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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 thoroughbred 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.

Picture of a stallion live covering a mare.

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.

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 into 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.

Picture of a stallion.

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

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

A thoroughbred stallion is required to “live cover” a mare in order to ensure that the resulting offspring will inherit the strongest genetic traits from both parents.

This process involves the stallion actively mounting and penetrating the mare, fertilizing her eggs through direct physical contact. Because live cover allows for such close physical interaction between the two animals, it enhances the chances of successful conception and gives rise to healthier foals.

Furthermore, it ensures that only superior breeding stock is used in reproduction, guaranteeing that future generations of thoroughbreds are fast, strong, and resilient.

Thus, by requiring stallions to live-cover their mares, breeders can ensure that their prized thoroughbreds maintain their epic standard for excellence.

Many other horse breed organizations allow offspring conceived through artificial insemination to be registered. “Live cover” breeding is not required for either standardbred or 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 I hear from Thoroughbred owners in support of “live cover” 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 to change.

Artificial insemination will decrease stud fees

Thoroughbred stallions are some of the most valuable horses in the world, and their stud fees reflect that. For a foal to be eligible for Thoroughbred races, it must be sired by a Thoroughbred stallion, which means that breeders are willing to pay top dollar for the privilege.

However, artificial insemination (AI) is becoming an increasingly popular alternative to “live cover,” and it could have a significant impact on stud fees. With AI, there is no need for the mare to travel to the stallion’s location, and the process can be completed in a fraction of the time.

As a result, AI could make it possible for many more mares to be bred by a single stallion in a season, which would increase the available supply of Thoroughbred foals and ultimately lead to lower stud fees.

The decrease in stud fees is a real risk. Supply and demand, artificial insemination would increase supply and reduce the value of foals and studs.

Picture of a two year old horse
Two-year-old Thoroughbred colt

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 that 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.

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.

Picture of a chesnut baby horse.

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 stallions 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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