STALLIONS ARE ALL BUSINESS
By Jan Swan Wood –November 17, 2008
The ownership of a stallion is more than just owning the horse. There are many risks and responsibilities involved and very few people are capable and/or willing to do what it takes to manage a stallion safely.When the stallion is a foal, most don’t act any different than fillies of the same age, though there are those that exhibit very stallion-like behavior at two to three months of age, complete with marking (urinating on) piles of manure left by mares, mounting, teasing mares and being aggressive toward other horses and people. For the most part, though, the pre-weaning age colt is just another foal and doesn’t begin acting like a stallion until he starts developing as a yearling.
The decision to have a stallion on ones property should be given serious thought and many questions should be answered as to the management of that horse. Some of the things to consider are whether the person is capable of handling a stallion safely; are the facilities adequate to keep a stallion, as well as other horses and people, safe; what is the reason for keeping a stallion; and is keeping a stallion financially feasible.Anyone that handles a stallion should be a knowledgeable horseman with the ability to read horse behavior and know when and how to discipline. If a person’s horses tend to push them around and run the program, that person has no business handling a stallion. If a person is not consistently alert and aware when working with horses, they can get hurt. If that horse is a stallion, it can be serious or even fatal.
The facilities necessary for keeping a stallion are different than for horses in general. The stallion not only needs to be behind a safe barrier, but horses, livestock and people on the other side must be safe as well. Some stallions can tolerate having horses directly across a sturdy fence while others have to have a buffer zone to keep them from kicking or striking the fence and injuring themselves or others. Stallions are generally pretty hard on fences as they do kick and strike at them, so upkeep is a constant concern.The objectives for keeping a stallion are as varied as the stallions themselves. Those that are in the breeding business will have a stallion that they are using in their program and they have a large enough number of mares to make having a stallion financially viable. These people usually are fairly knowledgeable about stallion behavior, have adequate facilities, and manage the stallion in a business-like fashion.
On the other extreme, we have the horse owner who bought or raised a colt and didn’t geld him. They have a mare or two and decide that they want to raise some foals, so their young stud is kept around to do the breeding. They think he will stay as nice as he is as a yearling or two year old and don’t realize how he is going to change as he matures. As time passes he becomes more aggressive toward the owner, and toward other horses and animals. The facilities aren’t adequate and he becomes a danger to the neighborhood as well.
Stallions are complex animals and their behavior is different than horses of other genders. They are very territorial and want no interlopers in their space. They mark their manure piles by urinating and defecating on them daily, and patrol the perimeter of their enclosure, whether a stall, pen or paddock. They threaten anything they perceive as an intruder, and will attack if they feel that its necessary. The attack can range from a noisy display and posturing, to actually attacking with mouth and feet.
A stallion’s entire focus is on breeding, and during the breeding season, is even more aggressive, agitated and unpredictable due to increased testosterone levels. They are not only very visual but also have a highly developed sense of smell, so can detect scents on or around people that people can’t. The stallion may react in a very aggressive way toward something a person thinks is of no importance.
An example of that would be an experience that Spearfish area breeder, Dick Kellem, who has handled stallions for over 60 years, had with a stallion he had stood for years and was very fond of. He went in to halter the normally gentle stallion and bring him out of the stall and the stallion whirled and kicked him. Dick figures that there was some scent on his clothing that caused the reaction, but he will never know for sure. Fortunately, he wasn’t seriously injured. He also stressed that one needs to be careful when handling more than one stallion as the scent of another stallion can cause aggressive behavior in an otherwise manageable horse.
What inexperienced handlers don’t realize is that a stallion is working to be dominant all of the time. He may be a gentle, quiet horse, but he is still pushing all the time to be the one in charge of everything around him. In the wild, a dominant stallion has the most mares and the largest and best territory. It is natural for a stallion to have this same instinct even if he lives in a stall or in a paddock.Stallions are always “on”. They never take a moment off, so it is imperative that anyone handling them always be alert and never let themselves be distracted. A stallion can “flip the switch” so fast that even an experienced handler can find themselves in a dangerous situation. The stallion may not even be targeting the handler, but can hurt someone who just happens to be in his way.
