Live cover or Insemination: Which breeding method do I choose?

Live cover or insemination. Which method to choose?

Live cover or Insemination: Which breeding method do I choose?

Do you find yourself among the many horse owners that contemplate about getting a foal next season? Then you’re not alone, and maybe you’ve already decided which stallion to use? The reproductive season of horses is finally here. In reality, the season is always close – and that’s a good thing! It sparks the debate about which breeding method to use – live cover or insemination.

But in a world filled with horses, people sometimes find it hard to choose a breeding method to use. And it doesn’t make it any easier that the use of either method produce excellent foals. We get a lot of questions in regards to this topic, so we decided to write this blog about pros and cons related to the different breeding methods, and we hope that it will help you in your considerations as well.

Things to consider before you impregnate your mare

As horse owners, we can all agree that it is fun, exciting, but also time-consuming to find the perfect match for your mare. And when you finally find the stallion of your dreams – the perfect fit you’ve been looking for – make sure you’re not blinded by the genes of the father only, but that you also consider your mare’s role in the match you’re making. The best breeding results are always found when the traits of BOTH parents have been at play. In our blog post “7 tips for horse breeders” you can read more about what to keep in mind in your preparations of getting a new foal from your mare. You and your mare and new foal deserve ONLY the best.

However, if you have already decided which stallion you would like to use, you should be aware that there may be different reasons why the stallion owner have chosen a particular type of breeding method. Some are purely financial, others are for safety reasons. A large number of breeding associations also govern which methods are allowed when breeding horses and if reproduction should be by live cover or by insemination. As of such, the stallion owner himself does not always get to decide which breeding method to use.

What is live cover?

Live cover is horse breeding the way nature intended it to be. Live cover is the most natural breeding method where the stallion physically covers the mare, just as horses would do in the wild. In the case with domesticated horses, humans have had their influence on the breeding method throughout the years, and live cover generally exist in two variations: Pasture breeding and In-hand breeding.

What is pasture breeding?

Pasture breeding is when the stallion is placed in a pasture together with one or several mares at a time. This allows the stallion to make heat cycle checks and cover the mares as he pleases throughout the season. Usually, this means that the mares are covered multiple times when in heat. Physical contact between stallion and mare is inevitable when both are in pasture, and some stallions can get quite aggressive. As of such, the horses are at risk of injury. If your mare have difficulty getting pregnant then pasture breeding can give you a better chance of success, especially if the stallion’s semen is of good quality.

Cons with pasture breeding

  • Stallions and mares in pasture breeding figure out in-between themselves when they’re ready to cover or be covered.
  • Semen is kept in the stallion’s testicles and are not effected by external factors
  • Human influence is kept at a minimum while the horses are in pasture
  • Less expensive and only few cases where a veterinarian is needed
  • Pasture breeding is easy because the horses figure out everything themselves

Cons with pasture breeding

  • Too many mares in the same pasture can exceed what the stallion is able to cover or handle.
  • Due to physical contact the horses are at risk of getting injuries
  • In-hand breeding have a higher chance of spreading disease from horse to horse
  • Uncertainty in determining the date of gestation
  • Routine check up is time-consuming and more difficult
  • Pasture breeding require you to transport your mare (and foal) to the stallion’s location

What is in-hand cover?

In-hand cover is a very common breeding method. Favored by many horse breeders, the method involves the process of bringing the stallion and the mare together when the mare is in heat. Typically, the process requires at least two people – one person with experience and another person to hold the mare while the stallion cover her. With in-hand breeding most of the work is found in the preparation, while a cover only last a couple of minutes.

Pros with in-hand breeding

  • The stallion is able to check himself when the mare is in heat and ready
  • Stallion semen collection using a phantom mare is not needed
  • Semen is kept in the stallion’s testicles and are not effected by external factors
  • In-hand breeding is more systematic and it is easier to determine the date of gestation.
  • Less expensive and only few cases where a veterinarian is needed

Cons with in-hand breeding

  • Not only do the horses risk injury, but the people involved as well.
  • The mare can kick and inflict damage to the stallion
  • The stallion can be aggressive and inflict damage to the mare
  • In-hand breeding have a higher chance of spreading disease from horse to horse
  • Pasture breeding require you to transport your mare (and foal) to the stallion’s location

What is insemination?

