Careers For Characters - Working on a Horse Breeding Farm

This is the first of what I hope to make a regular feature about unusual or interesting jobs we can use for our characters. Author Pat Brown has graciously volunteered to share her experience working on a horse breeding farm. I hope you find this as fascinating I do.

I'm inclined to ask with most jobs, "what's a typical day like?" but I suspect that working on a horse breeding farm, that there is more of a annual cycle, so I'll rephrase the question. How does the job change through the year? And what tasks are consistent?

Spring is the busiest time. Foals are born then, obviously, but what most breeders want is for them to be born as early as possible into the new year, but late enough so they can get out to pasture on the new grass. They want them born early, since with racehorses, their birthdays are all set for January 1 for racing purposes, since they race as 2 year olds and 3 year old for certain races.
Obviously feeding is consistent, though this could vary if some horse needed something extra or was on a special diet. There was one filly there who was constantly getting colic. She was on a special bran-molasses feed and had to be taken out regularly and walked a lot. Unfortunately the colic kept coming back and even surgery wouldn't help and she was put down.

 In the spring when the yearlings were going to be taken to auction there'd be a lot of grooming. The stable lights would be turned on early as well. The owner believed that artificial light would stimulate them to shed their winter coat early. There was another stablehand there who would braid their manes and we always made sure their tails were well brushed. Sometimes they would be washed and then we had to walk them dry. There was a cemetary right behind the farm and we would walk through it with the horses. That was actually one of the more enjoyable parts of the job. Just me and my horse strolling between headstones.

Winter time was a pain. The horses in the fields had be taken food, and their water cleared of ice. These pastures were a sea of mud and we had to push a heavy cart filled with hay out to them in the evening before we could go home. One of these fields had electrical towers in them. They were also beside a railroad track and a gravel quarry. The horses learned to ignore the trains. Every so often they'd be blasting in the quarry and we'd see car sized hunks of stone flying into the air. The horses pretty well ignored that, too. They ignored the towers as well, but I remember taking the hay out to them while a thunder storm moved in. It was pouring rain, the field was a glutinous muddy hell and there was lightning coming down all around. The carts with the hay had metal handles. Now there was a particular way we were supposed to put the hay out -- we were to spread it around so every horse could get some. But this night I upturned the cart and dumped it all in one place and dragged the cart out of there as fast as I could. The horses didn't even notice when a bolt of lightning hit one of the towers, but I sure did.

Stall cleaning is an every day, all day job.

What are the required personnel on a horse breeding farm? (e.g. stall mucker-outer? veterinarian? Artificial insemination? Etc.)

I was a groom, which basically meant doing all the dirty work. I mucked out as many as 21 stalls a day, depending on whether I was alone or not. When the mares have foals their stalls are mucked out totally -- no scooping up the dirty straw and laying down new, which is what is normally done. The box stalls the mares and foals were kept in were about twice the size of regular stalls and cleaning them out by hand was hard work. I think I lost at least 10 lbs and turned the rest into muscle during my time at this job.

The vet would be called in as needed. So would the blacksmith. It wasn't a big operation. I think the most people ever there at one time would be 6 or 7, not counting the owners.

My initial inclination is to assume they'd be breeding their own horses, but  perhaps I'm off-base here and what I'm thinking of is just a regular horse ranch. My second thought is that this is where horse owners bring their horses to be bred. Both sound interesting, but which way are we going here?

On this farm there were a few regular mares, owned by the farm owners (two brothers) and those foals they would either keep and train for racing, or sell at auction each spring. There were 2 stallions, but only one was used as the stud, the other was retired. Oh, and there was a 3rd, a teaser stallion. He had the fun of testing mares every year to see when they were in heat. Once it was established she was in season the real stallion was brought in. I always felt sorry for that poor stallion, always getting aroused and never getting any satisfaction. But he was a surprisingly mellow stallion. Kids used to ride on him bareback.

How was the breeding farm set up? (barns, pastures, etc.)