In wanting to be dominant, a stallion is constantly pressing for the advantage. He is ready to invade a handler’s personal space if the opportunity is offered, and will subtly do so if the handler allows it. A person must be diligent with discipline and never allow the stallion to be pushy or disrespectful. He will remember it the next time and press harder.At feeding time, a stallion will perceive he is driving a person away from the feed if the person simply feeds the horse and walks away. A better approach is to make the stallion stand back and wait, and then walk the horse away from the feed as the person leaves. All horses benefit from this method, but in stallions, it’s a safety concern to let them believe they have pushed you away. Small behavioral problems escalate into major ones rapidly with stallions. What may not seem like anything at all to a person will be perceived as a sign of weakness to a stallion.
Stallions are also prone to vices, primarily because most aren’t allowed to just be horses. Most stallions are kept separate from other horses to keep the stallion from either getting hurt or hurting something else. Stallions that run out on pasture and with other horses seldom have vices. Those kept in stalls are more prone to developing vices such as weaving, pawing, cribbing, savaging themselves, kicking the walls, etc…to relieve boredom and frustration. A stallion that is worked regularly and has a job besides breeding is generally a happier, more content horse with less pent up energy.
Dr. Scott Cammack, a noted veterinarian from Sturgis, SD, sites an example of a Warmblood stallion that was a high level dressage horse and competed at the top of that discipline successfully. After years of intense training and work, the stallion was retired to the breeding barn where he became so vicious that he was unmanageable. The decision was made to geld him after collecting and freezing a large volume of semen. After a period of time to adjust, he was put back into training with his good nature and work ethic in place once again.
Another difference with stallions is their perception of having their feet and legs handled and having someone above them, as in mounting to ride. When stallions fight, they bite each others legs in an attempt to get the other horse lower than they are. A dominant stallion rears up and places himself above the other horse to not only push him to the ground, but to establish his superiority. When a person proceeds to handle a stallion’s legs, he thinks they are trying to disable him just as he would another horse. Once he understands that that isn’t the handler’s intention, most generally accept having their legs handled just as other horses do, but care should always be taken when doing so.
When a young stallion is first saddled and a person steps up in the stirrup above him he may perceive that the person is attempting to dominate him and will react more violently than a mare or gelding in the same stage of training. Some even react aggressively if they get the person on the ground. Stallion behavior is easy to turn on, but very hard to turn off, so diligence is always the key.
Many stallions are capable saddle horses, dependable partners, are gentle and like people, but can react to other horses in a negative way and get someone hurt. A stallion views other horses either as a threat to his territory or as a mare to be bred. An aggressive response toward either can catch a person in the middle of a dangerous confrontation. It may not even be the stallion that actually causes the injury, but the other horse. Even if their handler isn’t aware that the stallion is there, the other horse will know it and can react in fear or aggression.
Jerry Golliher, Spearfish, long time rodeo competitor and horseman, said he has competed extensively on various stallions and that few of them caused him any problems, due to hard work and discipline. However, he found that most people were totally unaware that he was on a stallion and even if they knew it, apparently didn’t know how to act around one and took unnecessary chances. He had to be extra diligent to prevent problems.
He also said that he believes that stallions are aware immediately whether the person handling them is paying attention and can control them. He recalled a time when a young woman was using one of their stallions for cattle cutting and Jerry was using another stallion as a turn back horse. The young woman wasn’t on her guard and the horse she was on lunged at the one Jerry was riding and narrowly missed grabbing Jerry’s leg. He said that he was sure that if his father would have been riding that stud he would never have tried that.Both Dick Kellem and Jerry Golliher stated that when disciplining a stallion you need to make him think you can kill him, then leave him alone. Don’t pick at him and don’t overdo it. Just do as much as it takes to get the situation under control and then ease up.
A stallion is a terrible adversary when aroused and not easy to stop. In the accompanying photograph, the wound on the gray horse’s hip was caused by a stallion in an attack that lasted less than 30 seconds. The owner was nearby and yelled at the stallion and the combination of a lifetime of discipline and the fact that the owner was leading a mare, diverted the stallion’s attention from the gelding.
The owner stated that she was certain that the gelding would have been killed if she hadn’t been there when it happened. The wound was all done with one bite with the gelding running and kicking to get away.The veterinarian who treated the wound was Dr. Scott Cammack, and he explained that the wound was caused by the long canine teeth on the bars of the stallion’s mouth (see photo). The wound was about five inches deep and almost a foot long. Dr. Cammack said that as a safety measure, the canine teeth (some call them bridle teeth) can be cut off at the gum line with a small tooth saw. The teeth cannot be pulled out because of the likelihood of fracturing the root down in the jaw, requiring surgery.
