How do horses mate?
Like every animal, horses have a mating season every year to participate in natural selection and the continued survival of their species.
The process of horse mating involves a male horse, known as a stallion, approaching a female horse or mare and copulating to fertilize her eggs.
In this article, I will explain everything about horse mating behavior and the breeding season to educate equestrians, especially those who want to have their foal in the future.
Table of Contents
- Mating between horses typically involves the male stallion mounting the female mare.
- The mare’s estrous cycle plays a crucial role in determining the timing of mating.
- Mating behavior can vary significantly among individual horses, including courtship rituals and aggressive behaviors.
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How Do Horses Mate: The Ultimate Introduction to Horse Mating
An old Spanish proverb says, “A horse is worth more than riches” (1).
And better yet, horses don’t have to be rich to attract their mates ― they’re great as they are! But there’s more to learn about the intricate of horse mating:
Amazingly, like most species with mating seasons, horses exhibit specific mating patterns and behavior. So how do horses mate?
Horse mating patterns typically involve a courtship between a mare and a stallion.
Mating is necessary to preserve the horse population. Mares and stallions can mate after reaching sexual maturity at three or four.
Mares can get pregnant and breed with stallions as early as age 2, but this is not recommended because the sexual organs have not fully developed.
They start to show signs of sexual maturity when they reach 1 year old and have their first heat, but it is not safe to breed them so young.
Also, at age 2, the filly is still growing herself, which can cause problems with foaling, and they might not be mentally mature enough to raise a foal.
The three stages of how horses breed are courtship, mating, and postmating behavior. (2)
Courtship is present in the natural mating of wild horses and the mating behavior of domesticated horses, provided they are allowed to breed naturally.
When there is in-hand breeding or forced breeding with human intervention, horses skip the courtship stage and move straight to mating.
In courtship, the highest-ranking stallion in a herd of wild horses or the stallion of choice in domesticated breeding will groom, nuzzle, sniff, and prance around the mare.
The dominant horse is examing the mare’s entire body. This behavior attempts to woo the mare and allow her to demonstrate her acceptance of the stallion before mating.
The mare will kick and bite to tell the stallion she is not ready, stands still, lifts her tail, and urinate. This invites the stallion to mount her, initiating the mating phase of the breeding process.
A mare and stallion pair will often separate from the rest of the herd during mating.
READ MORE: What is a Group of Wild Horses Called?
Understanding Horse Mating
The world of horse mating is a fascinating and intricate dance between mares and stallions.
From courtship behaviors to the delicate balance of anatomy and hormones, horse mating is a complex and crucial aspect of equine biology.
Whether you are a breeder, horse owner, or simply curious, understanding horse mating is essential for providing the best care and support to these magnificent animals.
Ejaculation and Fertilization
Ejaculation and fertilization are the final stages of horse mating.
During copulation, the stallion will ejaculate semen into the mare’s reproductive tract, which contains the eggs waiting to be fertilized.
This process typically occurs within a couple of minutes and is a normal part of horse mating in tamed adult horses.
Regular exercise and a healthy diet can help maintain a stallion’s fertility, which is vital for stallion owners to remember to breed their horses.
Loss of fertility in horses can be a concern, but this is usually a result of underlying health issues or problems with their environment.
In a natural setting, stallions may fight over mares, but in a tamed herd, they usually mate peacefully with their chosen herd mate.
How Long Do Horses Mate For?
The entire mating process can take hours to days, depending on the closeness and sexual attraction between the stallion and mare pair.
The mounting process between a stallion and mare usually takes less than one minute, and a wild stallion can mate with 2 mares within 7 minutes.
The mating behavior varies significantly between stallions and mares, so these numbers can change. Each pair takes things at their own pace.
Horses mate usually only in the spring and summer, both in domesticated breeding and in the wild. Mares rely on the long days during this time of year to initiate their estrus cycle.
However, some breeds like Arabians, Thoroughbreds, and the American Quarter Horse are made to breed in the late winter months and early spring in the hopes of producing foals early in the year.
This is because all domestic horses officially have their birthday on the 1st of January.
Since many competitions and races are age-based, an early foal will be more physically mature than foals born later in the year.
To do this, mares are put under lights so they come into season earlier.
Horses that are more mature and have better development perform better in races and shows. This is key in horse racing when racing at 3 years old.
Stallions usually mount the mare from the back, as their reproductive organs are found behind their tail and hind legs.
To mount, the stallion wraps its front legs around the barrel of the mare and holds on, resting its head against the mare’s back.
The stallion usually dismounts the mare within 15 seconds of initiating the mating behavior.
The two horses’ mating will typically whinny, nicker, squeal, and grunt with varying intensities and durations.
Postmating Behavior Stage
Postmating behavior is the behavior after the mating process is complete, which may include attempts by the stallion to re-mount the mare. (4)
These repeated mounting attempts can damage the relationship between the mare and the stallion.
