Does Your Stallion Have to Live in Solitary Confinement?
A stallion’s life is a lonely one when he’s turned out by himself and stabled where he’s unable to socialize with other horses.
Like mares and geldings, stallions thrive on interaction with other equines, and social deprivation is a sad existence for them. It also creates more work for their owners.
An Alternative Life-Style
In 2009 and 2010 a study subtitled A Possibility to Keep Stallions in Group was conducted to investigate “the possibility of housing breeding stallions … in groups on a large pasture.”
The stallions in the experiment were Freiberger horses owned by the Swiss National Stud and aged between 8 and 19. They were driving horses, but also used for breeding, and had lived at the stud for 5 to 16 years.
A group of 5 stallions was observed in 2009. Of these, 4 were in the group of 8 for the 2010 study.
The Researchers: concluded that, under certain conditions, “breeding stallions could be housed together on a large pasture … (which could) potentially increase horse welfare and reduce labour associated with horse management.”
In the wild, stallions without a harem form ‘bachelor bands.’ These consist of up to 15 yearlings or young stallions, plus “older stallions that have lost their harem.”
The study notes that threatening behavior among the members of these bands is natural, as are avoidance and submission. But, “when they interact, stallions typically display the minimum amount of aggression required by the situation.” (My italics.)
These ‘ritualized displays’ become less intense and of shorter duration over time, and “seem to facilitate stallions being able to graze side-by-side.” The good news is that the displays alone help establish and maintain the group’s hierarchy “without involving physical aggression.”
A Stallion Needs Love, Too
Depriving horses of physical contact with each other is bad for their mental health. They are likely to “display more stress-related behaviours than horses stabled in pairs” and develop stereotypies such as weaving and cribbing. “Social interactions should therefore be considered as crucial for (a stallion’s) welfare.”
The earlier a stallion is socialized the better, since “horses that have been living in a group have more refined social skills and are less aggressive towards other horses and even towards humans during training.”
Trainer Jim Brinkman, manager of the Pitzer Ranch in Ericson, Nebraska, says in Owning a manageable stallion “we’ll let (the stallions) run together until they are 3 or 4 and bring the stallions in to determine if they should be cut. It’s good for them to run with a group so they learn how to get along with each other.”
Owners who haven’t done this are understandably loath to turn out their stallions in groups because of the high risk of injury, particularly during the initial introductory phase. But the study suggests that under specific conditions these stallions can also be kept in groups.
The potential for physical aggression significantly decreases and is “kept at a minimum after only three or four days following integration.”
Before being put together, the Swiss stallions spent two weeks stabled next to each other, as “prior exposure can reduce aggression.” These horses were able to see, hear, smell and partially touch their equine comrades through the stable partitions. Except for one stud, they had been hitched next to each other in driving pairs.
In 2009, the 4 stallions were individually turned out for two hours a day. The 2010 group of 8 was exercised on the horse exerciser, half of them at a time.
After two weeks their shoes were removed, to reduce the risk of injury when turned out together.
Close Encounters of the Studly Kind
Each stallion was led on a halter once round the 10 acre field. Then all of them were released together, while 10 handlers stood by with whips should serious fighting break out and intervention become necessary.
The pasture was out of sight of mares and other horses: the stallions remained outdoors for six months.
There were no enclosed spaces, and they had access to six wooden field shelters with wide entrances and straw on the ground. Food distribution was conducted in such a way as to allow each animal to eat without fear of threats or kicks from the others.
Friends or Foes?
It was observed that “when two males encounter each other, they perform a ritual that allows them to assess each other’s fighting abilities … without having to fight.” The stallions indulged in more show than actual aggression.
Those stallions which had previously been turned out with others “had less agonistic, ritual and affiliative interactions than the other stallions.”
Agonistic relates to aggressive or defensive behavior, such as fighting, fleeing or submission.
Table 1. lists 14 different types of agonistic behavior observed among the stallions, including chasing, pushing, kneeling and fleeing or following.
Affiliative interactions were exhibited by such behaviors as nipping at each other in play without pinning their ears back and mutual grooming. They increased early in the stallions’ time together.
Affiliative behavior releases social tension between horses in a group. After 9 days it lessened among the stallions in the study, possibly because they had now formed their social bonds and no longer needed to indulge in it so frequently to maintain them.
Interestingly, the lower ranking stallions tended to “engage in more rituals than high-ranking ones.” They appeared to have a “tendency for compromising rather than fighting.”
The higher ranking stallions initiate affiliative behavior – not the lower-ranking ones, as this may lead to aggression from the high ranking stud.
Jim Brinkman’s approach is: “If particular stallions can’t seem to get along, they will stay together longer and work it out or be put with the geldings.” His solution does not include isolating the horse.
Equine behaviorist Sue McDonnell, Ph.D., from the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine explains in Owning a manageable stallion how important it is for stallions to have “plenty of space.” She stresses that “the least risk for injury comes with huge open spaces.” If there is a fight, usually the weaker horse will back down, and there needs to be “enough room for a horse to get away.”
Your stallion doesn’t have to live in solitary confinement. Under the proper conditions, he can be successfully integrated into a herd where he will be much happier. His stress levels will lower and he’ll know how to behave around other horses. In addition, he’ll be easier for you to handle and less work to take care of.
Resources & Further Reading
Table 1 of the study, showing agonistic and affiliative behaviors
Sabrina Briefer Freymond, Elodie F. Briefer, Rudolf Von Niederhäusern and Iris Bachmann
Swiss National Stud: (Website available only in German and French)