Horse Racing: Breeding by the Numbers

In the Shed

Only a small percentage of stallions (2%) who are valued for their performance on the track and “refined” gene pools are judged eligible for breeding. In contrast about 52% of the mares go on to become broodmares. Modern Thoroughbred breeding can be likened to a production line that spews out an ever increasing number of inherently weakened horses as a result of the incessant inbreeding that has occurred over time.


Most stallions who go to stud these days are young and have only raced a scant number of races during their career. Racing at the tender age of two when their bone structures have barely begun to mature they are prepped for races such as the prestigious 3YO Triple Crown where they are forced to extremes and where profits exceed the value of their structural maturity.

This merciless ritual places undue stress on immature statures which typically require 5 years of development to reach the adult stage. The underlying principle is simply a business proposition – retire an expensive yearling early, before they have the prospect of breakdown on the track as a consequence of inbreeding, drugs and the like.

In truth, breeding stallions are fundamentally robots – oppressed slaves of an industry whose only objective is unremitting manufacture of semen. Decades ago the typical number of mares a stallion might cover per annum was in the range of 40 to 50; during the explosion in breeding numbers in the 80’ and 90’s this number escalated to 150 to 160 and in today’s realm of the breeding shed covering as many as 200 mares is not uncommon.

For instance, the two leading breeding stallions in North America – Giant’s Causeway and Medaglia d’Oro – each covered 194 mares during the 2009 breeding season while Encosta de Laco, a grandson of Northern Dancer, covered a record 240 mares in 2005. During the peak of the breeding season, stallions may be required to cover three mares a day – a ‘sperm bank” in the truest sense of the word.

Apart from their forced and controlled encounters with the mares, stallions lead a life of isolation for up to as many as 20 years. For fear of injury they are not ridden and kept stabled or face solitary confinement in fenced areas away from other horses. The tedium of life for these poor creatures must be excruciating.

For stallions highly valued for their bloodlines, life can be chaotic. It is common practice to ship stallions acknowledged for their genetic pedigree within and between the southern and northern hemispheres of the world to cover both breeding seasons and maximize short-term profits. When travel distances are far reaching these horses are known as “shuttle stallions”. Stressful and disruptive for these horses, the practice also contributes to concentrated inbreeding and potential transfer of equine disease which can decimate a population of otherwise healthy equines.

The sad recourse of this insidious breeding industry results in many stallions succumbing to premature death as a result of deprived life experience while others end up at the slaughterhouse if their careers at stud are unsuccessful, regardless of their accolades on the track.

Ferdinand, the 1986 Kentucky Derby winner who went on to capture the following year’s Horse of the Year title with a dramatic victory over 1987 Derby hero Alysheba in the Breeders’ Cup Classic died sometime in 2002 in a slaughterhouse in Japan while Exceller, the only horse to ever defeat two Triple Crown winners (Affirmed and Seattle Slew), met his tragic fate in a Swedish slaughterhouse.

As much as the breeding stallions suffer, they are not alone in their misery. Teaser stallions are uncastrated adult male horses used to gauge the receptiveness of the mares. The teaser and mare are introduced, typically separated by a fence; if the mare reciprocates, it is taken as a signal that it is “safe” to introduce her to the breeding stallion. Teaser stallions are never permitted to breed subjecting them to a constant state of flux and despair, and just like the stallions they are kept in an isolated environment without social contact to avert any misguided pregnancies or altercations with the breeding stallions.

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