It had 2 barns, the main one where the stallions were housed and the owners mares kept. The second one was the overflow for when people would send their mares in to be bred. There were also 7 pastures and 1 paddock. One in the front of the farm, off the main road, where the stallion Run The Table was kept when he was put out. (He was called Artie by all of us). Two of the pastures were for the mares from outside, kept there until they were successfully bred or the breeding didn't take and they were sent back to their owners. They would stay 2-3 months. Another two were for mares with foals, and the last pasture was for the yearlings. The paddock was kept for various turn outs. Sometimes a yearling would be put in it if someone was out looking at it.

Was the breeding done the old fashioned way or by artificial insemination? If it was the old fashioned way, how were the stallions housed? (Because I'm assuming there are aggression issues here, particularly when the mares are in heat.)

It was purely by artificial insemination. I was involved in that too. When a mare was in season she would be taken in to the breeding pen and put in cross ties. The stallion would be brought in. When he responded to the mare he was allowed to think he was mounting her, but instead of her, he'd be entering an artificial vagina, which was warmed to body temperature. When his semen was collected, it could be divided into multiples specimens, frozen in liquid nitrogen. So what would have been one mating with one mare, could now be used on up to about 10-15 mares. It could also be shipped for those who didn't want to trailer their mares in. I was at this operation a couple of times, holding the mare. The owner always handled the stallion.

It was also considered much safer to do it this way, since mares have been known to injure stallions and this particular stud was worth at least a million -- he was a stakes winner and had proven that his offspring were also winners so there was a lot of demand for his sperm.

Any insights into how they chose which stallions to breed to what mares? And how do they know when the mares are in heat?

There's a huge science behind matching mares with stallions, but really, it's a lot of guess work. Look at Secretariat. He had to be one of the greatest Thoroughbreds of all time, but his get didn't shine on the track. This particular stallion had some high winning offspring, though oddly enough, most of them seemed to be fillies. One of his colts, called Jaguar Killean, (the farm was called Killean Acres and all the foals carried the Killean name) was a major embarrassment to the owner. It looked more like a Quarterhorse than a Standardbred, and it had a really bad gait. They took him to the auction since the owner didn't want to have anything to do with him. I think he sold for something like $700, most of this stallion's yearlings went for $1500 to $3000 -- and this was 20 some years ago. The stud fees for this horse were $5000, and I heard a lot of people say that was cheap. Other stud fees were as high as $7500 or even more. I think I even saw some that were $10,000.

The only way to tell if the mare is in heat is to test her with a stallion. If a stallion is presented to her and she's not in heat, she'll kick him or otherwise react negatively. If she is in heat, she does something called 'winking' which is a flexing of the vagina that really does look like a wink. Then she can be bred and will accept the stallion.

Even I can image some of the things that can go wrong in foaling, but I'm sure there's things that wouldn't even occur to me that could be used to good dramatic effect.  I'd love if you could give an example or two.
With births the biggest problem is a breech birth when the foal is backwards. Someone has to get inside the mare and turn the foal. I've only heard of that, I've never seen it. Another danger is if the umbilical cord gets wrapped around the foal. That can often kill them. After birth, the foal has to stand on his own pretty quickly. He has to begin nursing right away -- the mare's milk has a protein and amino acid mix in it called colostrum that is essential. It gives the foal resistance to disease for the first few months. These days a foal can be hand fed and colostrum can be added to the feeding, but it's best if the foal gets it from the mare, usually within 4-6 hours of birth.

One of the biggest dangers to foals is something I was totally unaware of when I started working there -- and I've studied horses most of my life and been around them. But it's other mares that are dangerous. You know when you drive past a field full of mares and foals, how peaceful and serene it looks? It's all a facade. There's a very strict hierarchy in that herd, in any horse herd, even ones with stallions leading them. It's a lead mare who controls the herd. And she can be dangerous to other mare's foals. A few weeks after the foals are born, they and mares have to be moved out to pasture. But because of the potential dangers, this has to be done cautiously. 

