Versailles, where graded stakes winner and 2003 Illinois horse of the year Summer Mis is preparing for her broodmare career. "We don't let the teaser get too aggressive with them, but this is part of the learning process. They're socialized in a totally different way at the racetrack, and now the maiden mares have to realize they're horses again, and it's OK for another horse to come up to them.
"Kicking and bad behavior are motivated by fear, and they're natural reactions. The teaser is mellow and we try to let him work with the young mare over a teasing bar, getting her used to some of the rough stuff that can go on in the breeding shed. We try and work with them as much as we can to get them socialized."
"If you want to see what a mare's true temperament is like, come around when she's being teased," said Juddmonte's O'Rourke. "Flute is a young mare who is absolutely sweet and lovable, the nicest mare you could wish to be around. When she sees the teaser, that mare will turn wicked and tell him to get out of the county. There is definitely a relationship between racing ability and temperamental quirks. Lesser mares don't get bothered much. With the good ones, when you bring the fight to them, they'll take it back to you."
"A lot of them are vicious the first few times you tease, and some may stay vicious," said Carr. "We get them schooled with a stud horse, and usually they'll break down and start showing then. Most of them get into it good and normal if they're not jacked up on racetrack crap like steroids. Some need time. Some you have to pop with prostaglandin to get them started. They're all individuals and you have to play them as individuals."
"With maiden mares, you either have an easy time getting them in foal right away, or you're going to battle with them all breeding season," said Goncharoff. "That's the way it usually goes."
"You have to remember they haven't been encouraged to show estrus at the racetrack," noted Zent. "They haven't been exposed to stallions, and the teaser can be a scary fella the first time they see him. So it's a matter of educating them. Most farms are very good about taking their time with them, and the mares do fine."
Disclaimer: Seek the advice of a qualified veterinarian before proceeding with any diagnosis, treatment, or therapy.