For ages, women were warned away from riding or working with stallions. Many claimed that our scent would drive a stallion insane. As women began to ignore this rule and keep stallions anyway, the rule morphed into “don’t handle stallions when you have your period.” Well, when I am the primary handler for a stallion, I cannot exactly take time off every month in case I’m releasing the wrong pheromones. Never mind the fact that an accurate analysis of the pheromones and hormones involved completely discredit the theory that the time of the month we notice is of any interest to a stallion. I have never had a stallion behave any differently around me based on the time of the month or whether I had showered recently or used a new shampoo or different perfume. They do not seem to care what I smell like, even if I spent the last hour grooming a herd of mares. I have no doubt that they do notice, but it does not have the effect of driving them to deranged behavior. Perhaps the walnut is mightier than the pear? Perhaps they know I’m not a mare?
Considering the very real hazards of working with stallions, for men and women, I was lucky with the horse I had as a teenager (see part one). When I was about 23, I became acquainted with another aggressive adult stallion, this time a warmblood. For the uninitiated, that’s a very big type of riding horse. The horse I had when I was 13 was small, even for an Arabian. I could rest my chin on his back, and I am about 5’6″. Standing next to the warmblood, I had a view of the top of his ribcage. I could almost see over his back, standing on my toes. The top of his chest was well above my waist. His hoof was big enough to hide my whole hand under, though I don’t know why I would do that. If he lifted his neck, I really could not reach his head. This fellow did not seem to have learned any manners, he sort of walked all over everyone without noticing we were there.
He was promptly put in the care of a professional who didn’t wait to see if the stud wanted to be nice. In an attempt to get the horse’s attention, I suppose, the trainer attacked his front legs with a whip. That is sort of what an aggressive stallion would do, without the whip. Aggressive, not dominant. Big difference. The result was pretty much the same as if a 165 pound stud tried to clobber an 1100 pound stud. Perhaps the big horse, who may not have noticed people before, except as food distributors, had now learned that people could also be an irritant he would have to swat occasionally. Or maybe he was like that all along, I can’t say. He was a stoic. But I do know that one minute he paid no attention to us, the next he made a point of shoving us around. So now no one could ride him, no one felt safe working him, pretty much no one even wanted to go in his stall. It fell to me. After all, I had discovered some mystical method of controlling aggressive studs when I was but a girl… I had yet to confess to the particulars of my “method.”
Why would I agree to this? Perhaps I am a sap. Perhaps I have my own kind of god complex that says I must take care of all of the little lost lambs, even if they are not so little or lamb-like. It is certainly not because I am or ever was a fearless tamer of wild beasts. I had that reputation for years, but that was probably just because I had a good poker face. Even as a dumb kid, I wasn’t brave, just oblivious. Whatever the reason, I felt that I had absolutely no choice: I had to take care of him.
I used the same tactics as before, for all the same reasons. Very big stallion in bad mood= me afraid, me run away. Horse gets lonely, is happy when I return. Amazingly, it worked again. I became pretty much the only one who could make him put his foot in a bucket, who could ride him, who could treat him a little like a regular horse. Others could lead him, but he stormed around like a total jerk. That first trick I mentioned, about the foot in a bucket, was important because the stud had very weak feet and hatched a lot of abscesses. The standard treatment for an abscess is to soak the foot in a bucket of warm water. Hence, the importance of being able to make him do that.
I didn’t have to worry about whips. Though his first meeting with the trainer had involved an ill-advised and excessive application of that tool, this horse did not seem to blame the tool. He did not care about whips, he did not care where they were. Even waving the whip in front of his face had little effect. If he noticed it, he would grab it and chew on it. There were pros and cons to this. At least I didn’t have to worry about scaring him.
