Stallions are animated, vital creatures that awe and intrigue us. And whether we’re new to horses or have years of experience, most of us understand that stallion ownership is a step above and beyond mare or gelding ownership because of the additional responsibilities caring for a stallion entails.
Veterinarians and breeding managers generally attribute the escalated behavior seen in stallions to increased testosterone levels. Of course, there are some exceptionally tractable stallions that are either born with calm dispositions or have been very well trained and maintained. But given the “nature of the beast,” personality conflicts between horses and humans tend to be amplified when a stallion is involved.
The demands a stallion can make on his owner’s time, patience and pocketbook can be overwhelming. Though finding a stallion with whom we are compatible may never be as easy as perusing the personals, you should follow some basic principles when considering stallion ownership.
Dr. Khris Crowe, director of veterinary services and breeding manager at Babcock Ranch in Gainesville, Texas, has worked with stallions for more than 25 years. Her experience has taken her into the top breeding barns around the country. In those 25 years she has learned much about stallion behavior.
“They’ve all got their personalities,” she says, “and they range in how passive or aggressive they are.” But one thing stands out. “No matter what the breed, stallions are first and foremost breeding machines. That’s what they are here to do. That is the agenda of the stallion, to find a mare and breed. It is written on their souls, and you must never forget it is there.”
Your Own Attitude
Before taking on the responsibility of stallion ownership, an individual should have some knowledge of horses and horse behavior. That doesn’t mean that a novice can’t have a great deal of success in dealing with a stallion. It just means, as Crowe explains it, that you “need to know the warning signs of an angry or irritated horse. Most horses will be honest and signal where they are and what they are going to do.”
“Every time I have ever been hurt by a horse, I received a warning,” she recalls. “I have scars from being bitten-that is what I fear most. Horses, especially Arabs and Standardbreds, have a lot of mobility in their necks. When you’re standing with a halter and lead rope, the ability of the horse to turn his head and bite is a hard thing to counteract-and it hurts!”
According to Karina Lewis, a trainer with a master’s degree in psychology, experience with horses is only one advantage when considering owning a stallion. She has witnessed very successful stallion relationships with novice owners. In her opinion, novice owners tend to move more slowly and carefully because their primary motive is for the success of themselves and the stallion. She encourages potential stallion owners to look to knowledgeable resources for help, including skilled professionals.
“Anyone can get along well with a stallion,” Lewis says, “if they have an open mind for knowledge, are willing to network, and step outside of themselves to find solutions.”
Lewis encourages anyone considering stallion ownership to look at their personal relationships and patterns as indicators of whether or not they will be good candidates.
“If you are continually having conflicts in your personal life, that may be a good indicator that you will have a conflict in your personal relationship with a stallion,” she says.
Aside from personal demands, stallion ownership creates huge demands on time and resources. Trainer and clinician John Lyons firmly believes that every hour spent with a gelding translates into 15 to 20 hours with a stallion to get him to the same level of consistency in his performance. For that reason, John doesn’t currently own any stallions. His symposium partners, Preacher and Charlie, are both geldings.
Author and renowned horse expert Dr. Jim McCall adds that if the stallion isn’t turned out into a pasture with a band of mares, a great deal of time can go into just managing a breeding program. If your plan is to breed outside mares as well as your own to your stallion, you will certainly be adding to your workload.
Along with time, stallions require enhanced facilities. “The three strands of wire that held the kids’ pony won’t work for a stallion,” laughs Dr. Crowe. Providing a safe, secure environment is essential for everyone concerned.
Before the stallion arrives, you should walk the property. Look at stalls, fences and paddocks and be certain that these structures are formidable-that the stallion can’t go over, under or through. Stalls should be tall enough that the stallion can’t get his jaw over the top of the side when standing on his hind legs. The safest fence is a tight woven mesh with a wooden, metal or vinyl sight barrier along the top-tall enough to reach the base of the horse’s neck. For paddocks, think about how much contact he’ll have with other horses-some stallions get along well with others, and some don’t.
