An Industry Stallion’s story.

No domestic animal is as misunderstood as the stallion, yet it is also arguable that few exert the same fascination and sense of awe. The modern stallion, far from being the epitome of free speed and majesty, is most often a prisoner of commerce, spending long periods in solitary confinement punctuated only by sperm donation or the briefest of in-hand service.

The following is the story of a stallion that was sent to me. I have made small alterations in grammar only, otherwise it is as I received it. Due to privacy issues both the sender and the name of the stallion must remain anonymous.

As an accompaniment to this story I have attempted, through behavioral analysis, to explore how it is that this, and so many other stallions, become dysfunctional and dangerous as a result of management methods that fail to support innate equine nature.

In the telling of this story there is no intent to attack people or to demonise a whole industry, merely to subject the rational by which stallion management is devised to close scrutiny. Rather than an adversarial approach in which we might pick at the loose threads of custom and habit let us examine a curious separation between our knowledge of psychological cause and effect and its application, through an exercise in comparative psychology, to the horse.

“’S’ got off to a difficult start with the death of his dam only a few days after foaling, after which he was bottle fed and raised as an orphan.”

It is never an easy task for us to raise young of another species. Even in the case of other primates the mothering task is a taxing 24/7 affair, but in a highly mobile ‘follower’ species in which dam and progeny are rarely out of each others sight during the first weeks the problems are greatly increased. It is probably a good idea to itemise basic problem categories, if for no other reason than that it facilitates focus on specific issues.

“The results of this rearing were physically good but, even as a youngster; he was rude and very moody. It could happen that he would - without warning or apparent reason - bite someone on the head, or where ever else he could reach. Then things would be fine for a week or two - then another such unexpected incident.

He was checked for his career as stallion (with excellent marks) and with the exception of his bad phases (which were of short duration) he was, up to age four, completely acceptable.”

In these first four years the seeds of social dysfunction are clearly sown. Imagine for a minute the impact this might have on a human child, deprived of that so important first teacher and wellspring of affection, confined away from others of its kind, separated forever from a culture that would nourish and sustain its existence and provide social and sexual blueprints for a successful behavioural paradigm. While horses are not human they certainly are a social species – so why should we not expect social deprivation to have similar, if not the same, disastrous consequences? How would a boy child learn to socialise with his peers if never allowed to play with them during the early years? How is a young colt to learn how it feels to be bitten if he never experiences such a bite from a herd brother – and if he has no idea how it feels, or the social results of biting others how is he to understand or control the behavior? He is almost certain to bite, for it is in his instinctive repertoire to do so, and his innate need for play will push him to exhibit the behavior only to be punished for it. Since he cannot understand or control the behavior and is merely being a young male horse any punishment will not be understood either – and punishment that is not understood is experienced as random and unpredictable unkindness, whether in horses or humans. Should we not predict that he would become rude and moody?

In 1959 the work of Harlow & Zimmerman with Rhesus monkeys revealed the impact of maternal deprivation on later behavior, further work such as that of Korn and Moyer, 1968 (rodents); Valzelli, 1973; Riittenen et al., 1986 demonstrated that isolated post-weaning rearing conditions will increase the reactivity and excitability – and emotionality. So much work has been done that is very difficult to excuse ignorance of these most basic precepts of early development. Clearly there is some disconnection between this knowledge and the rearing of horses.

“He came onto the station where he was ridden, took the ‘artificial mare’ well (he was used only for artificial insemination) and was daily out on a large sand paddock. ( Al l the stallions there are kept in a separate stallion stalls.) With the exception of this horse, which balked (and was probably immediately punished - which I cannot retroactively determine as a certainty) everything went along just fine - except that the balking and refusals became more frequent.  At approximately four years of age, he suddenly became, from one day to the next, really dangerous. One day, as he was being brought in from the sand paddock, he bit the trainer so severely on the upper arm that the trainer lost part of his biceps. Then threw the man to the ground and attempted to attack him with his front legs. At the very last minute, the man was rescued by two other grooms who distracted the stallion.”

Once again we are clearly looking at heightened reactivity, excitability and emotionality, and once again there is every reason to predict this type of outcome.

