Happy and Healthy Stallion

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Considering your stallion’s social needs when you handle and house him pays you back with a happier horse.

The Article is the type of stallion everyone wants to own. He’s handsome, talented and behaves like a gentleman in the training barn and show ring. He and owner Karen Evans Mundy of Cedar Hill, Tennessee, have developed a great partnership, winning many honors.

Karen knew he was a great horse when she bought him as a colt but says if he hadn’t behaved, she would have gelded him.

“I believe if a good colt is quiet and acts like a gelding, he deserves the chance to be a stallion. If he acts like a rowdy stallion as a colt, he needs to be a gelding,” Karen says.

Raising a Stallion Prospect

Creating a quiet stallion starts when he’s a colt, long before he’s ready to go in the show ring or old enough to breed mares. Since stallions are surrounded by people when showing and breeding, teaching them to respect humans when they’re young is important. Otherwise the extra precautions necessary with unruly stallions can increase your farm’s liability, cost you additional manpower and necessitate changes to your facility.

When asked about her method for handling stallion prospects, Karen says, “Never give him the opportunity to learn he can hurt you. That has worked for The Article, and now you can discipline him with just a raised voice.”

Establish ground rules for behavior when colts are young. When a very young colt tries to bite, kick or strike, discipline him by walking away and ignoring him. This behavior mimics a mare’s treatment of her foal. If poor behavior persists, push him away from you or thump him on the rump, again mimicking mare behavior. Treating him like this isn’t cruel; it’s crueler to allow colts to behave poorly when they’re young as you may need stiffer punishments to eliminate bad habits later.

Sue McDonnell has spent much of her career as an equine behaviorist working with stallions, and she says colts need additional handling as they mature. In her experience, yearling colts often become touchy about having their mouths, legs and genitals handled, so plan on spending time desensitizing a colt to this again as a yearling.

When he’s 1½ to 2 years old, he’ll be able to breed. At that time, as his hormone levels increase, so does his energy. Increasing his training schedule and housing him with other colts he can play with helps him burn off excess energy, making him happier and easier to handle.

Although teaching a colt to respect humans is important, it is also important to give him plenty of social interaction with other horses to teach him how to behave with other horses and make him easier to handle. One of the best ways to do this is to house stallion prospects with other colts, which is what Craig Haythorn does at Haythorn Land and Cattle Co. in Arthur, Nebraska, winner of the 1992 AQHA Best Remuda Award.

“We keep our colts on alfalfa pastures after weaning. Then when they’re yearlings, we separate out the colts we want to keep and let them continue living together on pasture,” Craig says. “It is more natural than keeping them in a stall, and in my experience, they grow up to be easier to handle.”

Letting your colts live together on pasture works because it mimics feral horse behavior. Before feral colts reach sexual maturity, they leave their dams and join bachelor bands that consist of other colts and mature stallions. Bachelor bands provide protection and social contact for their members. The colts stage mock battles during which they not only learn to defend themselves, but also how to moderate their aggression so they do not seriously injure others. This early interaction can lead to adult stallions that get along better with other horses.

Socializing a Mature Stallion

Not everyone raises stallions the same. Ignoring their social needs often results in stallions that are difficult to handle or don’t know how to interact with other horses. If you’ve acquired a stallion like this, it isn’t too late. You can still socialize him, although it might take some time and planning.

If your stallion doesn’t respect people, fixing that needs to be a priority, and you might need to skip a breeding season to reform him. The loss of income from the missed breeding season might prevent bigger losses down the road, because stallions that don’t respect their human handlers create a liability for your farm. If you aren’t an experienced stallion handler, seek professional help from someone who is.

If you have stallion handling experience, start retraining your stallion now. Establish good behavior on the ground through re-teaching him to lead, stand tied, give to pressure and longe. Keep training sessions short in the beginning to keep his attention, and start with small goals so you can succeed. Turning him out in a paddock when you aren’t training helps him burn off excess energy so he’ll pay more attention during training sessions.

Although many owners like the idea of letting their stallions live with other horses, they worry that the stallions won’t adjust to herd life and will end up injured. Sue McDonnell has spent much of her career as an equine behaviorist working with stallions. When asked how to integrate a stallion into a herd, Sue says, “In my experience, most spontaneously adapt within hours if simply turned out with other horses.”

Initially, your horse might squeal, run or kick at other horses. Mares may kick at him if he tries to mount them when they’re not in heat. But if you give him time, he’ll adjust.

Housing To Provide Social Contact

Traditionally, many stallion owners house their stallions together in barns. Lucky stallions also have runs off their stalls or paddocks next to other stallions, separated by an alley to reduce fighting.