Horses may also fall over after completing mating behavior, and I will discuss the reasons why this happens later.
CHECK: Horse Genders Explained
When is Horse Breeding Season?
Horses are seasonal breeders, meaning they breed at specific times during the year. The natural breeding season for horses is from early spring into late summer.
The reason horses are seasonal breeders is that their gestation period is 11 months long, and the warm spring and summer climate is the best to raise foals in.
Also, the lack of sun in the winter months prevents mares from going into heat. Essentially during this time, their reproductive cycling shuts down.
Mares have their estrous cycle during breeding, so they have to take advantage of the spring and summer.
CHECK: Horse Coughing Remedies
How Often Does a Horse Come in Heat?
Mares come into heat every 21 days. A mare’s estrous or heat cycle typically lasts 7 days but can be anywhere from 4 to 10 days long. Heat length is different from mare to mare.
The first heat cycle of the season is usually irregular, but the rest proceed as usual.
During the estrous cycle, the mare ovulates in the hopes that one of her eggs will be fertilized through mating with a stallion.
While in heat, mares urinate frequently and change their behavior to become receptive to the stallion.
They will squeal and whinny often to get a stallion’s attention and gain his advance. Mares may also lift their tail toward a stallion to reveal their reproductive organs.
Some mares are very obvious and will also display these behaviors to geldings! I have one of these mares myself!
This teases the stallion and invites them to begin the courtship process. While in heat, mares can also be more irritable and resistant to work under the saddle and on the ground.
I have been around a mare in heat before, and it is a sight.
My friend was bringing her mare back from the pasture to be groomed, and she urinated right in front of us and was uncomfortable.
Both of us were surprised at first but had a good laugh about it afterward.
The gestation period for a pregnant mare average anywhere from 330 to 342 days. However, mares can carry their foal over this period. My mare foaled at 345 days. (5)
Mares have some control over when they foal. They can hold out for better weather. It’s pretty amazing!
About 6 to 9 days after foaling, mares exhibit a behavior called foal heat. Foal heat is a mare’s first estrus cycle after having a foal. This can take place anywhere from 5 to 15 days after foaling.
Why Do Horses Fall After Mating?
After mating is complete, it is typical for the mare and stallion to fall over. Why do horses fall over after mating? There are four main reasons for this:
- It is their first time mating– the stress of the first mating experience and the aggression of the stallion in mating causes the pair to fall over.
- Hormone Imbalances– if the hormones of the mare and stallion are imbalanced; this leads to changes in behavior which cause both of them to fall after mating.
- Stress– if the mare and stallion are chronically stressed due to the conditions they mate in, the pair can fall over. Make sure they have plenty of space to mate to avoid this.
- Syncope– Mare and stallion can both experience syncope, causing fainting due to insufficient blood flow to the brain, potentially even after mating.
Horses falling over after breeding is a situation that no horse owner or breeder wants to face. Knowing what causes this can help you prevent it and ensure your horses have a smooth reproductive cycle.
READ MORE: Do Horses Need a Companion?
Wild vs Domesticated Horse Breeding Behavior
The mating behaviors of a feral herd and domesticated horses have some significant differences. (3)
Primarily, one occurs by instinct and the other surfaces in a controlled environment with and without human interference.
Domestic breeding practices are considered selective breeding because horse owners choose the pairings.
Wild Horse Mating Behavior
Semi-wild and feral horses breed in the late spring and midsummer in a group of one stallion and several mares.
The dominant stallion displays two primary reproductive behaviors: harem formation, courtship, and mating.
Harem formation is everything the stallion does to keep his herd together. While the herd is grazing, the stallion will circle them and be in the back to herd them while they are on the move.
This behavior helps protect the herd from threats. Stallions also mark their territory and exhibit the flehmen’s response when surveying it.
Although all horses use the flehmen response, it is more common in stallions and geldings than mares. The flehmen response helps horses investigate smells.
Young colts who are not the dominant males can form a bachelor herd to find their mares to mate with.
When looking at how do horses mate, wild horses show the most natural behavior.
In the wild, feral horses initiate their mating behavior. The dominant horse will prance up to their choice mare with an arched neck and raised tail.
The prancing is usually accompanied by stomping, whinnying, and snorting. The stallion will nip at her and kick or strike in the days before the mare’s estrus cycle.
If the mare continues to display threatening and nonreceptive behavior like kicking, squealing, and pinning her ears at the stallion, he will leave her alone.
The initial behavior will be aggressive even when the mare is in heat.
Mares in heat will display courtship behavior such as lifting the tail and, presenting the reproductive organs to the stallion, urinating frequently.
After the courtship, if the mare accepts the bachelor stallion, the stallion will mount her and begin mating.
The stallion dismounts the mare after 15 seconds and may sniff or urinate over any of the secretions given off in mating.
