The Stallion

The stallion occupies a unique position in the human psyche. Whether as an emblem of power and speed or as a virility totem, the stallion is a central character in history, myth and legend.

Anyone who has witnessed the sheer expression of physical force generated by two stallions fighting can only be in awe, and wonder at our ability to harness such elemental power. There is certainly no doubt at all that those Stallions that learn to dominate humans by force can easily become dangerous to work with and homicidal in extreme cases. It is little wonder then that Stallions have also attracted a certain amount of ‘bad press’, and a reputation for being aggressive, unruly, impossible to control around estrus mares and likely killers of foals. Although there is a basis for these ideas they should, in all fairness, be considered the result of inappropriate management rather than any antisocial characteristic inherent in the species.

When the White Horse Equine Ethology Project was established in 1972 to research social behavior in semi-free-ranging family groups I had already worked three stallions together in a trekking operation. I had found them excellent work partners who could very easily have taken advantage of many of the ‘greenhorn’ tourists that two of them regularly carried. The third of the trio –my mount - guided and controlled the rides of strings of up to 17 horses so well that I rarely had to do anything other than enquire as to the tourist’s wishes regarding pace and rest stops. I had assumed that this degree of co-operation was due to the fact that our interests coincided reasonably well – for my part, I fed them the best balanced feed I could put together, made certain they had regular breaks, never had to work through the mid-day heat, got a couple of days off when they were stressed and were never abused by any rider. In return they gave me their co-operation and loyalty. At no point was there any real need for a clash of interests, unless it was on those very rare occasions when a ride passed a mare in season in some field bordering the trail, and even then there was always the dual urge to keep up with the rest of the group.

With the establishment of the research project foundation group the situation was entirely different. The group consisted of mares that had never been part of a natural harem group in any sense and, during the settling-in phase, it was sometimes necessary to remove mares that were having trouble adjusting to the new life style. Without the co-operation of the group stallion this would have been very difficult. Anyone who has had the opportunity to watch a stallion marshalling a harem group of mares will know just what a humbling experience is can be for handlers. We may think we’re good at moving, or controlling the movement of horses, but stallions are supremely good. Not only did the Arabian stallion allow me to manage things so that social cohesion could be maintained but on many occasions he also appeared to be actively assisting me. Paddock sizes and ground contour here are such that it is extremely difficult to coerce horses down to the yards for such operations as drenching against internal parasites or hoof trimming. Ideally, assistance is required from both the head mare, who leads the group down, and the stallion, who rounds up and drives from behind and keeps them grouped together.

Before the project began I had made various assumptions about why it has become so rare to keep horses in their natural social groups for breeding. Surely there would have to be some powerful negatives in order to cancel out the benefits of raising an animal in the midst of the supportive social structure in which evolution has designed it to thrive. Literally thousands of studies have been carried out showing the impact on youngsters - not only humans but also many other species - of being raised in a poor or deprived social environment.  Anti-social tendencies, poor anger management, uncontrolled or poorly controlled aggression and, as time goes on, poor parenting skills are all well documented. Yet if you read back through this list keeping in mind the reputation that colts and stallions have come to ‘enjoy’, the causal root of these behaviors becomes very clear. Many breeders will also be well aware of the increasing problems of mis-mothering in barn-kept mares and, of course, the fear and unwillingness to breed of so many mares confronted with a stallion for the first time in their lives. With this ‘downside’ of unnatural social environments in mind, perhaps I can be forgiven for having assumed that the key reason for not keeping horses naturally is the commonly-held belief that raising horses in herds presents too many problems in terms of management and handling – particularly when it comes time to separate youngsters, colts or fillies, from their family group.

So it surprised me when my observations showed that, as fillies turned two years old, the stallion was quite eager to see them leave and, even more surprising to me at the time, that the mares seemed to be in agreement. It goes without saying that colts might be driven out on to the periphery of the group as soon as they started to become sexually capable before they could offer any serious rivalry.