I won’t exaggerate: I could only treat him a little like a regular horse. I still avoided riding him in the arena when anyone else was riding. The few times I tried it, he would eventually notice the other horse. It took him some time to react to anything. Then he would veer like a runaway barge in the direction of that horse. I would not wait to see what he planned to do when he got there, but would brace myself against one stirrup, put all my weight against the rein on the same side, and try bend his neck, that is, turn him, while shouting to the other rider to depart ASAP. Maybe he just wanted to say hello, but I could not afford to find out, since he was not asking permission. I also avoided leading him into questionable circumstances. I didn’t take him out when there were a lot of people or horses around, I didn’t put little kids on his back or encourage people to kiss his nose. I hardly ever stood in his stall and brushed his hair without putting a halter and chain on him and tying him up. Hardly ever. I learned that rule from a very old friend.
One day, some months after the big horse arrived, that friend came to visit. This friend, incidentally, was the only trainer my first stallion had never knocked down. I had known him as long I as had known horses, which was always. He had been in the business for a very long time. I had a vivid memory of a stallion standing with his rope loose on the ground, in the middle of a barn row at a horse show, while horses and people walked by. That stallion was standing there, his front feet square, still as a statue, because this man told him to. Not looking around, an eye fixed on his trainer (who was sitting in a chair in the shade some yards away), the horse ignored everything else. Often, horses stand with their front feet a little offset, either because they just stopped walking, or intend to continue walking. When they know they will not be going anywhere for a while, or do not know when they will move again, they stand with their front feet even, or “square.” That this man was curious about the new horse gave me hope.
It was the middle of the day, there were several people about, some kids, some dogs, geese, horses being ridden, horses being bathed. It was not bedlam, but it was busy. It was not a good time to take the big horse out, in my opinion. But my friend was there, and he wanted to see him out. So I went and got him.
As soon as the horse came through his stall door, he grew some inches. He puffed himself up, arched his neck, and broke into a gait that looked as if he were in slow motion. With every step, he launched himself so high that he appeared suspended in mid air. His shoes on the concrete sounded like someone slowly banging an anvil. This was what it looked like when the big horse pranced. He was very excited about going out to see everyone. Very pretty, very scary. I knew that there was no point trying to put my foot down. I might as well have been tied to a tractor, with skis on my feet.
My friend smiled when he saw us. “That is a pretty horse,” he said. As luck would have it, the stud was sort of traveling in my friend’s direction when we came out of the barn. As we came closer, I assumed we would pass right by. But my friend put a hand on my shoulder and gently took the lead away from me. He gave the line a flip, turned his body, and let the horse move around him in a big circle. Or that is how it looked. The horse did not appear to want to go anywhere else, though I knew he really did want to go mingle in the worst way. He didn’t look right at my friend, not for a while. But after a few circles this way and that, a little walking up and down here and there, he stopped and stood with his front feet perfectly square. He slowly turned his head to show my friend his eye. And there it was again, the stallion statue.
I wish I could say, I wish I knew, how my friend did this. I am inclined to think it has to do with the dominance versus aggression problem. Aggression comes from fear or frustration, a powerful reaction to a threat. Dominance doesn’t use aggressive acts, it doesn’t even inspire aggressive acts. Challenging the dominant party is simply not an issue: they are dominant. It goes back to that “bluffing game”, the “I am badder than you” act, but it isn’t an act, it is not a bluff. And just like a bluff, an animal can sniff out dominance very quickly, even if he is not paying close attention. Everyone knows the alpha when they meet him. But beyond that, beyond knowing that I need to believe I am Alpha and not just pretend, I have no idea what sort of magic my friend used on this big horse. But it did convince me that it was possible to bring that horse into line, if only…
I was actually living out of state at the time. So I was only his “primary handler” for extended visits, not year round. While I was away, others had to deal with him. I know nothing of the tactics they used, I only heard the awful news I would get over the phone. First, he was accused of dismembering a goose. It was found in pieces and feather piles all over his pen. I admit, he looked guilty. I didn’t think too much of that because geese are obnoxious, and what was it doing in his pen anyway? Trying to eat his food?
Then he attacked a man who was in his pen, working. The details are hazy, the man did not ever remember how he ended up unconscious.
Finally, he attacked a woman, who also had every right to be in his pen. She was very badly injured. What happened? If you read part one, you may have guessed: the stud picked her up by the arm and shook her like a rag doll.