The entire mating process usually takes place in a minute or less, and feral stallions can mate with the same mare multiple times with a few minutes pause in between.
The mating behavior of feral stallions is highly organized and based on a dominance hierarchy. Stallions compete to mate; only the alpha stallion can breed with the mares.
CHECK: Do Horses Mate for Life?
Here is a video showing giving information on horse breeding and mating:
Domestic Horse Breeding Behavior
How do horses mate in a domestic environment? In a domestic setting, the social behavior horses exhibit before mating is hindered.
There is selective breeding, where the mare owner decides what stallion to pair with her.
An owner may have only a couple or many mares in their breeding stock. Most breeders focus on just one breed of horse.
On breeding farms and other stables, the stallions are usually kept separate from the mares and geldings so that they do not engage in sexual behavior before the scheduled breeding date.
Interaction with mares is limited to breeding. Mating is allowed by three different methods on domestic breeding farms:
- Natural cover pasture breeding– the stallion and two or more mares are placed in a pasture to engage in courtship and mating on their terms.
- Natural cover in hand-the stallion is presented to the mare while haltered by the handler on one or more days when the mare is in heat.
- Artificial insemination– a collection of semen from the stallion followed by intrauterine infusion of semen into the broodmares of choice.
The stallion will likely be muzzled for the in-hand cover to prevent biting. Alternatively, a protective cover is put on the mare so the stallion can’t harm her.
While the mare’s hind legs are tied in breeding hobbles to stop her from kicking and a twitch so that she will see a standstill.
These types of domestic breeding are widespread.
For sport horses, the most common type of breeding is through AI, which allows breeders to use any stallion in the world. The mare and stallion never meet.
It is less natural but safer, especially for horses worth massive amounts.
Thoroughbred breeding is still only allowed by in-hand, natural cover.
Do horses mate with their offspring?
Stallions are not inclined to mate with their offspring. If families mate with each other, it is because of human interference.
Can horses mate with ponies?
Ponies can breed with horses. One of the most popular crosses between a horse and a pony is the Welsh Pony x Thoroughbred.
Do horses have a mating season?
Horses are seasonal breeders so they do have a mating season. It goes from the early spring months to the late summer months.
Do male horses mount other males?
Male-on-male horse mating is uncommon. You might see it on rare occasions among a group of colts but it is more play or practice behavior than actual mating.
How do horses mate? Every year in the early spring and late summer, mares start their reproductive cycle, which is horse breeding season.
The stallion courts and mates with the mare at their own pace. Wild and domestic horse breeding have differences because one has human influence, and the other does not.
I hope this has given you some more insight into how horses breed. If you have any questions, leave them in the comments.
How do horses mate? Let me know your opinion below!
How do horses mate? Let me know your opinion below!
1. Silver M. 15 of the greatest horse quotes of all time (from Churchill to Shakespeare) [Internet]. Horse & Hound. 2020. Available from: https://www.horseandhound.co.uk/features/best-horse-quotes-of-all-time-637724
2. Landsberg GM, Denenberg S. Social Behavior of Horses – Behavior [Internet]. Merck Veterinary Manual. 2022. Available from: https://www.merckvetmanual.com/behavior/normal-social-behavior-and-behavioral-problems-of-domestic-animals/social-behavior-of-horses#:~:text=During%20courtship%20the%20stallion%20will
3. McDonnell S. Reproductive Behavior of the Stallion. Veterinary Clinics of North America: Equine Practice. 1986;2:535–55.
4. Li X-W, Jiang H-X, Zhang X-C, Shelton AM, Feng J-N. Post-Mating Interactions and Their Effects on Fitness of Female and Male Echinothrips americanus (Thysanoptera: Thripidae), a New Insect Pest in China. PLoS ONE [Internet]. 2014;9:e87725. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3906220/
5. Landsberg GM, Denenberg S. Introduction to Behavior of Horses – Horse Owners [Internet]. Merck Veterinary Manual. 2022 [cited 2023 Feb 3]. Available from: https://www.merckvetmanual.com/horse-owners/routine-care-and-breeding-of-horses/breeding-and-reproduction-of-horses
Bryanna is a 23-year-old Florida-based Grade 1 Para-dressage rider based in Florida and she has been riding for 5 years. Horses are her passion and her ultimate goal is to be selected for the US Para-Equestrian Team and represent the US at the Paralympics. She rides at Quantum Leap Farm and Emerald M Therapeutic Riding Center and her equine partners are Shane, an American Paint Horse, and Cappy a Welsh x Thoroughbred. When she is not helping at the barn, riding, or training, she is learning about horses, writing articles about them, and using her social media platforms to raise awareness for therapeutic riding and para-equestrianism, shares her journey, and advocates for greater inclusion of para-equestrian in the media and equestrian sport at large.
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