This week as a stallion manager started off eventfully! Therefore, I am going to format my blog post a bit different this time. Since the internship is getting busy, I think I will be taking quite a large number of pictures. So, the plan will be to have photos intertwined with my writing, instead of having them all at the bottom of the blog post. If it works well, I will keep writing them this way. With that all being said, I am also going to try to write throughout the week instead of waiting until Sunday and trying to remember back 7 days - that way each blog post will be a bit more detailed and well-written.
Here goes nothing:
(Please bear with me as I figure out how to be a proficient blogger)
Monday began with our usual palpations, we had five mares to do (Coco, Yellow, Rockville, Heather, and Sadie). After Kelli palpated each mare and we recorded what was going on with ovaries, tone, and the fluid and folds in the uterus, Anthony and I got to go into two of the mares - Yellow and Coco.
The anatomy on the inside of the mares, although obviously similar since they are both horses, were quite different from one another. With Yellow, the palomino mare, I could pretty well feel both her left and right ovaries. In Coco, the bay mare, it was extremely challenging to reach her right ovary, but not the left. I learned that not only is each mare individually different in how their tracts are, but also that depending on the mares point in her cycle, it may or may not be easier to feel the ovaries and other structures. As an example, Monday, Yellow had just recently ovulated. She was coming out of heat and was therefore more toned under the influence of the hormone progesterone. Contrastingly, Coco had a large follicle and was in heat, and therefore very flaccid and relaxed due to being under the influence of estrogen. This might’ve attributed to the reason why Coco was not as easy to be palpated as Yellow. (But Yellow is also a perfect princess and a queen broodmare, so there’s that).
I need to go back and check our records, but I think we have had at least half of the girls have their first ovulations of the season which is quite exciting. Pretty soon we are going to be never leaving the barn so we can get these gals in foal!
This is a picture of one of our thoroughbred mares, Heather, rocking her Equilume. Equilume is a system that helps to regulate the horse's internal rhythm by utilizing blue light. The blue light shines by the right eye of the horse to synchronize an internal clock. I may have mentioned this in previous posts, but horses are long-day breeders, meaning they are seasonally polyestrous and go out of season in the winter. With the help of the Equilume system, we are bringing two of our thoroughbred mares into season earlier than they would be on their own.
Your next question might be why would we want to breed our mares earlier than they would naturally?
For most of the horse industry, the universal "birthday" for every horse is on January 1st of each year. This is regardless of what month your horse is born in. For a bit of a radical example, but one most people are familiar with: The Kentucky Derby is an American thoroughbred race that is for 3-year-old colts. If your colt was born on January 1st, 2015, he would be running in the Kentucky Derby in May of 2018 (this year!) at the age of 3 years and 4 months of age. However, if your colt was born on December 31st, 2014 (just one day earlier), he would technically be "3" on January 1st, 2017, and therefore would be competing at just over 2 years of age, giving him a less competitive edge. His body would be less mature, he would have had much less time to train and condition, etc. So a horse that was born 364 days after January 1st on December 31st would be considered the same age.
After finishing the mares, I was able to get Protege out since Anthony stayed at the barn to spot me. (As horse barn interns, we only ever work in pairs with the studs)
Protege was moved out to his larger pen in the middle of the facility last week and has been very happy about it. He gets to see a lot of pretty mares pass by and attracts a large number of visitors. (I see a couple people a day trying to take selfies with him through the bars of his pen -- I don't blame them, he's pretty cute!) When Anthony and I got to his pen, he was very excited, and we were both worried he was going to be a handful. We were wrong! We walked him from his pen into the barn aisle cross-ties with no problem, and not even one bray. We groomed him up and put his Professional Choice boots on and went out to the arena to lunge.
This week we got up to about 20 minutes of lunging for Protege. He is slowly getting back into shape! He was fantastic on the lunge on Monday morning, and afterwards very cuddly (as you can see below in the picture of us together).
I think one of the biggest things I have learned so far about Protege, and I believe donkeys in general, is that they do not respond to punishment as well as they respond to positive reinforcement. I am not sure if this has to do with the stoic nature of the donkey or what exactly it comes down to, but when you punish a horse they are very reactive. Horses are also very sensitive to negative reinforcement (think removing leg pressure as a response to your horse moving the direction you wanted). Donkeys seem to emote so much less than horses do, and therefore do not respond to stimuli in the same way. Things that have worked for me when working with or (attempting to) train horses, absolutely do not work with Protege. It has been interesting and a great learning experience thus far. I feel like UC Davis needs an Equine Psychology course or something. With all of that being said, I feel like each week I figure out how to work with him a little better. He loves ear scratches, and he loves attention, and I think he also appreciates having somebody with confidence but a relatively soft hand.
Monday afternoon we had our weekly stallion manager meeting. We started teasing our herd of mares and collected Dun for the first time. From now on we will be teasing our mares on both Tuesday and Thursday of each week to see if they are displaying outward signs of heat. Since we palpate our mares Monday/Wednesday/Friday the purpose of this is really to see if there is a mare that isn't on the palp schedule that should be (I.e. If we have a mare displaying strong signs of heat but isn't on our list for palpating the next day, we might decide to palpate her and see what's going on).
We tease on a scale of 0-4, 0 being absolutely not interested in the stallion and 4 being extremely interested in the stallion and not wanting to walk past him, among other things. (I will add a picture of our tease scale descriptions at a later date). We tease the mares by putting Dun into his tease stall and walking the mares by him. Basically, he can only stick his head out of the stall, which keeps the mares and the handlers safe.
After we finished teasing the mares and recording their scores, we began prepping to collect Dun. At the horse barn, we never live cover and only collect for artificial insemination. We collect the stallions with a Colorado AV (Artificial Vagina) and a phantom.