Whether you are dealing with a young stallion in training or an older stallion with training and experience, Dr. Sharon Crowell-Davis believes no stallion should be kept isolated. Davis, a professor of veterinary behavior at the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine, says, “Isolation can be very stressful for any horse, and that’s where we run into developing behavioral problems.”
Davis explains that horses are herd animals and are socially designed to need companions. As such, stallion ownership may also mean that you should have another horse, probably a calm gelding, or perhaps a goat as a companion. But be sure to keep an eye on the stallion and his buddy, so that a cranky stud doesn’t abuse the companion animal.
If a stallion is becoming a problem to himself or others, the first consideration is whether or not to geld the horse. Both Crowe and McCall agree that it is never too late to geld and that changes in behavior can be expected within a few days for most new geldings. If that’s not an option, perhaps the stallion can be placed in a breeding facility. If neither of those is an option, an owner may need to think about selling.
In the event that a stallion must be castrated or sold, Karina Lewis cautions against feelings of failure. She encourages people to look at how they arrived at their decision. Examine whether it was a decision that caters to the benefit and welfare of the stallion and that they made an effort based on their best capabilities.
Crowe cautions that many stallions are constantly testing their boundaries. She adds that in order to have a successful relationship, you have to respect a stallion and he must respect you.
“I think respect is based in fairness,” says Crowe. “Respect doesn’t come from yelling or beatings. It comes from a stallion being able to trust what you are going to do in any situation and from that horse being disciplined.
“Stallions will accept fair discipline,” she confirms. “In fact, stallions thrive in an environment where they understand what is expected and what will not be tolerated.”
Dr. Jim McCall believes this is where both novice and experienced horsemen often make critical mistakes. According to McCall, there is a very definite line that must be drawn when handling a stallion.
“A lot of people don’t have a clear vision of that line,” McCall explains. “They know they need to get that stud’s respect, but the line is fuzzy. Stallions are masters at easing up to that line and seeing how sharp you are at defining it. They can push it so delicately, so innocently, that you don’t see them coming.”
In some instances, not knowing how to clearly define a stallion’s boundaries can lead to inconsistent handling methods, over-disciplining a stallion, or actually abusing one, these professionals agree.
McCall suggests that one way to discipline a stallion is simply to make a loud noise. “You don’t have to hurt them,” McCall says. “You just have to get their attention.”
A good example is the popping sound of a cupped hand striking the neck or shoulder. “It’s not always that easy,” McCall admits, “but it’s that philosophy that if you can get their attention, you don’t have to be rough. You just have to do something that impresses them.”
Crowe agrees, but she also believes that part of the answer can be found in nature.
“Think of how horses communicate with each other,” she says. “Horses in the wild will do one of two things to discipline another horse. They’ll either kick-which is a very hard, blunt blow-or they will bite. This isn’t some bad-habit nip. They come with the full force of their body, and the blow is as decisive as the bite.”
While Crowe works confidently and calmly around stallions, she is never complacent. She warns that there may be occasions when a person has to take defensive action in response to a stallion’s aggressive move, such as delivering a blunt blow with a closed fist to the neck, chest, shoulder or buttock.
“That blow is for the horse that opened his mouth and came at me to bite, strike or kick me,” Crowe says. “He’s got to expect that, in our relationship, I am dominant and he is not allowed to lash out.”
Crowe also believes that no discipline should occur more than three seconds after the offense, and the horse’s eyes, ears and face are strictly off-limits.
“Discipline has to be quick, firm, clear and appropriate,” Crowe explains, and notes that whipping and kicking are never the correct responses.
“Whips are foreign to stallions,” Crowe points out. “He has nothing in his makeup to relate to the sting of a string whip. It’s painful, frightening, sharp and, I think, anger-provoking.”
Likewise, she believes that a handler should never pick on a stallion. Constantly slapping at a horse and jerking on a lead chain are not only ineffective, they can be downright dangerous, provoking the stallion to lash out in frustration.
John Lyons has never been an advocate of using a chain and suggests using a snaffle bit instead when leading a stallion that may be feeling full of himself. Crowe feels some stallions do respect the use of a chain with a halter as an extra measure of restraint, but it must be used judiciously.