The year before I started there, this lead mare, who was a real nasty horse, kicked another mare's foal so hard, its leg was broken. They took it to the Guelph Veterinary clinic, which is cutting edge equine medicine, but they couldn't save it and the foal had to be put down. That mare was still there when I came on the job and she was one horse you never turned your back on. She was a cranky thing that would kick your head off if you gave her the chance.

In fact, I think the one thing I learned above all else at this job, was that the most unpredictable horses were not the stallions, but the broodmares. All three stallions at this farm were easy to handle and I enjoyed being around them.

You want to know my biggest goof? I don't think I've ever told this to anyone but it has been 20 years, so I guess I can't be fired, right? One night I was alone and it was my job to bring the mares in from the front pasture to be fed. I went out to get the first one and brought her back. I brought two back the next time. Everything was going well, until I forgot to latch the gate. About eight mares got loose. I thought for sure I was dead meat. There was no front gate to this farm, so the laneway led right out to a street. I was freaking out, wondering how the hell I was going to catch all those mares. Fortunately, hungry mares who do the same thing every night only have one thing on their minds at that time of night. Eating. And to do that they had to be in their stalls. So they dutifully trooped into the stable and right into their own stalls all by themselves. I think my heart starting beating again about 10 minutes later.

The only other really funny thing that happened was before I was hired. I was out meeting the owner and he took me out to see Artie. Now this was a gorgeous animal. A bay and physically perfect and, for the most part, well mannered. But when I was standing in front of him talking to the owner, he decided to put me in my place. He snaked out his head and grabbed my stomach in his teeth and twisted it. I had a massive bruise on my gut for days. I swear I heard that bastard laughing at me when he let go.

How often is the stallion milked for his semen? Does there have to be a mare in heat to get him aroused? Are some of the mares left unimpregnated for this purpose? If so, how often do they come into heat? Or is that all moot because of the need to have the foals come so early in the year? And I guess I could look up the gestation period and count back, but I'll just ask: what time of the year does the inseminating happen?

The breeding starts in about the end of May through July. They gestate about 11 months, though I guess a mare has the ability to not give birth if they don't feel comfortable. But given the peaceful surroundings they are in -- they're put in their box stalls permanently when birth time nears so they don't give birth out in the field --I can't see why any of those mares would hold off.

During breeding season, a stallion can be milked weekly. I suppose they could be done more often, but you want them to build up a supply. They use the mares that are going to be bred to present to the teaser stallion since they need to impregnate them then. Stallions are like any other male, they're always ready and willing. That's why you have to make sure the mare is ready. A wild stallion would just have to take his chances in approaching one of his mares. If she's not ready, she'll kick him. Of course in the wild, she'd also run away so it's probably fairly rare that a wild stallion gets hurt by a mare, but not totally impossible. Males are also opportunistic. I haven't seen it in horses, but in other large herbivores that fight each other, I've seen a third male slip in and breed with females while the alpha male is battling it out with an interloper. Males are driven to breed. They'll do anything to do so.

Why do I not find that hard to believe? And I don't think it's just the herbivores. But we'll leave that alone for now. How old are the fillies/colts when they can be separated from their mothers and sold?

The yearlings are separated at the end of the year. Before this, they are eating grain and doing less nursing. A mini-paddock is in each field where there are mares and foals. There are spaces in this paddock which allow the foal to enter, but not the mares. So the foals get fed in there and don't have to compete with the mares for food.

The foals go up the road in the fall and the mares are kept inside, totally separating the two. The foals go as a group so their separation anxiety is minimized. They stay in this field all winter and through a good part of the next year. Yearling auctions usually start in August. The London auction at the Western Fair grounds in in October. The yearlings would be brought in to the barn in summer to get them accustomed to being handled and checked out for health and shoeing. They can actually use custom-made shoes to improve things like gait. They're groomed a lot too at this time so they're used to that. The last thing you want is a fractious yearling in front of potential buyers. They like spirit but they want controlled spirit. Not to mention a yearling is close to full size. They can be dangerous, especially the colts since they normally haven't been gelded.

