While mares are the foundation of a breeding establishment, the stallions are often considered the stars of the show with vast sums of money spent on promoting their virtues. Therefore, it is important that they are physically fit, in top health, able to perform on demand whether for live cover or collection for later artificial insemination. Nutrition plays an important role in insuring maximum performance potential and yet compared to the level of research attention paid to the feeding of broodmares and growing young stock, the nutritional needs of the stallion have received far less scientific attention.
According to the National Research Council’s guidelines published in 2007 actively breeding stallions require 25% more calories per day than when not breeding. This is not because the act of breeding a mare requires a lot of energy but rather because breeding stallions will expend energy due to behaviors associated with breeding such as pacing and general nervousness. This additional 25% does not account for the additional needs of stallions who may be working under saddle or in harness or who are young and growing. These stallion’s needs are greater still and because of the potential variation between stallions it is important to feed them as individuals.
A major consideration entering the breeding season is the stallion’s body condition score (BCS). Body condition evaluations should be carried out on a regular basis to monitor weight gain or loss. Thin stallions (BCS 3 or less out of 9 on the Hennecke scale) may lack the energy reserves necessary to make it through an active breeding season. As horses whose diets lack adequate calories often lack other important nutrients such as vitamins and minerals, it can be assumed that a thin stallion may be deficient in some other key nutrients and this may negatively impact fertility.
It is more common though for stallions to be treated like prima donna’s and be over feed resulting in condition scores over 7. Carrying too much condition places extra strain on the joints and anecdotally it is thought to lower libido. Therefore breeding stallions should ideally enter the breeding season with a condition score of 5 to 6. This means that ribs are not visible but are easily felt, the neck and shoulder blend easily into the body and the loin area is flat. There are no obvious deposits of fat on the horse’s body. Condition and weight should be measured at least once or twice a month and feeding management changes made accordingly.
Off season most mature stallions are able to maintain condition on forage alone if consuming 1.5-2% of body weight per day (1.5-2lbs per 100lbs of body weight or 19.5-26lbs for a 1300lb stallion). However, forage alone will not result in a correctly balanced diet for long term health and a well formulated supplement or a fortified feed with a small 1-2lb serving size should be added to insure a more optimal diet. Growing or working stallions in the off season should be fed as you would feed other similar growing or working horses.
Once breeding season begins forage alone may not provide adequate calories and a feed with a higher calorie content may be necessary. Many commercially available performance feeds are appropriate choices and ideally such a feed should not require more than 0.75lbs per 100lb body weight per day. Most performance type feeds have a daily serving size of at least 5lbs per day. However, no more than 5lbs should be fed at any one meal. Following these guidelines will reduce the risk of grain overload and digestive distress.
If feeding your chosen feed at the manufacturers recommended daily intake would result in your stallion becoming fat you should look for a more heavily fortified feed with a smaller serving size as this will typically provide a more nutritionally balanced ration. When feeds are provided at amounts less than the manufacturers recommendation it cannot be guaranteed that all vitamin and mineral requirements have been met, and additional supplementation may be necessary. However selecting the correct supplement to work with your feed can be hard to do and professional advice from a qualified independent equine nutritionist is recommended. Any time you feed a commercially formulated feed at rates lower than the manufacturers recommended intake you are at risk of having a nutrient deficient ration. The key to feed selection is to choose a feed that you can feed at the recommended intake levels without the horse gaining or losing undesired body weight.
If you prefer to feed the unfortified more traditional feeds such as oats, beet pulp, and bran, you will still need to find a well formulated supplement to insure that several key nutrient requirements are met. This is another situation when working with a qualified independent equine nutritionist to help you select the correct products for your preferred method of nutritional management is a good idea.
Certain nutrients have gained interest as being important for breeding stallions. For example vitamins A, C and E have been suggested to be of particular importance in improving fertility. However no studies have clearly shown a benefit when the diet is already providing adequate levels of these nutrients. Meaning that if you are feeding a good quality hay in combination with a commercial feed at the rates recommended by the manufacturer you will be unlikely to see any additional benefit on fertility by supplementing additional levels of these nutrients.
Perhaps the exception to this is if you have a stallion whose semen motility is poor when cooled or frozen. In this case, the supplementation of DHA (docosahexaenoic acid),an omega 3 fatty acid derived from marine sources has been shown to be beneficial. This may not be a quick fix though. Spermatogenesis (the cycle of sperm formation) takes approximately 65 days. This means that the beneficial results of omega-3 supplementation may take up to 3 months to be noticeable and therefore starting supplementation before the start of the season is advised.
As with all horses a source of salt should be available at all times. This is important for insuring adequate sodium intake. Sodium is the only mineral that horses are known to seek out in order to meet their needs. Important for regulation of fluid levels in the body, adequate sodium intake regulates thirst and is important for preventing dehydration and associated conditions such as colic. While horses will seek out salt, salt blocks are consumed by relatively few horses in the amount that would be necessary to insure sodium requirements are met (a 2lb block of salt per month for an 1100lb horse at rest). Instead consider adding 1 tablespoon of salt per day to supplemental feed per 500 pounds of body weight and then providing access to additional loose salt in a pan.
Taking the time to evaluate both your stallion’s body condition and your planned breeding season nutrition program before breeding season starts, will help to insure that your stallion has the nutritional foundation he needs to help insure breeding success. With mare owners trusting that your stallion will successfully breed their mare, and with the amount of time and money you have already committed to promote your stallion, investing in a good nutrition program just makes sense.
Dr. Clair Thunes PhD takes the guesswork out of feeding horses by helping horse owners create personalized diet plans optimized for health and performance. As an independent equine nutritionist and owner of Summit Equine Nutrition LLC an equine nutrition consulting company she has clients across North America including breeders and performance horse owners. She is available for personal consultations either by phone, email or in person. You can find her online at her website www.summit-equine.com or on Facebook by searching for SummitEquineNutrition.