“A lead chain used appropriately can be helpful, but it should never go under a lip or in a mouth,” Crowe clarifies. “Usually over the nose or under the jaw is sufficient.”
Like a bit, pressure should be applied only to the degree needed to get a response, and the pressure should be released the instant a horse complies to a request. Never jerk the chain, which could cause an instant, extreme reaction such as head flinging, rearing or striking.
A Place in the World
Regardless of their special needs, stallions have an important place in the world. While Crowe agrees that stallions are often a challenge due to their heightened sense of awareness, she prefers to work with a stallion over any other individual.
“I find them to be ultimately fair and very much the same from day to day,” Crowe explains. “Stallions are more aware of their surroundings, but they are also more analytical, more thoughtful, and very businesslike. In order to have a successful relationship, you have to respect him and his place in the world.”
John Lyons adds, “There are a lot of peculiarities and a lot of surprises with stallions. God put inside the stallion a reason to be here on earth, and that is to reproduce. If he didn’t have that strong desire, then we wouldn’t have horses. We need them to maintain our herds and the horses we love.”
Getting Along with Stallions
Stallion temperaments are as individual and varied as the breeds that comprise the species. Some stallions are docile as lambs, while others can be as ferocious as lions. But nurture, as much as nature, can influence a stallion’s attitudes and behavior, which is why handling and training are so important. From an early age, a colt must be taught manners and learn where he fits into the horse-human hierarchy.
Many people get into trouble with stallions because they take an overly aggressive, “show him who’s boss” approach. While rambunctious colts must learn to respect human boundaries, John Lyons insists that establishing a good working relationship with a stallion requires intelligent handling rather than force.
According to John, the key is to put the horse’s mind and body to work in fair and fruitful ways. By getting small, consistent acts of obedience (hips over, head down, move your feet, accept the bit, etc.), you establish dominance while developing a kind and useful partnership.
Toward that goal, it helps to know some basic things about stallion behavior and development:
• Sexual play is common even in very young colts, but some youngsters are actually capable of breeding mares prior to their first birthdays.
• Raising a colt in a herd environment can help young males learn social skills that may be harder to teach an “only” colt. However, colts should be separated from mares and fillies by 9 or 10 months of age.
• Stallions tend to have large reserves of energy and very active minds, so plan to devote extra time and patience to training and exercise. Training and turn-out will help alleviate boredom and circumvent bad habits.
• Colts tend to be mouthy by nature, so be prepared to implement handling practices that discourage nipping or biting, such as paying extra attention to the horse’s head, and positioning yourself out of grabbing range.
• Rough handling can either cow a timid stallion or provoke a dominant stallion into mean or aggressive acts, such as biting, striking, rearing, charging and kicking.
• Stallions may exhibit seasonal changes in their attitude and behavior due to fluctuations in hormones, so don’t take a gentle disposition for granted, especially during breeding season.
• Stallions are social animals. While a stallion may not be able to live among a group, he should reside within seeing and calling distance to other horses in a safe, secure environment.
• Young stallions who may be gentle and easy to handle as 2- and 3-year-olds may become more dominant and harder to control as they mature sexually and socially.
• With proper training and conditioning, stallions readily learn to recognize when it’s okay to exhibit breeding behavior and when it’s time to be a gentleman.
• Temperament is a heritable trait. If a stallion is mean, aggressive or hard to handle, keeping him as a breeding horse is probably not the right decision.
Success with a stallion requires a tremendous commitment on the part of the owner. And in truth, in domestic settings, most stallions don’t lead ideal lives. Because of the driving force of their nature, care and caution must be exerted whenever and wherever a stallion is housed, turned out, or taken out on the trail or for an event. So consider the decision carefully before you decide to buy a stallion or leave your colt a stud.
Is your Colt Stallion Worthy?
Author and horseman Dr. Jim McCall is a nationally recognized expert on horse behavior, training and management. He has been instrumental in the development of horse programs at Texas A&M University, the University of Maryland, and Louisiana Tech University. He has raised more than 100 stallions and firmly believes that, even before you breed a mare, you should know something about how the potential colts will turn out.
