The racehorse breeding industry -- both thoroughbred an Standardbred -- has taken a beating recently due to unfavorable economic conditions, but Jim Steele of Shamrock Farms is tackling the problem.
Steele, manager of Shamrock Farms in Westminster, a breeding facility for Standardbreds and thoroughbreds, thought that the time had come for Shamrock to capitalize on its assets.
"With the shrinking thoroughbred market, I wanted us to become a full-service breeding station," Steele said recently. "We were already using the technique of artificial insemination for the Standardbred horses, and I thought there would be a market for it with other breeds that allow it."
Thoroughbreds cannot be bred through artificial insemination. Standardbreds and quarter horses can within certain guidelines, and other breeds -- notably Morgan horses and warm-blood breeds -- routinely allow artificial insemination.
"I know there are a lot of nice show-horse stallions out there that the owners would like to keep in competition during breeding season," Steele said. "Artificial insemination is the perfect solution for allowing a stallion to keep showing at the same time he is breeding mares."
One of the first stallions to take advantage of Steele's new enterprise is DJJJ Ebony Gold, a 16-hand, 8-year-old Morgan. Steele's association with Ebony Gold and the horse's owner, Debbie Griffin, came about through Dr. John Hurtgen of New Freedom, Pa., a noted expert on artificial insemination.
"Dr. Hurtgen recommended Jim and Shamrock because of their complete breeding farm set-up," Griffin said. "The place I boarded Ebony was close to Shamrock and I didn't want to have him breeding at the place where he had to work. So I began taking him over to Shamrock for semen collection."
Ebony, a super competitor and a great stallion, recently pulled off a major coup by placing fourth overall of 14 stallions in the November Hill 100-Day Stallion Testing in Keswick, Va.
He exhibited flowing gaits on the flat, excellent balance, great speed and tremendous scope over jumps. Most of all, however, he is noted for his sweet and cooperative nature.
"The best thing about him is his great attitude and his lovely, big stride," said Bonnie Cook of Glen Devon Stables at Spring Valley Farm, who is training Ebony for driving competition. "And he loves jumping. We saw the video of him jumping at the stallion testing, but we didn't believe it until we got him here."
Two warm-blood stallions will join Ebony Gold at Shamrock this year, and Steele is hoping for more.
Artificial insemination offers benefits for mare owners as well as the stallion owner, Steele said.
"The mare doesn't have to be uprooted from her environment and doesn't have to take the risk of traveling. She can be at home with her owners and her own vet. And if she is a show horse, she won't lose any time, either," he said.
Steele collects a stallion's semen at Shamrock Farm's artificial insemination facility between 4:30 and 5 p.m. At 6:30 it is shipped out of Westminster via Federal Express. It is delivered to the mare's barn by 10 a.m. the following day.
It is getting to be the busy season at Shamrock. Steele and his wife Christy are spending more time with breeding and foaling concerns. Christy is going to have to hang up her saddle and bridle for a few months, and Jim is going to have to unhitch Lucy, his favorite driving horse, from her cart.
"I've taken up driving [a horse-drawn cart] recently and it's a great diversion," Steele said. "I don't [fox] hunt anymore and this is a way to do something with horses."