Expert breeders' guide to breeding

By: Horse Deals

Expert breeders' guide to breeding
Foals at Balcormo Stud are raised in a herd environment

Top producers on handling youngstock.

Everyone wants their foal to grow up to enjoy a happy, healthy life. Horse Deals finds out how to give youngstock a flying start.

Like their human equivalents, raising a happy, healthy foal takes knowledge and commitment — the effort you put in early on pays off in the future.

You wait anxiously for your foal to be born and mother and baby are doing well, so correct handling and management during the next few weeks and months are key.

Sandra Low-Mitchell (, whose family owns and runs Balcormo Stud in Fife, is a leading breeder and producer of show jumpers and eventers.

The stud supplies frozen semen from its great show jumping stallion Secundus, by Rigoletto, who died in 2004 at the age of 28. He was the first stallion based outside the Netherlands to be awarded the Keur Pref accolade — given to only the best stallions — and Balcormo still has his youngsters, as well as those by other top sires.

Sandra, who breeds on average 12 to 15 foals a year, has a tried and trusted method of raising strong, healthy horses who will go on to become competition prospects.

"Once a foal’s born, it’s a good idea for it to have human contact in the first few hours — rub him all over and keep an eye on him to make sure he’s had a drink. Correct hands-on treatment will stay with a foal," she says.

If foals are born in a stable, Sandra likes to get them out into paddocks as soon as possible — Scottish weather permitting.

"As long as it’s not very far, he can have a wee wobble out; you’re just there to help guide him with your hands by providing a framework front and back," she explains. "If the weather’s bad, we prefer to keep them in foaling boxes until it improves. We don’t tend to use any form of headcollar until at least a week old. I think it’s a big mistake to try to make this a form of control, it’s more a case of letting them get the feel of a light headcollar.

"Once they’re two or three weeks old, we use a ‘bum rope’, which supports them front and back. This is a soft cotton rope or a bit of webbing with a loop and clip that’s fully adjustable, so one size fits all!"

Sandra enters those who are ready for Scottish Sports Horse grading in September and the foal show in November. As two-year-olds they’re aimed at the Royal Highland.

"It’s important to remember they’re all individuals — some are sharp and some less confident and need more time. You can pick out the good ones very early on, as they’ll be confident and ‘up there’ and in your face. Like people, confident foals generally grow up and get on in life.

"Ours are raised in a herd environment, so when they’re taken away from that they need time to settle and acclimatise. It’s all about reading their character and adjusting their education. Keep it simple and respect them for having a brain.

"Unfortunately, so many horses get a bad start in life and people don’t realise how much difference that can make. The weaning process can be traumatic, but it doesn’t have to be. We tend to wean in groups of seven to nine. If foals are left on their own, the worry often results in them developing ulcers, which will affect them in later life."
According to Sandra, the most common mistake people make in raising youngstock is to rush things.

"The more time you spend at this stage the better. In the backing process, we spend a lot of time long-reining out and about and let them see things. At our farm, they see tractors, livestock and dogs running about — the more, the better.

"Take your time," she advises, "the more you put in, the more you’ll get back."

Early education

Leading sport horse and hunter producer Moggy Hennessy has a lifetime’s experience and her knowledge and understanding has won her armfuls of accolades for youngstock.

When it comes to preparing for the show ring, Moggy prefers not to show yearlings.

"I believe this puts too much pressure on and you risk overproducing them. I prefer to wait for the following year," she says. "In their first year they start to learn to respect the headcollar and to lead. We introduce them to being on their own in the stable and ring the changes in the turnout order, sometimes first and sometimes last, so they don’t get into a set routine."

The yearlings Moggy buys in the autumn are turned out in groups of six through the winter and brought in during January when handling is increased.

"We start by getting them used to being rubbed all over, which leads to gentle grooming and wearing rugs," she explains. "The best way to do this is to fold up a light flysheet and rub it over them like a stable rubber. You gradually unfold it and get them used to it being taken off backwards — take your time doing this and don’t yank it off, as there’s nothing worse than a horse who’s frightened of wearing a rug."

During the first few weeks, Moggy gets youngsters used to being tied loosely to string while they’re gently brushed and their feet examined and picked out.

"It’s like children: some accept things quickly and others need longer, but generally if you repeat new things during short sessions several times a day, they soon get the hang of it."

The introduction to show preparation begins a month later when the youngstock are split into individual paddocks, where they can still see each other. They are slowly introduced to lungeing and having a keyring bit in their mouth.

From the end of January to the beginning of May, work begins for the show season, although Moggy says it’s important that horses aren’t fat or overdone.

"This is the part of the job I really love," she says. "It’s my absolute passion to create a champion. I love the idea of starting with a blank canvas and working out each individual’s programme and requirements."

Lungeing begins in a corner of the school with a helper leading the horse in a circle and Moggy standing in the centre so it becomes accustomed to voice commands. Moggy prefers to use a headcollar rather than a cavesson, as the latter can be too heavy and pull over the eyes. Once lungeing has been understood, this is introduced into the educational programme about once a week, depending on individual development.

"What we’re looking for is a horse with a nice sloping shoulder and he must have curves," explains Moggy. "If he’s a bit weak in front, we might lunge several times a week to help create the correct structure. We like to use an elastic bungee, as it helps encourage a deeper shape and build up the correct muscles and a lovely big ‘apple’ bottom.

"The rein goes over the poll and fastens between the legs or to a low clip on the roller. If a horse carries his head a little low, I clip it to the top D-ring on the roller to get him to pick himself up a bit. "

Moggy prefers to stick to traditional feeding methods.

"We start with a bit of mix and chaff — they’re more likely to play around with mix than cubes. Once they’re eating, I go the old-fashioned route of bran, chaff and barley, plus limestone flour for calcium and Spillers Equivite vitamin and mineral supplement. All our horses are fed individually and have racks of ad lib haylage."

Choosing the right tack also takes time.

"I spend ages deciding on the in-hand bridle for each horse: choosing the right browband and thickness of noseband to complement
every head."

First outings

With young horses who’ve never been anywhere, Moggy and her team head for an early local show or gymkhana, where they take two or three youngsters to "test the water".

"We’ll have played around with learning to load and trotting in-hand before we go anywhere. We go to their first show just for a look around for about 45min and wander about and let them hand graze. They also get used to standing on the lorry and then we’ll come home. Hopefully, they’ll have enjoyed a fun, relaxed outing and when we go next time to the ‘real thing’, it’s not a nightmare!"

Moggy admits that being awarded top place is the only motivation for the late nights and early starts.

"I don’t want second or third place, I want to win. A lot of people probably don’t realise how much it takes to get there and the hours of work and preparation — it isn’t all plain sailing. I’ve made some dreadful mistakes over the years, but I am a perfectionist and there’s nothing better than looking at your horse and feeling proud of what you’ve created."