However, research conducted on feral horses by Wayne Linklater, a professor and researcher at the University of Wellington in New Zealand, suggests this method of housing stallions might be counter-productive. Wayne observed groups of feral stallions and found that the dominant stallion in the herd kept the submissive stallions from mating with the mares. Sue has also observed that stallions breed more willingly and successfully the more they’re around mares.

The most natural way to house your stallion is in a herd with his mares. When a stallion lives with mares, he watches out for them and their foals, and he gets plenty of exercise. However he can become very protective of mares, making it hard for you to remove a mare from his herd.

Craig Haythorn of Haythorn Land and Cattle Co. in Arthur, Nebraska, prefers stallions on pasture, but he also houses them with other stallions. Craig says he keeps aged show stallions in pastures when they’re not on the show trail. Craig often keeps the stallions in groups of two or three, but he has had as many as eight in a group. He says it all depends on which ones get along.

“We have stallions who are nice, happy and easy to handle. I think that’s because the way they live is more natural,” he adds. “I’m not saying the way we do things is right or the way someone else does it is wrong, but what we do works for us.”

Every stallion owner needs to do what works for that owner and his or her stallions. If you aren’t able to house your stallion on pasture but still want him to interact with other horses, you have a few options:

You can keep your stallion in a paddock by himself alongside your mare pasture. This way, he can see and interact with the mares over the fence.

House your stallion in a paddock alongside a paddock with a mare or gelding he gets along with.

House your stallion in a barn away from other stallions along with some of the mares he’ll be breeding.

Eight time AQHA Sooner Trailer All-Around Amateur Champion Karen Evans Mundy keeps her stallion, The Article, next to a gelding companion who also travels with him. The two get along and provide each other companionship, and it helps The Article adjust to life at shows.

Breeding and Showing: Mutually Exclusive?

Many people don’t think breeding stallions are good in the show ring. Sue McDonnell, an equine behaviorist who has spent much of her career working with stallions, disagrees with this theory.

In Sue’s experience, younger stallions especially benefit from a dual breeding and show schedule, as long as it is balanced. She has noticed that younger stallions who haven’t begun their breeding career are more on edge in the show ring and often spend more time looking around at other horses than paying attention to their handler.

Craig Haythorn of Haythorn Land and Cattle Co. in Arthur, Nebraska, echoes this: “We breed our 2-year-old colts to a few mares. Then we start showing them at 3. They seem to have more respect for both their handlers and the mares, and they perform better.”

Karen Evans Mundy says her stallion, The Article, successfully maintains a breeding and show schedule. He spends the breeding season with Rick and Heidi Cecil and then moves to Karen’s barn for shows. This arrangement gives him a natural distinction: When he’s with Karen, it’s time to go to work, but when he’s at the Cecils, he can think about breeding. This added a challenge, Karen says.

“We had to carefully schedule breedings around his show schedule, but the mare owners have always been very understanding.”

Karen says showing a breeding stallion does offer some difficulties, even with one as well-behaved as The Article.

“You always have to be aware of your surroundings and who is stalled next to your stallion. The Article travels with his gelding companion, so I often put him on the end stall with the gelding next to him. But there have been a few times I had to ask mare owners if they would mind switching stalls to put a gelding behind him. Everyone at shows is pretty accommodating, and I haven’t had any trouble.”

Karen adds that knowing the show grounds helps.

“When I know the facility, I can ask the organizers for a stall at the end that backs up to a wall, and they’re happy to work with us. If the show stalls don’t have solid walls, then I know to bring plywood to tack up so he cannot see the horses next to him.”

Riding Stallions

Karen says one of the most important things to remember when showing a stallion is to pay attention to what’s around you.

“The entire time I’m on him, I have to be aware I’m riding a stallion. I pay attention to what’s going on, and I stay away from other horses. I never sit back and relax on him and chit-chat with others, and if his attention strays and he starts talking to mares, I have to discipline him right away. You just cannot tolerate him focusing on the mares. I also make sure others know I’m riding a stallion.”

Karen says it’s important to know your stallion’s triggers. The Article is really interested in the reining and cutting mares, as they look different from the pleasure mares: they have full manes, don’t wear fake tails and often aren’t clipped like pleasure mares. So Karen avoids them at shows.

Dealing With Aggressive Stallions

Even the best stallions can have bad days, and some stallions have more than their fair share. Craig has a solution for misbehaving stallions.

“If I have a horse up in the barn to show or train and he starts getting grouchy or hard to handle, I just put him out with a bunch of geldings who won’t take anything from him. They remind him he’s not so great, and he calms down and starts behaving.”

This method might not work for everyone, but Craig finds that it sorts out his stallions quickly so they can focus on their work.

Owning a stallion is a huge responsibility. You are taking an active role in creating the next generations of American Quarter Horses. You owe it to your partner – your  stallion — to provide for his mental and physical well-being. When you do that, he’ll pay you back by being easier to handle and with better performance. You create a situation where everyone wins.

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