In her Doctoral Dissertation:  Literature Review : Effects of Environmental Restriction and Complexity, 1989, Temple Grandin offered a compelling series of studies revealing much that is known about animal reaction to this type of management. Included in this is that environmental restriction has long-term effects on an animal's central nervous system, so that an abnormally high level of arousal is present even after an animal has been removed from the unfulfilling environment. In the case of this savage bite the stallion is clearly betraying just such a reaction.

“Thereafter, there was only one person (the general manager) who could lead him out of the stall. His stall was fenced in with electric wire so that one could open the stall door without being attacked and also to prevent any unknowing visitor (mare owner, for example) from opening the door and jeopardizing their lives. The stallion could neither be ridden, nor be allowed in the paddock or the hall. At a stallion presentation, he would be deeply sedated and shown by the general manager, the only person that could do anything with him.  I saw him one day and became deeply saddened over his aggression - even against himself.  He would bite himself as soon as I stepped into the stall and kicked out until the walls quaked. But he did not venture into the electric wires. His owner, an old, valued customer of ours, said that he would put him down rather than risk the possibility that he would wound - perhaps even kill - someone. In two additional incidents, when he broke free, he attacked (and wounded) people. He could be brought under control only by the use of electric shock poles.”

This behavior is very reminiscent of findings from humans suffering Social-Sensory Deprivation Syndrome:

The Social-Sensory Deprivation Syndrome is caused by the effects of prolonged solitary confinement that imposes both social isolation and sensory deprivation.

These symptoms include severe chronic headaches, developmental regression, impaired impulse control, dissociation, inability to concentrate, repressed rage, inability to control primitive drives and instincts, inability to plan beyond the moment, inability to anticipate logical consequences of behavior, out of control obsessive thinking, and borderline personality traits. [Reference: Grassian, Stuart, Psychopathological effects of solitary confinement, American Journal of Psychiatry, 140, 1450 - 1454 (1983)]

“I used all my persuasive powers to talk the owner out of the death sentence. A young rider from Berlin was also present and said he would like to ride the stallion. 

We now come to an unbelievable chapter in the story: the young man took saddle and bridle, lead the stallion out of the box, fixed him slightly on the halter as any riding-horse,  saddled him up, and went into the riding hall with him - where everyone else had quickly disappeared. The arena really was empty of both animals and humans with the exception of the general manager who was armed with an electric shock pole to protect (he thought) the young man from a premature death! The young man mounted up and rode the stallion for a short period of time. Then he dismounted and did the whole procedure in reverse, bringing the stallion back into the stall. And all this without any problems !!!

Since it was late summer and mating season over, the owner allowed the young man to take the stallion home to Berlin so that he could work with him there. The stallion's owner also lived in Berlin, giving him the opportunity to observe the experiment live and close up - and verifying everything. I was not personally there, but the stallion evidently cooperated completely. He did, however, have fits of rage in the stall but never caused any problems for the young man. After three months, he was returned and can be relatively normally handled. Now three different persons can handle him and he can at least be exercised in the lunging arena . He still remains in a wired stall but the wires are no longer electrified. They are there simply to assure that the stallion is not unintentionally let loose. I have personally seen him. He is not contented but is at least able to make contact with visitors, show interest and can be approached with no trouble. One can even feed him a carrot without danger.  He is no longer ridden - no one is brave enough to try this. Strangely enough, when anyone is in close contact to him - say, right at the wire fence - he never lays his ears back. This (for me oddly) he does only when the distance is larger.

He has lived since 1998 in a Balance-Situation and naturally, no one knows just when this will come to an end. His foals are of good character, very much performance ready, well behaved and correct horses with good movements.  In spite of his sons that are also at stud, he is always in demand and is therefore, at least for the time being, well cared for.  It would be well if he could enjoy a happy life, could be outside every day, could be ridden and whatever we in ------- can offer in the way of "pleasure" for these poor stallions.”

Sadly it was decided that ‘S’ was just too difficult – and he was euthanized.

This is the story of just one stallion – but it is also generic in that the same type of scenario is being repeated in the ‘equine industry’ worldwide. How often it happens is impossible to say – no records are kept, and no-one is likely to want to make such outcomes a matter of public record.

As long as stallions are raised and kept in conditions that we generally reserve for only the worst human sociopaths these scenarios will reoccur – as the saying goes; those who fail to learn from the mistakes of the past are destined to repeat them. But it does seem very unjust that those that pay the ultimate penalty for these errors in management are innocent.