The stallion that attacked this gelding is a gentle, kind, easy to handle horse. He likes people and is used to having other horses across the corral fence from him. He and the gelding have run together in the winter for eight years, and have been hauled and worked together as ranch horses as well. There were no mares near the gelding, and in fact, the stallion had to leave the vicinity of some mares to reach the gelding. The gelding was simply grazing before the attack, so wasn’t doing anything to stimulate the stallion’s aggression. This is a case of a stallion just being a stallion and this behavior, though shocking at the time, isn’t anything unusual.This incident serves as an illustration of the danger of having a stallion. A similar attack on a human would undoubtedly have been fatal. A stallion doesn’t have to even bite to injure or kill someone either. An experienced horseman from the Black Hills region was killed just over a year ago when the stallion he was handling struck him in the head. This was a horse he had handled a lot and the horse was just “on the muscle” and being a stallion.
People have different reasons for keeping a stallion. Some truly have interest in using the horse as a breeding animal in a legitimate program, others just want the colt to grow up a little before gelding, while others just don’t want to hurt their pet by having them castrated. The idea of letting the horse mature before gelding him is refuted by the fact that the horse will actually get taller if gelded earlier. A stallion simply gets bulkier, his growth plates harden off sooner, and he becomes more masculine looking with a larger jaw, thick neck and stockier body. He will also exhibit stronger stallion behavior the longer he is left intact.A colt can be gelded while still a baby nursing his mother. This is the easiest on the horse, as he is small, easy to handle and his testicles are small (about the size of an almond) and easily removed. Most vets simply drug the foal, he is gently eased to the ground, and the procedure done while the foal is unconscious. When he awakens, he is returned to his mother and usually kept in a stall overnight. Most will buck and play on the way back to pasture and exhibit no apparent soreness or discomfort in the following days.The older the colt is when gelded, the more stressful it is on him, though with the drugs used now and the methods of gelding, it isn’t a very serious surgery. A stallion can be gelded at any age, even into the teens, and show no adverse effects. A stallion will still be able to impregnate a mare for three to four weeks after castration, so should be kept away from mares for at least that long. Most will change behavior and act like a gelding fairly soon. Some stallion behavior will remain, however, if they have been used as a breeding stallion. They will generally have the thick jaw and neck that a stallion gets as he ages, and will probably exhibit stallion behavior, though in a milder form, when around mares. Some remain aggressive toward geldings and will strive to be the dominant horse, but without the determination that being a stallion provides.
Horses of all disciplines, from the arena to the racetrack, have been gelded to improve their performance. Being a stallion can be very distracting for a horse and it can make it impossible to train them correctly. Some are too aggressive to train, but become very manageable upon gelding. Most horses that are gelded on the racetrack scarcely miss a day of training and some have even won races within weeks of being gelded. What seems like a serious procedure truly benefits the horse in the long run.
Any horse can be a danger to a person, from a mini to a draft horse, but a stallion increases that level of danger dramatically. In view of that, how many people are really qualified to handle a stallion? How many want to have the risk of having a stallion on their premises, and the liability if anything should happen?The horse owner needs to examine themselves, their circumstances, and their abilities before deciding to have a stallion. With so many good stallions available to breed to, few people really need to have a stallion of their own. Stallion ownership should not be taken lightly. It’s serious business because stallions are all business, all the time.
(RVR) I think this article really hits the nail on the head. My stallion Eddie is known, literally all over the country now, as being a very kind, easy to handle stallion, but the fact remains that he is still a stallion. In a way, easy-going studs are almost more dangerous than ones that are dominant right up front. It can be very easy to let our guard down with the docile ones. It is imperative that while we must allow a stallion to be a horse, we must also be on guard at all times and be especially diligent when handling a stallion. I feel lucky to have experience with all ends of this spectrum, from Eddie with his easy-going, fun-loving attitude, to a stallion that is infamous for putting his handlers in the hospital. We can learn a lot from these guys, but we must also realize that handling any stallion is a serious matter, because it only takes one small mistake to end up with a very large regret. ~J