What happens to the mares that are too old to breed? I've heard horse people getting upset about horse being sold for the meat. Was that ever done? Which leads to the question that when a horse dies, what do they do with the body? I can't imagine they bury them because that would take up so much ground before too long.

To tell you the truth I don't know what happens to them. I've heard that old broodmares are put on sale, but there's no guarantee they're sold to people who want a horse and not for slaughter. The problem with racing is it's very hard on horses. A horse isn't mature until it's 5 years old, but they start racing them when they're 2 -- and remember they're not even that, since they were probably born in March or April but are considered to be a yearling 9 or 10 months later, then at 2 they race.

If they win they keep on racing and it becomes a race to keep them them sound. If they get injured and can't race then depending on how broken down they are they may be sold or they would be put down or retired for breeding. I've also heard a number of race horses are trained very successfully as hunter/jumpers. There are organizations that work to find homes for retired racehorses.

Really old horses, who can't be ridden anymore need to find a place to retire to. There are organizations that will help with that and people who will adopt them, but there are probably too many to place and breeding farms can't afford to keep non-productive animals around, so I hate to say it, but I imagine a large number are put down. It is illegal to slaughter horses in the US. But it appears it is not illegal to do so in Canada and Mexico, so unwanted horses from the US are shipped to one of those countries to be killed. It's also not legal for pet food manufacturers in the US to use horse meat, but when the food is processed elsewhere, it may be in dog food, labeled as meat by products.

And of course there are some countries where they eat horses.

Thanks so much 

Born in Canada, Pat Brown's approach to life was tempered in the forges of Los Angeles and after eight years in the City of Angels she was endowed with a fascination for the darker side of life and the professionals who patrol those mean streets. She considers those eight years a life time's worth of experience that she mines regularly in her novels. She is not afraid to explore the darker sides of her characters and the streets they inhabit, including the ones most people are afraid to walk down alone at night. Her vision of L.A. can be found in books like L.A. HEAT, L.A. BONEYARD, L.A. BYTES and her latest, BETWEEN DARKNESS & LIGHT where homicide detective Russell Hunter battles his own darkness while he tries to find a killer preying on art critics. In L.A. HEAT, in-the-closet LAPD homicide detective David Eric Laine has to face his own desires to find a vicious serial killer targeting young gay men and in L.A. BONEYARD he faces a human trafficker ring. In L.A. BYTES, a techno thriller, Los Angeles itself is the potential victim of a shadowy hacker that would bring the city to its knees.

I hope y'all are finding this feature useful or at least interesting. The more folks who contribute, the better this will be, so if you've worked an unusual or interesting job and you'd like to tell us about that job, I'd love to hear from you. Please leave a post HERE.



  1. Yeey! You're up and running! This is going to be a wonderful resource. And thank you Pat for providing this great info!

  2. Thanks for having me Suzie. It was fun remembering those days. One thing I forgot to mention -- when they're getting the yearlings ready for sale and want to polish them up all shiny, they also use a vacuum on them. That takes a bit of getting used to it. But once they're used to it, it's a great way to giving them a final polish after regular grooming.

  3. Great feature idea! I'm sure there are endless possibilities for future posts.

  4. Wow! I've never thought of this career before. It was so interesting to read about work on a horse breeding farm. I can't wait to see future posts under this feature.

  5. It was fun talking with you, Pat, about your days at the breeding farm. So much good information. And you're still sharing. I can just see vacuuming the horses in a scene in someone's book. Such good details. Thanks so much for participating.

  6. Fascinating stuff. I've had a life long interest in horses and thought I knew a lot, but there were some new insights here for me. Thanks for sharing. Great interview!

  7. Absolutely fascinating! Thanks for sharing!