Is AI worth it?

Today I had the misfortune to run into a nut job. Well, I should qualify this. I recently joined a horseman’s forum in the local newspaper.

This was a mistake. There seems to be a subspecies of people who get their jollies by attacking strangers on the internet.

These folks are cowards. They would never dream of acting in public they way they do on the Net. The anonymity of the net gives them a mask to hide behind. This works, in a way, when the police apprehend monsters who hunt for children on the net, to do unspeakable things to them. However, when the topic is horses, you expect that you’re talking (sic) with someone higher up on the evolutionary ladder. One who shares your passion, one whom you hope to learn from.

But what happens is you find yourself in a flame war with some jerk, a stranger who has a chip the size of a redwood tree on her shoulder, and wants to beat you over the head with it. You may be completely unaware of what put the bees up her butt, but she’s going to stomp you into the dirt, all because you disagreed with her. Never mind that she is WRONG. She may know she is wrong, but she’s never going to let the words, ‘I was wrong’ cross her keyboard, never mind her lips. Amazing how that anonymity is their mask but they never think of it as their shield, as well. 

One such woman posted that Thoroughbreds were being bred to paints and Quarter horses because they are “to (sic) stupid to breed live cover so they need AI.”

I am not quite sure what she meant by that. Was it the TB’s she insisted are too stupid to breed live cover? But TB’s are ALL bred live cover, unless you don’t want a registerable horse. Or did she mean the paints and QH’s were too stupid to be bred live cover? I think she meant the former. Maybe she’s mad because you can’t sell a paint these days. No one wants them. We’re awash in paints, and all of the seem to be broken down pretty boys who never went faster than a ‘lope’.

So I believe she was anti-TB and pro-AI. She couldn’t understand the reasoning why anyone would want to live cover any mare. Her reasoning, such as it was, I think, was that her precious paints and quarter horses were being ruined by Thoroughbred people breeding their stallions to non TB mares. When I brought several points, politely, to her attention about the perils of AI, she attacked me. That hurts me not at all. I know a nut job when I hear one, and I can dismiss them as much. But it did raise a topic for my blog.

Of course Thoroughbreds aren’t too stupid to breed.  Well, no. They aren’t stupid. One, the world over, all RACING thoroughbreds must be produced by live cover. I believe this was the jerk’s point, convoluted as it is, that TB’s are not allowed to reproduce via AI. No, wait. If you want to RACE the progeny of a TB stallion and mare, it must be produced via live cover. You can breed your TB mare or stallion AI if all you want is a nice horse. That was a very clever way of making it so that the market for a specific stallions’ get was conveniently limited,  making them worth more.

Two, at the time they figured out how to successfully artificially inseminate animals, the racing industry said, let’s not go that route. Horses were notoriously difficult to get into foal via AI (until, I believe, they realized that horse semen is far daintier than, say, bull semen.) Perhaps they understood, with remarkable foresight, that breeding thousands of horses to the same stallion sometimes has unintended (and disastrous) consequences, i.e. the QH stallion Impressive.

Impressive was bred to anything that could afford his stud fee.  Later on it was sadly discovered that he also passed on a genetic mutation, that being the one that causes HYPP. The owners of Impressive, who may have been dead by then (but had an impressive amount of semen stored away), were of course indignant (and litigiously adamant)  that no one horse could be blamed for the disease-until the genetic tests showed, over and over that HYPP, indeed, came from one horse. That horse being Impressive.

As you may imagine, Impressive’s standing (forgive the pun) as the number one QH stallion in the world fell into the abyss, from which it never recovered. No one wanted to buy or breed  to Impressive get. As we get further and further from the days of Impressive, the number of HYPP horses is dropping.

No, the reason Thoroughbreds are still bred live cover only is that, for once, the breeders got it right. There are risks involved in AI. TB mares are as valuable to their breeders as the stallions are. Unlike the stallions, mares are capable of reproducing only a dozen years or so.  They can have only one foal a year, and TB’s don’t live as long as, say, Arabians or ponies (who live forever, it seems). The TB breeder wants the best he can get-and afford-for his mare.

 Having worked at a QH breeding farm (during Impressive’s heyday, by the way), I saw the machinations that went on. No, the owners weren’t cheating. But the things that went on were enough to make me forego a childhood dream, that of breeding horses. 

 The farm owners booked 80 mares a year to their stallion. EIGHTY. Only a few were bred live cover, and that was solely to keep the stallion’s interest up. They would collect the stallion, then split the ejaculate into five or six doses, and inject it into the mares, right then and there. In the space of an hour, they could breed five mares where live cover would have had only one mare bred.

(I must add here, as I can’t figure out where else to put it: that their stallion, as gentle and sweet-natured as he was, nevertheless proved to be excellent at passing on navicular. Many of his get developed it even before maturity.)

It was the mare who suffered more from the procedure than the stallion.  The mare was put on a hormonal regimen beginning before Christmas, hoping that she’d begin to cycle in February. Everyone wanted a January foal. 

 The QH people had adopted the TB law, that all horses were born 1 Jan of the year, no matter if they really were foaled in late May. This meant that racing QH’s were hitting the track as young as 17 months, rather than a solid two years. (racing at two is insanity all on its own.)  But the QH registry did not differentiate between breeding for the track and breeding for the show ring. This hurt the breed on the whole, because far fewer QH’s were being bred for racing. The vast majority were being bred for the show ring, specifically, halter class. 

