A small, select band of colts are worthy of being kept entire — Andrea Oakes finds out how to tell if yours is one such gem, and if so how to manage him
If you plan to keep a colt entire for breeding purposes, it’s clear that he has to be something pretty special. But how can you tell if he really is a cut above the rest? And even if he does have the necessary wow factor, what are you letting yourself in for if you choose not to have him castrated?
Spotting stallion potential requires skill and experience, according to breeding consultant and former West Kington Stud manager Tessa Clarke, who explains that a likely candidate should stand out from the crowd at an early age.
“Of several mares and foals in a field, he’ll be the one that takes your eye,” she says, referring to that “look at me” presence that is born and not made. “It goes without saying that good conformation and movement are key, and are usually evident early on. He also needs the right temperament. This may change as he becomes more hormonal, and often depends on how he is handled, but an unpleasant foal is unlikely to improve with age.”Tessa emphasises the need for an honest and objective appraisal. A foal who is the apple of his owner’s eye may not be viewed with such enthusiasm by a wider audience.
“Very few colts are really worth preserving as a stallion,” she explains. “A youngster must have something extra, such as unusual bloodlines, which may be significant with a native breed, or rare genetics for colour. He’ll need successful relatives; ideally, being out of a mare with a good competition record. And as a sport horse he’ll be expected to build his own success in future years — British Showjumping grade B, British Dressage small tour or British Eventing three-star, at least. Going BE100 is not enough.”
Lorna Wilson, of Newton Stud in Devon, adds: “No-one should aim to breed ‘average’. A stallion must be a shining example of conformation, movement, type and pedigree, as a horse should only be kept entire to progress breeding and — in the case of sport horses — equestrian sport.”
If you feel that your youngster ticks all the boxes, Lorna recommends putting him under closer scrutiny in a different setting.
“A lot of foals are born each year at our stud, so it’s easier for us to compare them,” she says. “Some stand out immediately as extremely high quality. If you have only a few, it’s important to take them to an event such as the Elite Foals UK registration tour to benchmark and assess them against other similarly bred foals.
“Anyone thinking of standing a young stallion is also advised to see a series of stallion approvals across Europe, to compare theirs back at home with the many hundreds presented,” adds Lorna. “It’s important to take off any rose-tinted glasses to make sure that a potential stallion is of an equal — or better — standard.”
Logistics to consider
You may well have some good raw material to work with, but there are logistics to consider.
“Stallions do need experienced handling,” says David Dixon, whose role as manager at Stanley Grange Stud in North Yorkshire involves working with some of the UK’s leading sires, including advanced eventer Up With The Lark. “They vary a lot in temperament but are usually a product of their environment. It can be difficult to provide a suitable environment at home.
“A stallion will require plenty of exercise and lots of free time and turnout,” explains David. “He shouldn’t be cooped up 24/7, or he may get crotchety and develop bad habits. You’ll need the facilities, the right regime and the patience, and you’ll have to keep your wits about you. If I’m honest, amateurs and stallions are not always the best pairing.
“Most horses are happier gelded,” adds David. “Figures show a graded stallion receives, on average, just five mares a year — and some will see none. It’s not the nicest lifestyle for him if he’s never used.”
Making the numbers stack up is another issue. Many stallion owners will hope for some return on their investment, but is there much money to be made?
“Not only are there are a lot of good stallions in UK, but breeding is now global, meaning that the stud market is very competitive,” says David. “A stallion must be worth breeding from. Up With The Lark has been very busy, but he’s 20 this time and his mare numbers have dropped from a peak of 76 to around 36 as other stallions have come along.
“Think about where you’ll stand your stallion or whether you’ll opt for a walk-in semen collection service, considering both the costs and how this will fit in with your lifestyle,” he adds. “For semen collection on site, you’ll need to make him available as and when necessary throughout the season. While natural cover can take place at any time of the day, chilled semen for AI must be ready for the post or courier — which makes this option a way of life rather than just a hobby.”
It’s worth remembering that most of the breeding costs are fixed, regardless of the stallion’s popularity and stud fee. Factor in extras, such as veterinary expenses for the annual blood tests, vaccinations and pre-breeding swabs needed to stand him at stud, plus the cost of marketing your sire or grading him with the appropriate stud book.
