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Live Cover Horse Breeding: A Requirement for Thoroughbreds?

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Technological advances are affecting many aspects of the horse racing industry. But has it changed the way thoroughbreds are bred? Do thoroughbred stallions still have to “live cover” a mare for their offspring to be registered?

Thoroughbreds’ offspring must be the result of a “live cover” to be registered as a Thoroughbred. The Jockey Club forbids registering foals conceived by artificial insemination or embryo transfer. Most horse breeds don’t require “live cover” conception to register a foal.

All U.S.-born thoroughbreds foals are registered with the American Jockey Club. To register your foal, the Jockey Club doesn’t just take your word that the offspring resulted from a live cover; you have to follow specific guidelines.

What is “Live Cover” Breeding?

When I told my grandson a Thoroughbred foal must be the result of a “liver cover” he wasn’t sure what exactly this meant. We had Quarter horse mares artificially inseminated, but now we were breeding a Thoroughbred mare.

Basically, “live cover” means a stallion mounts a mare and inserts his penis into the female horse, and ejaculates. Live cover occurs naturally or is managed through in-hand breeding.

Picture of a stallion live covering a mare.

In-hand breeding is the most common for thoroughbred horses. Most commercial breeders have facilities designed for mating. The area is typically large enough to allow the movement of the horses and people with clean non-slip flooring.

The live cover proceeds when the broodmare displays signs of ovulation. A veterinarian can run tests to determine which day and time will make conception the most likely.

When a mare is ready she is brought in the breeding shed and teased. Teasing is using a stallion to encourage her to get ready to be bred. Most horses in heat will lean toward the stud, raise their tails, squat, and urinate. These are physical signs; the mare is ready for mounting.

Before mating, her tail should be bandaged, and the vulva washed and thoroughly dried. Wrapping her tail prevents tail hairs from damaging the stallion’s penis or rubbing the mare’s vulva.

Now that the mare is ready for breeding, the stallion is brought to the restrained broodmare for mounting. He should be lead with a long lead shank.

He should be given time to smell, taste, and nuzzle the mare, but prevented from mounting her until he has a full erection. Once he is fully erect, allow the stallion to mount the horse and breed her.

Be vigilant during the dismount; frequently, a mare will act aggressive and kick at the stallion. Breeding management on large farms is complicated and should only be undertaken by trained personnel.

Why is a stallion required to “live cover” a mare?

With our Quarter horse mares, the vet comes over and quickly inseminate the horses artificially. So, why do we have to go through a “live cover” with the Thoroughbred mares?

Thoroughbreds “live cover” because artificial insemination dilutes the breeds gene pool and diversification. Live cover is also a tradition and maintains the value of stud fees.

Picture of a stallion.

Many horse breed organizations allow offspring conceived through artificial insemination to be registered. “Live cover” breeding is not required for either standardbred and quarterhorse registration.

So, why doesn’t the Jockey Club allow thoroughbreds to do the same? The following are some reasons why the Jockey Club prefers “live cover” breeding:

Artificial insemination dilutes the gene pool

The most common reason is that artificial insemination dilutes the gene pool and creates inferior horses. Inferior mares would have access to semen through AI that they don’t have under the current rules. Reproduction by inferior mares will result in an abundance of low-quality horses

Artificial insemination decreases diversification

The most desirable stallions are used to provide semen. Limiting the breeding pool means there is a real risk that certain bloodlines would dominate the genetic pool and decrease diversification. Over time the lack of diversity could devastate the thoroughbred breed.

Live cover is a tradition

The Jockey Club is steeped in tradition, and they don’t see that artificial insemination adds value to the breed. Many breeders respect the old ways of doing things and don’t like change

Artificial insemination will decrease stud fees

The decrease in stud fees is another real risk. Supply and demand, artificial insemination would increase supply and reduce a studs’ cost. Foal value would be reduced, as well.

Choosing a stallion is critical

For a breeder, the choices made leading up to mating a mare are the most critical decisions they make all year. Horses have an eleven-month gestation period, so there is not a lot of room for breeding errors.

To ensure your mare is a good canidate for breeding, it’s imperative to have your mare vet checked. Just because she has previously delivered healthy foals is no guarantee she is healthy and can get pregnant this season.

After you have confirmed your mare is sound for breeding, you need to evaluate studs. Choose a stallion that will be a good cross with her. Know your mares’ strengths and weaknesses; this is key to making an informed decision on an ideal mate to compliment her.

Look at the performance and conformation of the stud’s previous offspring, and his structure. Ideally, visit the stud and view some of his prior babies. Compare the pedigrees of mares he has previously bred to your horse.

Picture of a Thoroughbred in a barn.

Ensure the owner is a reputable breeder. Do some research on the internet, and talk to other breeders. Gather as much information as you can about his breeding facility before you trust this person with your mare.

If you are satisfied with the breeder and stallion, then your next step is to ship your mare. Once your horse is bred, the owner of the stud is required to send confirmation to the Jockey Club.

3 Steps to register your Thoroughbred foal

Start by visiting the registration information webpage for the Jockey Club. They provide detailed information on the registration process. This section is an overview of the steps required.

  • Step 1: The Jockey Club maintains a Report of Mares Bred (RMB) database for each stud. All owners of stallion must report mares bred to the stallion during the year and include the date of her last cover.
  • Step 2: Within 30 days of birth, someone either the owner, breeder, or agent must complete a Live Foal/No Foal Report. You can click this link to read the instructions.
  • Step 3: A registration application and genetic typing kit will be sent to the address listed on the Live Foal Report. The form must be completed and returned with four-color photos. A sample of the foal’s mane or tail must be mailed directly to the DNA laboratory listed. Instructions can be found here.

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