“You should know which ones are possible stallions and which ones are meant to be geldings,” he explains.
The first thing to look at is pedigree. In any breed or registry, is this colt good enough to be a stallion prospect?
“There’s an old saying in the stud business,” McCall recounts. “If you tell somebody who the daddy of your stallion is and you have to say anything more than that, you don’t have a stallion.”
Second is conformation. Everyone has an opinion regarding what age a colt will best resemble his future adult form. McCall believes that the ideal age is 4 months. At this age, an owner can get a good idea of the conformation the colt will have as a mature stallion, according to McCall, and can look for breeding-quality conformation.
If a young horse meets the first two criteria, an owner can probably leave a colt intact until he reaches an age where his disposition is more obvious. Is the colt tractable enough to be easy to handle, breed or show? While most people wait until the horses have reached 2 or 3 years of age before deciding to geld or not, McCall generally decides by age 12-14 months. “They’re usually showing by then how aggressive they are going to be,” he said.
The final determining factor is performance record. Is this horse outstanding enough to warrant being a breeding prospect?
Once all of these criteria have been met and you feel you have an exceptional individual worthy of passing on his genetics, you must then decide if you are breeding for profit or pleasure.
If your objective is to preserve or improve your own bloodlines, you have a good foundation on which to build. However, unless you are going to breed more than five mares, McCall believes an owner would be better off financially, and would likely get better genetics, if he bought the stud services of proven horses.
“The only real reason to keep a stud,” McCall emphasizes, “is to decrease the management and/or shipping of mares.”
If your objective is to make a profit, your next step is to decide on a stud fee based on the stallion’s economic value. Most breed associations and journals are very good at telling how many stallions are reporting, how many mares are bred, and how many live foals are produced.
In his book The Stallion: A Breeding Guide for Owners and Handlers, McCall reports that across breed lines there is basically one stallion for every 10 mares. This varies a bit by location, so owners should research how many stallions are in their area, what stud prices are, how many mares are in their area, and which ones are good enough for their stud’s price range.
“The market has changed so much in the last 10 years due to embryo transfers, frozen and shipped semen,” McCall notes. “It’s not as simple as it was when you either stood a stud or shipped a mare to the stud.”
In terms of marketing young horses, McCall also believes it is advantageous to leave a horse intact if you are taking him to a sale.
“If you take a yearling gelding to a sale, you are cutting your own throat,” McCall says. “Whether he is a stud prospect or not, he will bring more money intact-no question. I don’t know why; it didn’t used to be that way. It’s just one of the changes in the economic picture that just floors me.”
Developing Social Skills
Dr. Sharon Crowell-Davis of the University of Georgia has done extensive research on the development of behavior in foals. Aside from being consistent in your own training methods, her observations reveal that the key to producing a well-behaved adult stallion can be as simple as letting the herd do all the work for you.
Much of Davis’ research has been on mixed group herds with a stallion, several mares, and their foals.
“The social learning that occurs in a herd is very important,” she confirms. “It’s what I call horse ‘etiquette.’ ” In the herd, Davis believes that the natural play that occurs among young horses provides the essential building blocks for future behavior.
“Any colt that gets too rough with his companions – they won’t play with him anymore,” Davis explains. “He learns a lesson that there is a level of aggressiveness he shouldn’t go beyond. It’s with his peers that he learns to place limits on his own behavior.”
Ideally, Davis would like to see all horses raised in mixed colt and filly groups up to about 9 months of age. At that age, they should be split up in order to avoid pregnancies. Once the colts and fillies are split up, colts that are future stallions should be kept together so that they will continue to learn how to interact in an acceptable manner and not be overly aggressive.
Davis feels serious behavioral problems can occur when colts are weaned at 4 months of age and kept isolated from their own species.
“There is a lot this stallion isn’t going to know,” says Davis. “He may reach breeding age and when brought to an estrus mare, he won’t know how to interact because he hasn’t been appropriately socialized.”