“Grading is another expense, but one that pays dividends in the long term,” explains David, who is also chairman of Sport Horse Breeding (GB). “All SHB(GB) stallions must have at least a three-generation pedigree of verified breeding, confirmed by DNA testing, and we insist on a five-stage vetting to ensure soundness and to identify any hereditary health conditions.
“We have a list of graders who are willing to cast an eye over a two-year-old to assess his potential for grading,” he adds. “I would also suggest that an owner visits our spring or autumn gradings to see what they entail, as a certain standard of conformation, movement, athleticism and manners is expected.”
A yearling’s fertility?
He may have the looks, the personality and the pedigree, but how do you know that a colt can do the business?
“There is no real test to ascertain a yearling’s fertility, but it is possible to check early on that he has the correct reproductive anatomy,” says Dr Charles Cooke MRCVS of Equine Reproductive Services (UK), who explains that congenital abnormalities such as cryptorchidism, where only one testicle descends, will rule out breeding. “Most horses are not physically or sexually mature until they are between three and five years old, though this can depend on the breed. Once he can be trained to mount a dummy mare, his semen can be collected and assessed.”
While it may be tempting to delay the decision to geld your colt until you’ve had a glimpse of what he might grow into, this “wait and see” approach has its drawbacks.
“Gelding a horse as a foal or up until he is four is reasonably straightforward,” says Charles, who emphasises that even a yearling can impregnate a mare and should be separated if not castrated. “From five years upwards it’s a more involved operation, which is generally carried out under general anaesthesia rather than with the horse standing and sedated.”
A stallion can flourish in the right hands and may successfully combine his breeding duties with a competitive career — even in eventing, as Nick Gauntlett’s Party Trick, by Chilli Morning, is proving. It’s rare to find a horse that happily excels at both, however, and even harder to spot that longer-term ability in a hairy youngster.
“A stallion won’t get by just on his looks,” says David, who reminds us that any sire is only as good as his stock. “He has to deliver the goods, but this will only become apparent once his progeny hit the ground.”
When done well, however, there’s no doubt that standing a stallion can bring rewards, with success breeding success.
Keeping options open
There are alternatives for colt owners who prefer to keep their options open, as Georgie Belton of Gemini Stud explains.
“The idea behind gelding grading is that it’s usually much easier to get a good tune out of a gelding under saddle than a stallion,” says Georgie. “A colt with stallion potential may be kept entire up to a point, before his semen is collected and frozen to preserve his genetic material. He is then gelded and competed, until he reaches a stage in his career when he becomes marketable as a sire.
“SHB(GB) is now grading geldings that were previously stallions, provided that they meet the strict grading criteria,” adds Georgie. “Careful planning is necessary, however, to assess how much semen to store. Not all semen freezes and offers sufficient post-thaw fertility, while many mare owners will only use chilled or fresh. Expect to incur costs in the region of £7,000 to have the stallion trained on the dummy mare and his semen collected, tested and stored, along with ongoing annual storage expenses.
“A second option is the ‘stand one, run one’ route, where one horse competes while his full brother fulfils stud duties — as in the case of showjumping stallion Cassini I and his sibling Cassini II,” adds Georgie, who explains that the competitor is usually gelded and acts as a showcase. “Gemini Stud’s SHB(GB) graded stallion Classic Opera [pictured], himself a Horse of the Year Show Cuddy in-hand finalist and a BE90 winner, has a full brother eventing at BE advanced and CCI4*: Steve Revell’s gelding The Classic Composer.”
Standing your stallion
Your stallion stays at stud for all or part of the breeding season, for semen collection and/or servicing mares on-site.
Pros: he’ll be in experienced hands at his most hormonal time and can focus on the job in hand, with ready availability to meet mare owners’ needs.
Cons: a more expensive option, which may interrupt competition plans.
Consider for: an older, more established stallion in popular demand.
You take the stallion to stud as and when needed, for semen collection.
Pros: this can fit in around a stallion’s competition schedule, with the added bonus that he won’t associate home with breeding duties.
Cons: requires organisation and transportation, for frequent visits, with good biosecurity at the stud.
Consider for: a younger stallion not yet at his competitive peak.
STANDING AT HOME
Your stallion stays at home, where you organise semen collection or live cover.
Pros: you can control costs and logistics, with no disruption to his routine.
Cons: requires expertise, facilities and experienced, hands-on help. From marketing and paperwork to meeting strict biosecurity standards, it’s all down to you.
Consider for: a pony stallion, especially if he runs with mares in a herd.
Ref Horse & Hound; 5 March 2020