25 July 2010

Colts and Stallions

Right now, a little stallion is padlocked in one of my stallion pens. The padlock is because his owner hasn't paid his board, not because he's a problem. He's totally atypical, kinder than most geldings, but for typical stallions padlocks are not necessarily a bad idea.

Too many people today don't even realize most stallions are physically aggressive--open mouth, teeth showing aggressive. More than a few are downright vicious. The good ones are the best horses around, but even those require special handling so that it's clear to them that humans rank higher than they do.

Mannering stallions is an art. In all horse-training, timing is vital, but in working with stallions, it can be the difference between life and death. Timing comes only from being aware of stallion behavior, recognizing it, and correcting aggression instantly. Stallions must know that nothing unauthorized will be tolerated. Once they get away with a little, the typical stallion immediately tries to get away with a lot.

For example, here's a story from today's Bloodhorse online "Eurton Recovering After Savaging Episode." It's not every day one sees the word "savaging" anymore. In fact, I hadn't heard it for years although it's the accepted horseman's term for being attacked by a horse. Here's what prompted that usage:

"We were behind the gate at the time and the rider got off the horse because he was acting up," Eurton began. "The horse then reared up and got away from his handlers. They got him to turn back behind the gate and he came right toward me and my pony.

"I turned the pony and the horse grabbed me in the back, picked me up and threw me down to the ground. I landed on my head, but fortunately I was wearing my helmet so I wasn't injured that way. But I have a huge hematoma on my back and a big bruise on my right knee."

The article does not mention the horse's sex, but I'm willing to bet big money--and I'm not a person who bets--the offending horse was a colt. What happened is extreme, but not atypical, colt behavior. Unless this colt has blazing speed, I'm sure this incident will prompt a visit by a vet. As a gelding, this horse probably still won't have an ideal temperament, but castration should temper his aggression greatly.

While extreme, this savaging is still typical stallion behavior. Many years ago, I bred a lovely TB to my Arab stallion and got a most impressive colt. My vet suggested keeping him as a stallion. I was dubious, and, as the colt began showing aggression I had to impress upon him that I, not he, was herd leader. He was fine with me, but I saw problems coming. The colt was smart enough to know that most people weren't me. That is, he was aggressive with anyone other than me. Nevertheless, my vet continued to recommend keeping him entire. Then, one day, my vet walked into his pen and the colt charged him. My vet dove through the rails of the pen to safety and said, "OK, let's geld the [expletive deleted]." I walked in and the colt respectfully let me put on his halter and lead him out to his fate as a high quality gelding.

Trainer Lynn Baber relates similar experiences with stallions. Click here.

Like Baber, I've pretty much come to the conclusion few women--or men for that matter--should be handling stallions, pretty much for the same reasons Baber gives. Most people, alas, lack the necessary knowledge, experience, command authority, and timing.

With stallions, knowing just how much pressure to put on the horse is also a major issue. A beaten stallion is likely to become even more dangerous than he was before the beating started. A well-disciplined stallion is often more charming than a good gelding. Knowing when and how to discipline to get the latter result is the mark of a true horse(wo)man

I especially liked Baber's recollection of backing up the unruly colt in a halter class. Backing up is one of the best disciplinary tactics to use on an unruly horse, whether mare, gelding, or stallion. Most horses dislike the movement, but it's not something that causes pain. Better yet, it's quite easy for a person on the ground to teach even a youngster to back up.

Backing away from a person on the ground is one of the first moves I teach a horse. I ask for only a couple of steps at first, but asking them to relinquish space at my command tells them I'm boss hoss, and they had better yield to a subtle cue or the cues will become ever more emphatic. If, for example, a subtle jiggle on the lead or light pressure to the chest with a fingertip sends a horse backwards without resistance--or at least with serene resignation, the horse is offering a major sign of respect.

Training a stallion requires both offering the horse a higher level of respect and in return demanding from the horse a higher level respect. Depending on the trainer's skills and the horse's underlying temperament, this can be an anything from an exhilarating thrill to a chain saw massacre nightmare. Finding out which can be, shall we say, a challenging experience.