Insemination involves artificial semen transfer, which generally exists in three variations: Fresh, Chilled and Frozen semen. Common for these insemination methods are that the stallion and the mare never meet physically. In the case with insemination, semen is collected in a container while the stallion covers a phantom mare. Historically, insemination have been used on animals for decades, especially on cattle, but with time insemination has seen an increase in the horse industry as well. As of such, insemination have gotten increasingly popular among horse breeders, because it eliminates the need for transportation and it also allows for larger numbers of mares to be impregnated by the same stallion.

What is fresh semen?

Insemination with fresh semen is usually the preferred method at stud farms that can offer upkeep for the mare. The mare is quickly inseminated with fresh semen after it has been collected due to its 48 hour lifespan. External factors, such as changes in temperature, also effects the semen’s ability to survive and impregnate the mare.

Pros with insemination with fresh semen

  • Insemination allows for a larger number of mares to be impregnated by the same stallion
  • No physical contact between horses and the risk of injury is avoided
  • Perfect alternative for stallions that are participating in sports and are unable to do live cover
  • Insemination with fresh semen reduces the risk of spreading diseases
  • Chilled and frozen semen can be produced simultaneously with fresh semen
  • Impurities and bacteria, normally transferred with live cover breeding, are reduced to a minimum

Cons with insemination with fresh semen

  • The method requires coordination and correct handling of the semen
  • Additional costs are to be expected for upkeep and collecting the semen
  • Transporting the mare to and from the stud farm is required and associated stress can effect the gestation negatively.
  • No physical contact between the horses and human influence is needed for reproduction
  • Semen can be affected by external factors, such as changes in temperature

What is chilled semen?

The characteristic of chilled semen is that the semen is diluted and cooled down to approx. 5 degrees. After the semen has been collected, antibiotics and nutrition is added to prolong the semen’s lifespan. Insemination with chilled semen has a 60% chance of success, which is inherently lower than that of fresh semen, and is due to external factors, such as changes in temperature. On the other hand, chilled semen is perfect for shipping as long as it is stored in special containers, and it can oftentimes arrive for insemination the same day as the order has been placed. Chilled semen (and other insemination-methods in general) share many of the same pros/cons as with fresh and frozen semen, but there are still a few differences you need to be aware of:

Pros with insemination with chilled semen

  • Chilled semen can be ordered and delivered the same day
  • Mares can be inseminated at home and in familiar surroundings
  • Transportation and stress associated with such is avoided
  • Chilled semen is diluted and antibiotics is added to prolong the lifespan of the semen to 24-36 hours
  • Regular checks are conducted on semen quality

Cons with insemination with chilled semen

  • Oftentimes, insemination with chilled semen require veterinarian services and the method is more expensive as of such
  • Some stallion’s semen cannot tolerate refrigeration and thawing
  • It requires more attention towards when the mare is in heat and when the chilled semen should be at disposal
  • The method requires experience, equipment to produce and correct handling of the semen, which increases the costs associated with it

What is frozen semen?

Frozen semen is semen that have been collected and antifreeze-liquid is added so that it can be stored at minus 196 degrees The method prolongs the semen’s lifespan indefinitely Still, the use of frozen semen is widely debated because horse owners pay large sums – often with unknown results – for insemination with frozen semen. Rule of thumb suggests that frozen semen should only be sold if there’s evidence of pregnancy in mares. This is due to the fact that some stallion’s semen loose their ability to impregnate the mare after being frozen, while other stallion’s semen seem to be able to handle it just fine. The chance of success using insemination with frozen semen varies from 10-50% and depends entirely on the semen’s ability to survive freezing temperatures.

Pros with insemination with frozen semen

  • Frozen semen can easily be shipped internationally (in some cases this is possible with chilled semen as well)
  • Frozen semen can be used as an alternative if the stallion is participating in competitions or recovering from an injury
  • Frozen semen can be stored indefinitely, even after the stallion dies

Cons with insemination with frozen semen

  • Insemination with frozen semen have a lower chance of success than other breeding methods, such as insemination with fresh or chilled semen
  • Frozen semen requires involvement from veterinarians and is therefore more expensive than other alternatives
  • Once thawed, the semen has a very short lifespan, which means that insemination must occur close to when the mare is in heat
  • Insemination with frozen semen oftentimes requires multiple attempts to impregnate the mare


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Elias Filt Andersen

Author Elias Filt Andersen

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