Some mom skills come in really handy – like sensing when things are too quiet and having eyes in the back of your head. In many ways stallions are like overgrown kids.
This is not to make light of interacting with stallions. They are quick, powerful and no mere human is a match for a stallion in a flat out battle. However, the common perception of stallions as aggressive and inherently dangerous is not accurate. They are also not sex crazed maniacs that will hurt a mare and kill foals. Nothing could be further from the truth. Mares are much more of a threat to the stallion than the other way around and stallions are normally very protective of foals.
Stallions mellow with advanced age to rather stately and dignified gentlemen but in their younger days can be challenging. It starts early. Colts are more active and physical than fillies, tormenting their dams from an early age with their penchant for mounting. Rearing and mock fighting with their pasture mates is also a favorite. As they become sexually mature, feral males form bachelor bands where they peacefully coexist but with an obvious herd hierarchy that is established through posturing and threats much more often than any actual physical contact. The posing is part of their daily interchanges with herd mates.
This behavior carries over to human interactions with domesticated stallions. The dominance behaviors almost become a form of play where the horse is constantly trying to sneak in a nip, invade your space or keep you from entering his. Calling his bluff with a sharp word and tap is sufficient to “win” if you are operating from a position of strength – i.e. have adequate restraint on the horse if he is out of the stall or have yourself in a position of power and movement if you are in an enclosed area with the horse loose. These encounters won’t be a once and done phenomenon.
The stallion will continue to challenge you every day and several times a day. As handler and horse get to know one another, these exchanges can be almost invisible to an observer as a subtle change in body language communicates both the posturing and the response. Like a mom, an experienced stallion handler can read their minds and convey the don’t-you-even-think-it message with as little as a sideways glance. The horse appears to only be quietly behaved but let someone else try to work with him and he can seem to be a different animal, immediately “in your face”.
I’m leaving a lot out here, most notably the ground work training of breaking, leading, respecting your space, teaching the absolute zero tolerance for serious behaviors like rearing, striking and aggressive biting and making sure the animal has sufficient exercise and social interaction, with other horses at least visible. However, stallions are trainable just like mares and geldings. On the whole, dangerous stallions are made not born. They are a product of poor management and abysmal horsemanship coupled with excessive physical force.
It’s unfortunate that many horsepeople will go their whole lives without ever getting to know a stallion. They can be a challenge and keep you on your toes but their unique zest for life is the essence of horse.
Eleanor Kellon, VMD