It was decided that, since the professional on site (who was not one of his victims) could not handle him, and since his owners could not manage him at all, he should be sold. I resented it, of course. For me to really be his handler indefinitely was not something anyone considered reasonable, even me, not only because I was living out of state. But I still resented it. I have an irrational belief that it is wrong to pass a bad horse down the line, not only because someone else is liable to get hurt, but also because I fear that the “bad” horse will come to a worse end, having proven he is irredeemable.
Of course I felt awful about what he had done. I probably felt a little guilty for having made him appear to be a nice, regular kind of horse. But my “method” for handling stallions was only effective on me– it did not transfer to his behavior with others. It did not qualify as training. It was more like an optical illusion than any kind of behavior modification. This horse was nothing like my first stallion. He didn’t mind being petted or paid attention to, but he didn’t seem to need it quite so much. So why did I get off scott free from his dangerous tantrums? I don’t know. I still feel guilty some days, because I never could figure it out. Perhaps that is why I resented his owners for selling him away from me. I thought I could figure it out, given time.
Maybe, or I could have ended up stomped into a pulp. The fear that was my guide as a 13 year old girl was a good angel, a useful instinct, so long as I never want to market myself as a professional stud handler. It is good to fear something large and aggressive and prone to hormone rages, even if he is not a carnivore. But this horse also had his good moods. He could be very sweet and did seem to notice me a little. He did, after all, put his foot in the bucket for me. He had a habit of resting his forehead against my chest and just standing there with his eyes closed. Of course, putting his head against you is not a respectful thing to do. But that was all he did, he didn’t shove me or nip at me. It felt a little like having an elephant lean gently against you. A good stud handler would push him away, remind him to keep his distance. But I was not a good stud handler, I was a sentimental young woman. And maybe there was a connection there. It’s hard to tell through the haze of memory.
I lobbied for gelding him and letting him stay, which went nowhere. I suggested sending him to live with my friend, the Alpha. That was not well received. There was a trainer on site. People have their loyalties, they don’t like to hurt anyone’s feelings for the sake of a horse. And he had crossed the line. No one wanted him around anymore, in sight or memory. Except me, but my judgment was clearly impaired. I had to help sell him, give him a chance at a good home. Groom him, work him, ride him for an ad video, talk to people who wanted to know about him. Make him look good. And I didn’t have to explain that he was dangerous. Most people used to dealing with warmblood stallions knew that big stallions were dangerous. Really, he hadn’t done anything a whole lot of breeding stallions hadn’t done at some point.
That stallion I mentioned a while ago, the one standing with his lead on the ground, still as a statue? Taken away from my friend for some years, he matured into a habitually vicious horse. He liked to reach around, grab his rider’s leg and pull him off. He also liked to pin people to the ground under his knees and bite them in the head. Even my friend could not redeem him once he started that. But a vet could, and did. So the big horse was not such an aberration. He was just a stud. Selling that horse was educational. It was torture.
What kept me safe? Luck? I don’t think so, or not entirely. I think that, being afraid, I was clearly never going to try and boss him, not really. And I never tried to eat his food. Maybe through that stoic, mammoth skull, he sensed this, and had no interest in reminding me of how insignificant I was. Also, I remembered my rules, never turned my back, never let my guard down. Did others? Would it have mattered? I don’t know, I wasn’t there. I don’t even know what became of him. I couldn’t bear to find out. I cried when they put him in the trailer and never saw him again. Some years later I looked for him but could find no trace of him or the people who bought him.
I don’t want to make too much of fear as an asset. Abject terror is communicable, and at the very least will make a horse want to chase you away. When a horse is in a foul mood and I decide to leave him alone, I am not only backing away from the stallion so he can settle down. I also need to collect myself. Sometimes, all I need to do is get away from the horse while he hurls himself against the wall or runs back and forth yelling at the mares. Not being around that helps quiet my nerves. When I do go back, as often as not I am a little bit ready to get cranky, slap him with the rope, pop him in the nose, or just leave him to go hungry for a few more hours. But it rarely comes to that. Almost every time, I come back and he is calmly waiting for me to tell him what comes next.