To prepare the AV, we have to line it with a sterile liner (either latex or disposable plastic, depending on the stud), and then attach something to the distal end of it to collect the semen. We use bottles that are in koozies (Yes, like what would hold your beer), because they help to regulate the temperature. I learned this week that literally everything kills sperm - the incorrect temperature, water, air, etc. - they really are finicky little cells. We add some alligator clamps to both ends to make sure nothing moves around too much during the collection process. We then take a palpation glove (the ones that go all the way up to the shoulder) and put it on, inverted, so that we can put non-spermicidal lubricant on the inside of the AV. After that, the next step is to fill the AV bladder with water at the proper temperature for the stallion. Luckily we have a thermometer that tells us what the correct temperature is, but it really is a science. You don't want it too hot, but if it isn't warm enough the stallion won't (for lack of more science-y terms) enjoy it. We put another larger Koozie-type thing on the end of the AV that has the collection cup to help further insulate.
Once the AV was prepped, we moved it into the breeding shed along with a hygiene bucket we had to prepare for the stallion with bathtub-temperature water and sheet cotton. We also grabbed one of the mares that teased strongly that afternoon and put her in the stocks in the breeding room for extra stimulation for Dun. Once those three things were in place, the handler and the collector put on helmets and went to get Dun.
Dun walks a lap around the property before he goes into the breeding shed, which is for him to distinguish between when he is getting out of his pen for breeding versus when he is getting out of his pen for anything else. If it is for anything else, he should act like a gelding. During this walk to the breeding shed, he is allowed to call to mares, drop, and act like a stud, as long as he is safe for his handler. You can see here that during his lap he was already dropped, but was walking respectfully next to Kelli.
Once Dun reaches the breeding shed, the handler and the collector work together with a very close line of communication. The handler needs to be focused on the front 1/2 of the stallion's body, whereas the collector is focused on the back 1/2 of the stallions body and communicates what is going on back there to the handler. This line of communication is imperative to keep both parts of the team safe. The collector will hygiene the stallion's penis with the sheet cotton, and then grab the AV and communicate to the handler when he is fully erect and ready to be collected.
Because this novel above has only been for Monday, I will spare you all of the information about what we do in the lab, but I will explain more about it in a later post.
Tuesday was a much less busy day, since for now our busiest of days are MWF. We teased the mares in the afternoon which went by extremely quickly with three stud managers and only about eight mares.
After teasing the mares, we got Protege out to lunge. He was much more of a challenge for us on Tuesday, because he was very strong. Even with his chain on, he wasn't easy for me to lunge because he was being so strong. I asked Jake to lunge him since I have noodle arms and that seemed to be better and by the end of the lunging session he was lighter than when we started. We have only been lunging him walk/trot up until this week so we wanted to start loping him on the line, but he was pretty adamant about staying trotting instead of picking up a lope. We did successfully get a couple rounds of loping in though, so hopefully we will get more in throughout the week.
Wednesday & Thursday
On Wednesday we palpated again in the afternoon and lunged Protege. Protege was much better on Wednesday and Thursday than he was Tuesday, but I am not sure why. He didn't try to pull me around and was quite gentle. I keep hoping that when we have good days like these ones, it's because he is starting to understand that I have good intentions and want to work with him, not against him. I know with every good day there will be some bad though. Thursday we teased the mares again, but for the purpose of not being redundant, I won't go into detail.
The last day of the week was another full one with a lot of learning happening. (Saturday and Sunday were not eventful - I cleaned a pen and fed breakfast, so for all intents and purposes Friday was the end of my week 5!)
In the morning, the mares were palpated and we got promoted to being able to "clean out the mares" before Kelli takes the ultrasound probe in. Since we go in rectally, there are often times fecal balls in the rectum that have to be cleaned out prior to taking the probe in and getting a good image. I am thinking that next week stud managers will get to go in with the probe - which will be awesome! That is definitely something I did not think I would get to experience until veterinary school.
In the afternoon, we collected both Dun and Protege. Since Dun is the astounding gentleman and excellent teaching stallion that he is, I was able to do my first collection. Jake handled him, and Kelli helped me to know what to do (even though I still didn't know what I was doing). It was a nerve-racking experience but I can confidently say a really positive one! I hope that I will get many more opportunities to collect so that I can gain some technique and skill, but it went well for the most part. I did lose like 1/2 of the ejaculate to the floor because I am clumsy and apparently don't understand physics.
Our first time collecting Protege Kelli handled and Jake collected. Protege's collection process is different from Dun's because the behavior of a donkey compared to a horse is quite different. Before bringing a mare into the breeding shed or hygiening, we turned Protege completely loose in the breeding shed and closed the doors. This allowed him to display his territorial behavior and make the room feel like his own. I learned that in the wild, a donkey won't breed a jenny (female donkey) unless he is in his own territory. We kept an eye on him, and when he was done with whatever he felt like he needed to do (rolling, pooping, etc.) he walked toward the door where we were. Kelli haltered him and I brought in a tease mare. After that, he was quite similar to Dun. He took two turns mounting the phantom, but I think it was because I prepped the AV and didn't let out enough water prior to collection. I didn't know this then, but a jack's penis "bells" more than a stallion's does post-ejaculation. We have to account for it by letting more water out of the AV to allow him more space. Once we did that, we collected 100mL of semen from him! There were 956 million sperm/mL of fluid, which means we could've bred 100 mares on farm with just that one ejaculate. Insanity.
Another fun fact: Donkey semen is a darker color than horse semen!
I am looking forward to next week - another crazy one filled with loads of learning, I am sure!