Dr. Carly Turner looks for an embryo. • Photo by Bridget Kirkwood.

Health Matters: The Tale of Embryo Transfer

I have always thought the strength of the breeding business is a solid indicator of the health of the horse industry in general. So, when more and more people start asking me what it takes to do an embryo transfer, the better feeling I have about the current horse market. 

There will always be a segment of the population that can and will pursue embryo transfer for multiple reasons, but when longtime breeders who have never done embryos are getting in the game, it is the rising tide of a good economy that is floating the embryo boat. 

With the ever-increasing specialization of the horse industry, the breeding business is a good example of how that works to horse owners’ benefit. In the past, embryos were routinely done at an all-in-one facility — meaning you took your mare to the breeding farm, then took her and a pregnant recip home when things were complete. 

Now, facilities specialize in donor mare management to optimize efficiency, consolidate resources and cater to problem breeders. This is done at standalone facilities, as well as individual farms. 

The all-in-one facilities still exist but are competing with embryo transfer facilities that are more or less “receiving stations” for prepared embryos from other donor mare management operations. They specialize in recipient mare management and strictly do the transfers. And, God bless them for doing it because maintaining a good, healthy herd of recip mares is the closest thing to owning a dairy you can do in the horse business. I know from personal experience. They are exactly like kids in that they eat non-stop, take up a lot of space and tend to tear things up at a high rate of speed. 

Stud selection and fees aside, I see embryo transfer as having three main parts; you need to be aware of all of three when considering the costs and steps of the process. The first set of expenses is the standard breeding cycle. Whether your mare carries or is flushed, they get bred the same way. 

For non-maiden mares, it is always best to have her uterus cultured prior to breeding to ensure the best success based on the money you’re betting on this cycle. Next will be all the rectal ultrasound exams to determine when your mare is ready to breed, as well as ovulatory agents typically used to limit the times you have to order semen and inseminate your mare. 

Be sure to check your stallion contract prior to breeding to avoid unexpected charges when collecting and shipping semen. Healthy mares are done for a few days after insemination and ovulation, but some mares may require follow-up exams and uterine treatments to optimize success. Be sure to factor in the board bill or the time and expense of hauling mares to and from the breeding facility, too. 

The second set of expenses come at the embryo flush. Typically done eight days post ovulation, this is the quickest and least expensive step in the process. Ideally, mares should just be chilling out and living the easy life prior to their flush, but we all have stories of mares brought in for their flush with wet outlines of saddle pads. Try to avoid the urge to do that. All-in-one facilities will often include the flush fees in the total price, where donor mare sites will charge a fee for this very important step. Other minor expenses during the flush may include sedation, oxytocin and prostaglandins to complete the process.

Now, here is where the tree may branch based on the success of the flush. You cycle the mare back around either way, but you at least know you have an embryo to transfer or you are starting the process over because you came up empty. So, back to step one or on to step three. 

This is the best part — picking up a pregnant recipient mare who is carrying your little champion! This is the largest single expense. Because you’re a good mare owner, and had all your paperwork and contracts done well ahead of time, you paid the deposit to secure your recip back before all this started. 

Now that your jewel of a recip mare is 40 days in foal, all you have to pay is the balance of the embryo contract to take her home. Theoretically, your embryo transfer expense ends when you close the door on the trailer; however, you now have another horse to feed. Plus, you get to fix what they break and maintain her health at a high level because of all the money you’ve tied up in her. 

As you can see, the total cost of an embryo transfer has a few moving parts. In the best-case scenario — with a nice, young, healthy mare bred to a fertile stallion — you’ll be done in a few weeks with around $4,000 added to the price of your new foal. If you’re dealing with older mares, uterine issues or incompatible breedings, you may be well past that amount. 

Breeding in general, but embryo transfer specifically, requires patience and money. If you go into things knowing what to expect, one will not run out before the other and you’ll have a great breeding season. 

This Health Matters column was published in the February 1 issue of Quarter Horse News. To purchase this issue, click here.