Over the years we have been asked many times about various aspects of stallion management. Most often folks are suffering from frustration at one aspect or another of their stallion’s behavior. There are frequent complaints of aggressive and unruly behavior of stallions when being handled at breeding. Others are disturbed that their stallions bite frequently or walk over them as they are being led or otherwise handled. Frequently we hear of stallions that pace their stalls or paddocks incessantly or scream loudly when there is any form of movement about the barn. We have also heard of instances where stallions will actually charge people when approached or whirl and kick at them as their area is entered. Of course each of these behaviors is annoying at least and outright dangerous in many cases. Unfortunately many of these behaviors are tolerated with miniature horses because the risk to humans is minimal in most cases. You can imagine, however, the serious safety problems that are apparent if these behaviors are allowed with full sized horses. Consequently, those owning full sized horses take measures to assure that their stallions are well behaved and manageable.
Stallions can be a pleasure to have on the farm, believe it or not. We believe that problems with stallion behavior have root with two sources. The primary understanding that anyone who owns a stallion needs to remember is that he is a horse and horses are HERD ANIMALS. Once a person has a grasp on this fact, actions can be taken to address the causes that we feel create the greatest number of problems related to stallions. Those two key issues that we address with our stallions (not to mention all of our horses) are:
1. Providing a herd environment for the stallion.
2. Addressing the issue of “Pecking Order” when handling a stallion.
PROVIDING A HERD ENVIRONMENT FOR THE STALLION
Keep in mind that horses are “herd animals”. If these horses were free to wander the plains in roaming bands, the herd and its dynamics teach order; and control the behavior of all of its members from the youngest foal to the herd sire. In our opinion this is key to the mental well being and behavior of all horses including stallions. Most often when we are asked what to do with a difficult stallion, we ask one simple question. What are your housing arrangements for the horse? Almost invariably the answer comes back the stallion is kept isolated from the other horses. He never gets an opportunity to interact in the “herd environment” from the time that he begins to show interest in mares. In our opinion, this creates a multitude of problems. The gregarious, social animal is placed in isolation. He has no chance of interacting with others. Frequently the only social contact he receives is at feeding time from a human and occasionally during the breeding season. The rest of his life he is imprisoned by himself. They use this type of treatment for punishment in the penal system. It is known as solitary confinement. The difference is with people, it usually does not last for a lifetime.
The problem with isolating a stallion is that he has no opportunity to interact with other horses and develop acceptable behavior patterns that are taught within the herd. The herd will not tolerate “uncivilized behavior” during breeding. The herd will not allow barging into others without suffering consequences such as a swift kick or a bite from the head broodmare. Whirling and kicking at others is likewise not tolerated by the herd. Due to his isolation the stallion has no “social skills” as taught by the herd environment. When we, as humans, step into his environment we are in for whatever behaviors he may have manufactured on his own. Unfortunately due to boredom and isolation these behaviors are usually not pleasant.
So how does one create a herd environment for the stallion? They must be managed to some extent. It is difficult to turn the stallion out with the herd year round. If you are trying to restrict the time that your mares foal he can’t run with them all the time. They don’t always get along with other stallions. Usually they are not too friendly with geldings either. We’ve herd all of these arguments which can lead to the isolation chamber. However with a little ingenuity and respect for your stallion, reasonable arrangements can be made for both you and him.
We create a “herd” environment a couple of ways for our stallions. If the stallions are young (usually 3 years or less) they can be run with other colts of like age. We will put two or three colts together in a stall/paddock arrangement. This environment allows them to have room to run and cavort as colts will. They learn from each other the etiquette of fair play. They have social contacts with other horses. We will also put a young colt (yearling or 2 year old) with a bred mare or mares. If the mare is very dominant she will definitely teach the colt to be a gentleman when around a lady. In some cases it is good to place two mares with a colt and he will “go to school” that much sooner. We have had a number of 2 year old colts come to our farm that were show horses and isolated from a very young age. They exhibited a number of bad habits such as nipping and charging while on lead. We introduced them to a couple of tough old girls in a paddock and after a month or so of “socializing” their whole demeanor changed toward other horses as well as toward us, as handlers. It has been amazing to watch the transformations. Of course a person needs to be willing to put up with some squealing and kicking from the paddock area for a couple of days until the colt gets things sorted out. We have yet to see any injuries result from such encounters.
We do essentially the same thing with older stallions. We usually to run a bred mare or mare we are intending on breeding to our stallion with him at all times. This includes during the fall and winter months. We may still keep our stallions up in the stall/paddock situation but make sure that we have a mare with them at all times. The stallions are pleasant to be around. They are well-mannered. They appear to have some quality of life (a human interpretation). When it comes to breeding season they are also quite gentlemanly when approaching a mare either in the pasture or when hand breeding.