 In addition, most QH racers are mostly TB, with a little QH sprinter mixed in. Many of the foundation racing TB’s, i.e. Three Bars, was one hundred percent Thorougbred.

Isn’t he pretty? No quarter horse there. Three Bars was a great looking THOROUGHBRED.

The TB breeders wouldn’t breed to QH’s industry rules, so the QH registry aligned theirs with the TB industry in the age part. NOT in the AI part.

The hard part of this was that few veterinarians, and fewer horse breeders, are biologists. Mares aren’t supposed to start breeding in January. The farm I worked on was in Michigan. Winter in Michigan is cold, snowy, and dark,  subject to howling ice storms and snow up to your butt.  There is no warm sunshine to soak up, no lengthening days to rev up the hormonal cycle naturally, no green grass to graze or lay down in, to roll in and scrape off that winter coat. No warm summer day to drop your foal in, when it’s warm enough and soft enough for him to fall down  without injury, until he figures out how to manage his legs.  No, January foals are born in the dark and cold. No matter how close momma is, they are shivering until June. They cannot get out and stretch their legs, as the paddocks are nothing but knife edged ridges of ice,  perfect for slicing baby tendons.

But these folks wanted February foals and by god, they were going to force that mare into heat, by light therapy, by clipping her coat, by dosing her with hormones, and by weekly running an arm up the old wazoo to see if her ovaries are ready to spit out an egg.

Sometimes it worked. The vet would pronounce the mare “open”. The stallion was collected after he’d teased the mare only enough to get erect…not to get HER ready, mind you. She was led out into the aisle, twitched, the vet’s arm replaced by a syringe full of stepped on semen, the dose administered, and then, believe it or not, the owners threw a bucket of cold water on her hindquarters.

Talk about mixing solid animal science with voodoo witchcraft. After all that scientific stuff, they throw a bucket of water on her butt? This was to make her “tighten up” so that she wouldn’t ”’spit out the semen.” Oh for god’s sakes. Not only did they reveal an inexplicable lack of knowledge of the physiology of the mare’s reproductive tract, but they believed the shock of cold water is going to make the mare keep the semen? As if she even KNOWs what they put in her, or what it does?  Me, I know how I feel when I jump into water: I have to pee, right now.  Makes it difficult to use someone’s swimming pool.

Plus, they never really kept track. Part of this may be that the mare owner was paying a lot of money: not just the stud fee, but boarding, and hormone therapy, and the vet visits, etc. So if the mare did NOT catch, which was usually the case, they kept the mare until she DID. I don’t believe they ever looked at their books and realized that all their efforts were for naught. They never seemed to realize that all the monkeying around with hormones, lights, ad nauseam, only served to make the mare miserable. She was going to catch when she was damned good and ready, which was usually in April, just as it was supposed to be after fifteen million years or so of evolution.

I say, let the horses determine when they are going to mate. Were I running a breeding farm, I’d probably be hanged by the local horse experts. I would have one stallion, with a FEW mares. He would run with them throughout the year, breeding them when they were ready, and playing with his foals when they were old enough. They would watch him breed their mothers, so that the colts knew how to do it when it came their time..if it did. Because I’d do a lot of gelding, too.

Thoroughbred breeders do not get a pass here. They were the ones who insisted a horse be a year old on 1 Jan, no matter when it was actually foaled. Why? It made paperwork so much easier. That’s it.

So for years, until, really, the death of Eight Belles, TB mares were subjected to the same nonsense as the QH mares were. The only difference was that the stallions did the injecting, not a farm hand with a turkey baster. 

Eight Belles came in a fast closing second in the 2008 Kentucky Derby. She broke both her forelegs right after crossing the finish line. She had to be put down right then and there. Hundreds of thousands of people saw it happen.



This, more than anything else, has been the reason why the American racing industry is dying. The fan is tired of seeing equine legs snap in two, tired of fearing for the jockeys catapaulted from a 45 mile per hour saddle, or worse, fallen on, or run over by other horses.  We’re tired of seeing the equine ambulance stop at the fallen horse, or worse, the horse running on three legs, the fourth dangling by a shred of skin. We are tired knowing what the screens, erected around the horse, mean.   We’re tired of seeing beautiful animals die when it is all so unnecessary.

Eight Belles wasn’t  really a three-year old. No, she was 2 and a half, as were most of her competitors. The racing industry had, for years, been racing babies…long yearlings running as two-year olds and on, and they break down because…they’re babies.

Finally, though, the Jockey Club wised up and reluctantly passed a few laws. No longer is a registered foal automatically said to have been foaled on  1 Jan. You can no longer run a 18 month old colt or filly. It must be a solid two years old from the day it was foaled.

But as for other aspects…the jerk who attacked me be damned.  I suddenly realize that she never said a word about Arabians, who, unless they’ve changed recently, were also a live cover only registry. The Jockey Club has it right.  Live cover is usually the right way to go about it. I know, many of the warmblood breeders do AI. That’s fine. But they don’t race warmbloods. Making money producing lots of carbon copy horses is the only reason AI is done to horses.







About subodai213

Retired U.N.C.L.E agent. Living in Laurasia.
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