With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight it is now possible to look back on my initial surprise and say “well of course I might have expected to see that happen”. Many species that live in extended family groups – including ourselves – develop evolutionary strategies to prevent the disastrous effect of inbreeding, so why should horses be any different? Unfortunately this exogomatic strategy is neither absolute nor simple (exogamy = outbreeding). Given a family group of sufficient size to underwrite viable long-term survival then it is in the stallion’s interest, in a genetic or evolutionary sense, to eject his daughters who will then be captured by other stallions and continue to infuse his genes in the wider population. The greater the number of copies he leaves, the more successful the stallion is or, the ‘fitter’ he is, in an evolutionary sense. Keeping his daughters to himself would quickly result in weak foals and rapidly threaten the survival of the group. Yet if the stallion is presented with a family group of say only a couple of mares everything changes. Long term viability requires greater numbers if the survival of the group is to be assured. Once numbers fall below a critical minimum, the first priority is to increase numbers, even at the risk of producing a percentage of non-viable or weak offspring, so the stallion will serve his own daughters until such time as group size rises sufficiently. For the majority of owners it is just not possible to run a family group of ten to twelve individuals. Various management practices have evolved for dealing with this poorly understood problem of equine social dynamics. Keeping stallions alone, forced early weaning of foals and keeping mares without the company of stallions are examples.

For the stallion this can all too easily result in a nightmare of loneliness and deprivation. Instead of enjoying the supportive group society of either the natal family or, later on, the company of other unaffiliated young bachelors, stallions are commonly kept in the type of isolation generally reserved for humanity’s worst criminal offenders. For those used for stud work, contact with mares is restricted to a mere fleeting sexual encounter of but a few moments duration with no allowance for courtship ritual.  It is perhaps little wonder that many become either difficult and dangerous, or disinterested in service, and that conception rates in breeding barns are far below those of harem groups.

The Ethology Project now maintains a second generation group, all of which are progeny of foundation group members. The Thoroughbred stallion is of a bloodline that has produced notable three day eventers and a world champion, and is also renowned for being difficult if badly handled. Each year in late spring/early summer two year old colts and fillies are removed using high status mares to lead them down to the yards where they are then separated prior to being introduced to their new groups. Preparations are made well in advance, with lower status mares - most often with foals and yearlings at foot - being removed for a short time, during which they are given a supplementary feed to compensate for the stress, and then returned to the group. These first removals are viewed with a certain amount of nervousness by the stallion – after all it does look as if one of his mares is being stolen; a clear occasion for a protective display in defence of his harem, and a certain amount of talking is often required in order to get his compliance! How much of what I say is understood is open to question, but the spirit of the communication gets across if the exact text remains a mystery. In this way the stallion is shown that such removals are temporary and, should he wish, he is encouraged to accompany the mare, in which case he will be allowed free access to the yards in order to assess risk or the existence of a potential rival, and also be given a feed.

This year things have been a little different. We have been experiencing an El Nino weather event since last Autumn that has resulted in reduced grass growth on the dryer range allocated to the second generation group, and better than average growth in the foundation group’s range. Thankfully a gentle rain is falling while I type, but drought conditions look set to be a threat for the remainder of the summer. The second generation group had exceeded an optimum size due to a record foal crop last season and, as a consequence, population pressure on resources was beginning to trigger signs of social disharmony. For the first time mares were often observed refusing the stallion’s amorous attentions, causing him in turn to become more dominant in his behavior and, as a result, two mares suffered bites on the crests of their necks.  Apart from the annual draft of colts and fillies it became clear that two mare/foal/yearling trios would also need to be moved to the foundation group in order to stabilise grazing resources. The only two that could be removed were, in both cases, higher status mares that were unrelated to the foundation stallion having been progeny of mares bought in-foal. Yet the 2Gen. stallion could reasonably be expected to object seriously to their removal. It is not without a lot of consideration that I would consider removing bonded mares in this way, and it took some time for me to deal with the misgivings I had over the potential for a bad outcome. In the end the stallion accepted the removals with the best of good grace and did nothing to stop me carrying them out. Having seen the mares settled into their new group, in which both have female relations, and watched their obvious pleasure at the abundance of grass, I returned to the second generation group to see what impact the removals had had on my relationship with the stallion, if any.

In the 11 years the project has been running, there have been many times when it has only been possible to control this number of horses with the help of the group stallion and, when by socialising with one out in the paddocks he has successfully sponsored my first contact with youngsters. And I freely admit that on occasion their willing co-operation has left me with a big lump in my throat. Once again, on this occasion, even after having stolen away two of his most senior mares, Storm and I are as close as ever.

Stallions, far from being sociopaths or maniacs, can be one of the most delightful of domestic animals to work with. Perhaps it is time that the welfare ethics of traditional horse industry breeding barn methods are questioned. It is my firm belief we owe these equine family men better treatment – and that those of us who are lucky enough to work with stallions owe ourselves the unforgettable experience of achieving a brotherhood across the gulf that divides species.