Note: the following contains material that may be disturbing, and frank discussion of subjects that may cause squeamishness. But that stuff goes away after the first few paragraphs.
Disclaimer: The following is not advice, but an account of my experience. Just because I survived that experience doesn’t mean I’m not an idiot.
I got my first stallion when I was 13 or 14. Who in the heck would buy a stallion for a 13 year old girl, you ask? Well, someone who recognized the horse’s assets as something other than a breeding animal (like a show horse) and intended to geld him.
Some people get really touchy about this, and then accuse me of anthropomorphism. Not only non-horse people. There are countries where castrating a horse is illegal. They would rather kill the horse than geld him, and they do. I imagine if the horses had a vote, they would prefer to be geldings. Here, in the US, it is legal to geld horses. Mercifully.
If it bothers you, here are some things to keep in mind: in modern facilities, horses are unconscious for the operation, so aside from inexplicable discomfort for some days or weeks afterward, they have no idea what you did. Additionally, horses don’t sit around inflating the value of their hormone levels or their physical attributes, so even if he knew, a stallion probably would not care what you had done. All he would be aware of is a gradual reduction in his need to hit things, or breed them. He will get happily fat, he will get a little lazy, he will relax, maybe for the first time in his life. The alteration is not only physical. He can have friends to play fight with, as all boy horses want to do.
Which brings up the other part about the life of a stallion. There are no horse parks where you can let your stallion play once a week with other stallions. A horse can get hurt in a fight. Additionally, a stallion can get hurt by those siren females who call to him from a distance, only to kick him in the legs when he gets in range. I mean mares, mean mean mares. So stallions are kept in stalls or stud pens by themselves. Very few stallions get to live with their mares. They are almost never kept with other males after the age of 4 or 5, some are isolated as early as 2. It is lonely. So can you blame them if they get a little nuts? A well-trained stallion will LOVE to work, he loves being ridden and doing something other than staring at the wall, wondering if today he should attack it or try to climb on top of it. Being a stallion pretty much stinks.
A bit of relevant anatomy information: a horse’s brain is about the size of a walnut. Adult horse testes are about the size of pears, and they have two. Imagine how hard that little walnut has to work to keep the pears in check. From the behavior of most stallions, I fear that size does matter.
Back to the 13 year old me and my first stallion. He was 12, a mature horse, not old. He had been trained as a show horse. He was not the first stallion our family owned. When I was very little, my grandfather had a stallion and he had special a rule for me: stay away from the stallion. “The stallion will reach over his fence, pick you up by the arm and shake you like a rag doll,” he told me. I did not argue. I was probably 4. Of course it was a gross exaggeration. Someone took pictures of me sitting on the same stallion’s back, my grandfather standing with us, one hand on me, one hand on the stud’s lead. He was not a savage stallion, he hardly ever picked people up by the arm and shook them. Hardly ever.
Neither had the stud my mother bought for me when I was 13. He preferred to charge people and knock them down with his shoulder. Or his hip. He would have been a hockey fan, given a chance. (Note: he flawlessly avoided head shots.) He knocked people down on a regular basis. When we went to see him before buying him, he was locked in a dark stall with a telephone pole bracing his door shut. Apparently he also hit the door, attempting to escape.
Again, who in the WORLD would buy THIS horse for a kid? Well, the test ride went very well. The poor beast was so happy to get out and work that he didn’t even try to knock anyone down, not for a few weeks. While I have not yet said it, perhaps because it seems too obvious, I consider the conditions he was kept in to be a horrific kind of neglect, even abuse. No one deserves that. But whatever the cause of his aggression, he was still aggressive. Not a good kid’s horse. This kid, as mentioned above, had been around stallions since before conscious memory, so I knew how to handle myself. In any case, said stallion was going to be a gelding soon.
We didn’t geld him right away. So I had some time to learn about riding and handling stallions. I developed my own method. I don’t know what to call it, because “girl power” really doesn’t describe it.
I got a lot of advice, from my grandfather and from trainers I trusted. I listened, as much as a teenage girl listens. An aggressive or posturing stallion is scary. If you are a rational human, you will be intimidated when he bows his neck at you, pins his ears, kicks the wall, or pushes you around with his shoulder. I really wanted to know what I should do. Here are some of the things I was taught:
- Never turn your back on a stallion, you cannot respond properly if you can’t see what he is doing. As big as they are, horses are even faster.
- Never let your guard down around a stallion. Always be in charge, even if you have to be relentlessly bossy and unfriendly with your new pet.
- You cannot expect anyone to do it for you: no matter how much respect the stallion has for some trainer, he knows you are not that trainer. You are on your own with this exercise in leadership.
- Many professional horsemen will tell you to advance on a horse if he challenges you. Puff yourself up and out-bluff him. If that doesn’t cow him, you are supposed to do something more courageous to convince him you are absolutely not bluffing. (Of course this doesn’t always work out, even for professionals. Suffice to say, a lot of people get hurt.)
I listened, I got it, it all made sense.
The thing is, animals can recognize a bluff lots better than we can, and any doubt in your mind is a blinking sign saying “she’s full of it.” I rarely find myself full enough of confidence to out-posture or in any way intimidate a stallion in the throes of testosterone poisoning. So I ran away. From the horse, that is.
