Intracytoplasmic sperm injection is the technique of choice for equine IVF and, in a research setting, 18–36% of injected oocytes develop to blastocysts. However, blastocyst development in clinical programs is lower, presumably due to a combination of variable oocyte quality (e.g. from old mares), suboptimal culture conditions and marginal fertility of some stallions. Furthermore, mitochondrial constitution appears to be critical to developmental competence, and both maternal aging and in vitro embryo production (IVEP) negatively affect mitochondrial number and function in murine and bovine embryos. The present study examined the onset of mitochondrial (mt) DNA replication in equine embryos and investigated whether IVEP affects the timing of this important event, or the expression of genes required for mtDNA replication (i.e. mitochondrial transcription factor (TFAM), mtDNA polymerase γ subunit B (mtPOLB) and single-stranded DNA binding protein (SSB)). We also investigated whether developmental arrest was associated with low mtDNA copy number. mtDNA copy number increased (P < 0.01) between the early and expanded blastocyst stages both in vivo and in vitro, whereas the mtDNA : total DNA ratio was higher in in vitro-produced embryos (P = 0.041). Mitochondrial replication was preceded by an increase in TFAM but, unexpectedly, not mtPOLB or SSB expression. There was no association between embryonic arrest and lower mtDNA copy numbers.