By the end of the summer, Ahna Cafaro figures she could have up to 35 "grandchildren," as she refers to the offspring of her prize-winning horse, Amazing.
Ms. Cafaro and her husband, Rich, collect and sell "breeding doses" of semen from her 1,400-pound Dutch warmblood stallion from their Hampton farm. Amazing is an 8-year-old bay that Ahna rides in show hunting competitions.
Many horse-breeding facilities rely on a staff to collect, prepare, process and market breeding doses, and often do it under veterinary supervision. But, from collection to laboratory analysis to updating Amazing's Facebook page, the Cafaros do it all themselves.
Although semen collection for the purpose of artificially inseminating mares is popular in the United States, many horse owners prefer natural breeding methods because of their slightly higher conception rate, despite increased risk of sexually transmitted disease and injury to the animals.
However, artificial insemination is often more convenient because one horse can impregnate mares across the country without having to leave the farm.
Brian S. Burks, a veterinarian at Fox Run Equine in Apollo, estimated that there are only a handful of breeding operations like the Cafaros' in the Pittsburgh region, and said that it can be risky to collect breeding doses without the help of at least three people with expertise.
One concern when the equine gene pool is constrained by human intervention is that genetic diversity can be threatened.
"Biodiversity is a concern with artificial insemination," Mr. Burks said. "If you get too many that are related to each other, this could lead to the degeneration of the breed. It's probably not as much of a concern as it should be."
At the Cafaros' Cornerstone Farm, the collection process starts by leading Amazing into a breeding shed, where he is expected to be aroused by a mare that is in an adjoining stall. But instead of allowing Amazing to mount the "tease mare" -- a practice that can be dangerous for both animals -- they direct Amazing to an artificial horse known as a breeding phantom that is anchored to the breeding shed floor.
Even though Ms. Cafaro has been trained to collect breeding doses, and Amazing usually remains calm, it is not always possible to predict exactly how a horse will react. "He knows he's allowed to behave like a stallion. It's a pretty scary process when he mounts the phantom," she said.
To get in position to collect a breeding dose, Ms. Cafaro must situate herself temporarily beneath Amazing. "Rich is holding the horse, so he's in danger of the front feet accidentally hitting him. I am closer to his hind end. If he slides [off] the phantom, he could kill me."
Although there has never been a serious accident, on one occasion Amazing passed out after dismounting the phantom. According to Ms. Cafaro, if this had happened during a collection, Amazing could have inadvertently crushed her.
After five minutes, Amazing usually has produced a breeding dose, and Ms. Cafaro heads to her lab to analyze it. She assesses the sperm quality, and if everything checks out, she prepares to send it overnight anywhere from Florida to California.
The Cafaros sell breeding doses to more than a dozen breeders across the country. The stud fee is $1,400, which includes the first dose. For $250 per collection, breeders are allowed to request as many doses as necessary to produce one viable foal within a three-year period. This allows breeders to account for unsuccessful insemination attempts without losing their initial investment in Amazing's offspring. Amazing's conception rate is about 90 percent, the Cafaros said, so few breeders request new collections.
Bloodline, versatility and resume are crucial in attracting breeding business, among other factors.
Amazing has all three.
Amazing's grandsire, Baloubet, is the only horse ever to win three World Cup championships in a row and won a gold medal at Athens in 2004.
Breeders who deal with the Cafaros often look for horses that will be excellent "hunters" or "jumpers," competitive events that demand different skill sets. Jumpers are judged objectively based on speed and agility, whereas hunters are judged subjectively based on style.
Although Amazing competes primarily as a hunter, his bloodline makes him attractive to jumpers as well. Amazing has earned champion or reserve champion status in every show in which he has competed.
It is clear that Amazing is a member of the Cafaro family. Amazing's pedigree initially impressed Ms. Cafaro on an online listing, but when she flew to Oklahoma to evaluate his temperament, she knew she had found her horse.
"He's a once-in-a-lifetime horse. A lot of horses come and go, but this one is really special. He will never live anywhere else, and he's with us for life. He's my buddy."
Alex Zimmerman: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-3909.