Thursday, May 10, 2018

Thoughts on WFFS

There has been a lot of talk on social media about Warmblood Fragile Foal Syndrome - everything from hysteria to reasonable and responsible education and discussion. It's a tremendously important topic for breeders, because it's breeders who can affect the future of this. It's not in the hands of vets, it's not up to drugs or therapies - it's up to breeders.

North American breeders are leading the way on this, and I'm proud.

We can do this. I understand the hysteria, because if you have a foal who is affected, it's a miserable thing, and that foal will die. But there is no need for hysteria, just a logical breeding plan based on knowledge. It's totally doable. That doesn't mean it's totally easy - but the logical plan is actually pretty simple and doable.

Goal 1: Eliminate all foal deaths due to WFFS immediately. That's easy - see step one.

Goal 2: Eliminate WFFS if possible, or reduce the incidence of the syndrome to almost none. See step two and following.

Both goals are totally possible to achieve.

Step one: never, ever breed a N/WFFS horse to a N/WFFS horse. Because you have a 1 in 4 chance of getting a foal who will die a pretty horrible death. For most breeders, if they care about their horses at all, that's a no-brainer. Goal 1 accomplished.

Step two: Decide if you want to eliminate N/WFFS the fast way or the slower way. Both ways will get you there. The choice is in the hands of each individual breeder. Neither way is bad. It would be great if WFFS could be eliminated in one generation, but there would be a big price to pay. So each breeder must weigh the pros and cons for their own individual breeding animals and make a decision for their own program.

The fast way is if no one ever breeds a N/WFFS horse, period. If you have a breeding animal that is N/WFFS, you take them out of your breeding program. If everyone did this, WFFS would be gone in a generation. That will never happen, for various reasons, and that's ok. And if any individual breeder wants to make this choice and ensure that no horse from their breeding program will carry WFFS into future generations, that's also ok.

The slower way is if no one ever breeds a N/WFFS horse to a N/WFFS horse. That is a realistic goal for every breeder to shoot for and accomplish. If you have a N/WFFS mare, and you only breed to a stallion who is N/N, you will never have a foal who dies of WFFS, and you will not be increasing the number of carriers in the horse population.

Both approaches require testing of all breeding stallions and breeding mares, because you can't know if you're breeding a N/WFFS horse to a N/WFFS horse unless both the mare and the stallion have a known status.

What I'm seeing among many breeders is a consensus to endorse the slow way. If an individual breeder chooses to take the fast way, yay, but the slow way is responsible because it prevents foal deaths from WFFS. If breeders always factor in WFFS status in making new breeding decisions, it will be effective in the long run in reducing the incidence of this syndrome in the whole population.

WFFS for mare owners. If you own a N/WFFS mare, your decision about whether to breed her should be based several factors, including how your decision will affect the future of WFFS. There's no need to immediately pull her from your breeding program - if you breed to a stallion who is N/N, you are not doing anything wrong. However, if you're on the fence about her anyway - you may decide to use her N/WFFS status to tip the balance and take her out of your program. Certainly if she has great value to you as a broodmare, and produces foals who are above the norm and raise the level of quality among our horses, it makes sense to go on breeding her - responsibly. To me that includes not only choosing a sire who is N/N but also testing any female offspring and any male offspring who are not gelded - and making the test results a permanent part of that horse's documentation for any future owners. Whether you make your broodmares' status public is your decision, but doing so will be incredibly valuable in getting accurate numbers to work from in tracking WFFS.

WFFS for stallion owners. WFFS is hardest on stallion owners. The bottom line is that if you have a N/WFFS stallion, you may very well lose breedings because of it. You may decide to remove him from breeding entirely, which will be a wrenching decision for most stallion owners. If you keep him at stud, you must be transparent about his status even though some mare owners will avoid your stallion. Some mare owners will have to, because they have a N/WFFS mare, and some others will even if they don't. But stallion owners have no choice but to take the hit. There is no ethically defensible reason to keep your stallion's status a secret, because mare owners have a right to know. It's the only way they can make responsible breeding decisions that guarantee that no foal will be born with the fatal defect.

North American breeders are in the forefront of education and setting policy about WFFS. That is because one farm - Hilltop Farm, LLC in Maryland - chose to make the most ethical decision, and to make it hugely public. They've set the bar high, and other North American breeders jumped in to advocate for education and open discussion. This is the kind of response that makes me proud and happy to be an advocate of North American breeders.

Individual breeders must now make their own decisions about testing and breeding each mare or stallion. I hope all breeders test all their breeding stock. If an animal is found to be N/WFFS, the next decision is what do do about breeding that animal. I've created a flow chart to help breeders decide what to do in that situation.

Click here to view the flow chart.

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