Huh? I did, I ran away, backwards of course. When I entered the stallion’s stall, his halter in hand, if he puffed himself up and advanced on me like he wanted to do anything other than be a cute little puppy dog, I backed out of the stall, closed the door, and left him to fight it out with the barn wall. It was very much like “time out” with kids, though I had never heard of that at the time.
My system was something I came up with by accident: me afraid, me run away. Completely the opposite of everything anyone teaches you about handling aggressive animals. Also a darn good use of common sense, I say. Why go back then? Well, the trainer and Mom said I had to go get the horse. Who would do that to a girl? I guess people who have not been told why you came back without the horse. You may be a coward but you still have enough pride to deny that the sounds of the barn being torn down in the background have anything to do with your failure to fetch the horse. Better by far to say you forgot.
What was astounding is that it worked. This was not your average stallion. On the one hand, he was an Arabian so he could be expected to be more gentle and personable than less sensitive breeds. On the other hand, he had spent years not having anything to do but attack things. Every trainer we took him to but one had already been knocked down while trying to use the “I am badder than you” act. Maybe this stallion had been so badly treated before we got him that he was acting out of fear, and he’d been forced to discover that no human was badder than he was. He was not easily cowed. So far, he could not be cowed at all.
But he was an Arabian. That means that, though all horses need company, he really wanted company. Arabians were bred for more than 1000 years to want your attention, not unlike Labradors. So despite everything he had been through, he still wanted me to come back. Sometimes it took an hour, sometimes a few minutes, but eventually I would come back to my sweet little puppy dog who just wanted a hug (yes, hugs are a no no- I WAS a teenager). Oh, he was still Mr. Attention Deficit under saddle, so busy watching girls that he would stumble, once or twice even fell while twisting his head all the way around to watch some mare go by. He took every opportunity to advertise his masculine charm, frolicking and strutting for the benefit of any other horse in sight. Riding a horse like that may sound pretty, but it is like wearing a pair of tight jeans: even if you like that look, it is really uncomfortable and you can’t see it to appreciate it anyway.
He never got gelded. Too many fights with inanimate objects resulted in permanent lameness before we could get around to it. So he lived out his days as a breeding stallion after all. Already lame, he was in no danger of being rendered unserviceable, so he often had mares for company in his pasture, and I think he was pretty happy.
Now there was no trainer, just me and my “method.” One of the rules I had come up with for not aggravating the stallion was no whips. By simple observation of others, I had concluded that whips acted pretty much like a signal flag to this horse, telling him where and when to mash someone into the wall, or at least send the whip handler sprawling in the dirt. I did not wave whips at him.
But once he settled in to his early retirement, even my most earnest efforts to ignore him into docile behavior were ineffective. Every time I took him out to see his mares (and let them see him, and see how they felt about that today- aka “teasing the mares”), he would strut and scream and strike the air and drag me around like a decorative bauble on his lead rope. I didn’t mind so much. This chorus line of mares was a terrible temptation for him, and by now I trusted him not to strike me. He never did, and he didn’t try to bite me or inflict any other contact to warrant a penalty. But one day my grandfather came for a visit. Witnessing this spectacle from a distance, he walked away to the barn. When he reappeared and came out to the stud pen, I could see that he was a little red in the face. He said very quietly “give ‘im here.” Red faced and quiet, in case it is not a universal, meant not pleased. He was also carrying a whip. I felt that old fear again, but not for me. I decided to stand up for my horse, and protect my grandfather.
“He’s afraid of whips,” I said.
“Good,” my grandfather said.
I handed him the lead rope. Ok, so it wasn’t much of a protective standing-up maneuver. I was still only 16.
My grandfather took the horse and walked him away from the mares. He walked the horse in a circle, and put the whip up against the stud’s chest. He didn’t hit him with it. He just held it there. It did not look to me like the stud noticed either the whip or the man. He was still staring off in the distance, at the mares. But he was quiet. Then my grandfather led him in the direction of the mares. The stallion started to prance and holler. My grandfather stopped him and popped him once in the chest with the whip handle. Then he held the whip against the stud’s chest again, kept it there while they walked. The stallion was quiet. He arched his neck and titled his head at the mares as he walked by, paused when a mare seemed to notice him, then kept walking. I was wrong. He did notice the whip and the man.
My grandfather explained it thus, now that he had my attention. This stallion was indeed afraid of whips. But he was still a stallion and studs are macho, so fear is not something they like to show. They will be brave when no other horse will be. The whip, since he was afraid of it, got his attention. But while it rested against his chest, he knew where it was so he did not have to worry that it would snap out of the air and hurt him unexpectedly. The latter is the method employed by way too many stud handlers. You could call it shock and awe. But that didn’t matter. No one was going to do that to this horse anymore. No one had done that in years. Now the whip was just a reminder, a line he could not cross while being led around. And he knew where it was, all the time. It was a rule he could follow without fear.
He continued to run the fence in his pen, except when he had a mare living with him, which became the norm as he and his mares aged beyond any likelihood of a pregnancy. He would still scream, charge at the fence and hit the wall of his shelter with his hip. Stallions are a pain in the rear. But he did not charge me and he never knocked me down. He recognized early on that I was not his enemy. Later, after that lesson with my grandfather, neither one of us had to be afraid of the whip anymore. This was the beginning of my own method for handling studs.