After breeding season, however, you would be surprised how well stallions can get along together, particularly if they ran together with other colts as adolescents. We have put aged breeding stallions out for the winter with a group of colts. We put them in a paddock that does not adjoin a one with mares. Usually it is, “Out of sight. Out of mind”. They mess around playing boy games all winter. Come spring, they can start getting a little edgy and we may have to separate them the flowers start blooming, so to speak.
PECKING ORDER AND BEING “HEAD BROODMARE” WHEN HANDLING A STALLION
So often we, as humans, attempt to communicate with horses on our terms assuming that they can understand everything we say and the complex social tools that we use when we interact. Horses are intelligent animals within their realm, however, sometimes it seems we ask a lot more of them than they are capable of understanding. Their verbalizations are pretty basic. The mare will nicker at the foal. The lonely horse will whinney in hopes of locating the herd. The irritated horse will scream at another while charging or kicking. Beyond that there aren’t a lot of spoken communications. A huge amount of communication among horses comes as a result of non-verbal behaviors or body language. Pinning of the ears when mad is one example. Whirling about and threatening to kick when one’s body space is invaded is another. It is extremely interesting to watch the dominant mare in a herd situation control the others by her body movements. All eyes are on her. When she makes an aggressive move toward another horse, the lower order individual gives way. This is how order is maintained within the group. There is a hierarchy among the horses of the herd and each individual has his or her place. Each time a lower individual invades the space of a more dominant horse they are dealt with immediately. This either involves a lunge at the underling or a swift kick if the underling doesn’t move. Sometimes the dominant horse will scream loudly at the other to let it know it is out of line. These are the behaviors that the horses understand. For a graphic example of this, put some feed out for a group of horses. Stand by and watch the group dynamics and all of the non-verbal posturing that goes on as the group sorts itself out. It is a wonderful lesson in how horses communicate. Translation: We need to communicate with them at this same level if we are going to be effective.
For the most part, at are farm, we attempt to mimic these behaviors when we handle our stallions or any other horse. We put ourselves in the position of HEAD BROODMARE. Keep in mind that horses are always trying to figure out their place in the herd. It is our belief that horses think of us as funny looking members of the herd. As a result, their natural inclination is to assert their position toward us within the herd. If the stallion is allowed to walk into us or nip at us, he has invaded our body space and has, in effect, achieved a position of dominance or a higher level on the pecking order of the herd than we have. If you accept this idea, then it is simple to recognize unacceptable behaviors such as nipping, bumping you around and towing you on the lead cannot be tolerated. In order to deal with these behaviors in a way that makes sense to a horse, we believe we need to use behaviors that they understand. If the horse is constantly bumping into us, we will yell a loud NO and bump him soundly in the shoulder with our knee much like a mare would scream at him and kick him. This lets him know that he is out of bounds. The same holds true for the stallion that nips. Slapping a horse in the face is a poor practice because it causes a horse to be head shy. A very loud NO accompanied by a rush at the horse and a bump in the chest or shoulder can have positive results. Once again, this is what a broodmare would do to the stallion if he came up to her and took a nip at her side (of course, providing that she wasn’t in heat).
Stallions by their very nature are assertive and pushy. They are the most challenging of all horses to interact with. This does not mean, however, intolerable behavior should be endured. Our experience has been that CONSISTENT management of behaviors and IMMEDIATE CORRECTION of unacceptable actions over time will lead to a well mannered stallion. The handler is always the head broodmare, from the time he or she enters the stall until they put the stallion away after handling him. The stallion comprehends his place in the pecking order once that place has been established. That doesn’t mean that they won’t attempt, on occasion, to try their limits. Trying the limits occurs on a daily basis in the herd environment. The head broodmare is constantly asserting her position when other horses cross the line of her tolerance. Her actions are swift and decisive. There is no mistaking her place in the pecking order. We as handlers of stallions attempt to keep our position as head broodmare at all times. With that clear picture of our position relative to the stallion or any other horse in the herd there is a comfortable relationship maintained at all times and we can enjoy our horses to the fullest. The one point important to consider is to use a measure of “horse sense” and good judgment when correcting stallions. There are many cases where individuals have gone overboard with their stallions and lost sight of what is misbehavior and when the horse may not understand what is being asked of him. We as the more intelligent members of the partnership between man and horse need to bear the responsibility for making good decisions when it comes to correcting misbehavior.
We feel that through providing our stallions with some measure of horse companionship and interacting with them on a level that they comprehend they can enjoy a comfortable life on our farm, have a healthy mental outlook, and be a pleasure to work with on a day to day basis.