Q: What tips do you have for managing stallions so that they don’t develop behavior issues?
A: Stallion behavior and management is so interesting! There’s lots of great literature out there if you really want to get into it. But here are a few principles I think are really important.
The best general management practices for stallions can vary greatly. Feed, exercise, and turnout should all be provided appropriate to the individual. Avoid obesity, especially for an older stallion who might also have musculoskeletal pain, which can turn him into a slow breeder.
Large farms will often house all the stallions in one barn. This might work fine for most, but stallions housed together can form a sort of a hierarchy. Slow or timid stallions might benefit from separate housing and perhaps even living closer to mares.
Stereotypies such as fence pacing and stall walking might also be a problem. Realize our domestic housing and breeding environment is mostly different from the natural harem structure. Depending upon the layout of the farm and the fencing, you might have to manipulate the stallion’s housing to see where he does best in proximity to other stallions and mares.
Stallions present challenges and risks that we don’t generally see with mares and geldings, but they should still be trained and handled with an expectation for good behavior, just like any other horse. Stallions do not need to be all fired up for breeding, or feisty during normal handling for their self-esteem. So, provide regular sessions outside of the breeding context using whatever combination of positive and negative reinforcement training works best for you so that he is solid in-hand before you go to the breeding shed.
However, in the breeding shed a good stallion handler understands that a normal amount of sexual interest and excitement are expected, acceptable, and not incompatible with maintaining control. Vocalizations, some prancing, some back kicking, stomping, pawing, and erection and thrusting during washing are all normal pre-breeding behaviors. If the stallion begins to bite or kick at the handler or mare, tries to run or rush, or rears and strikes, then it’s time to go back to the past training exercises. This might mean the stallion has to go to a “time out” corner to reestablish control. Your handling should translate to the stallion that good behavior, step-by-step, means positive progress toward the reward of a mare or dummy mount.
If a stallion is meant to have both an athletic and breeding career concurrently, he can learn the appropriate behaviors for each. And this applies also to a stallion only used for breeding when you want to signify that he is just going for turnout versus now going to the breeding shed. One basic, import step is to condition him to things that are unique to each activity. This might mean different handlers if that is feasible. Or you might set up completely different routines for each activity. For example, use a unique halter and lead for each one, complete different grooming steps, and take different routes even if the final destinations are in the same direction.
Be careful to not punish a stallion for getting an erection out of the breeding context, especially by directly striking the penis. This can create a stallion with an aversion or fear of getting an erection in an appropriate context. Also, it is unnecessary to punish or attempt to prevent masturbation (erection associated with bouncing the penis against the belly). Masturbation in stallions is normal and frequent and will not diminish normal sex drive or sperm (ejaculation is very uncommon). Various devices or punishment used to prevent masturbation are ineffectual at best, and at worst could injure the penis.
Probably one of the greatest virtues with stallions is patience. With a stallion who is strong and feisty there can be a temptation to just get the thing over with rather than take the time to slow the process down and expect good responses to your signals. But it is especially true with slow breeders, such as novices, stallions with learned aversions, or old stallions with physical limitations. Rushing these stallions, or unintentional rough handling out of frustration, will not speed the process up and might create more fear or aversion to the breeding situation.
One thing to consider with managing stallions who are either too aggressive or are novice and slow is pasture breeding. Now, I realize this can be nerve-wracking (for fear of stallion or mares getting injured) and often just not feasible. But if it can be done, it can help a stallion to learn to be both respectful and less fearful of mares.