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12/19/2002 Entry: "Au Naturel Breeding Is Best for Some Stallions"

January 1998

Published by HorsePlay

Raymond Hyde, DVM

After I palpated the Thoroughbred mare and determined that she was close to ovulation, my client led her in a curiously circuitous route to the far side of the Shire stallion's pasture. We opened the gate, turned her into the field, and retreated to safety outside the gate. The stallion's owner then called for him. The black stallion responded with a screaming call and turned into a steaming 1,800-pound equine locomotive. He seemed to double in size as he charged with thundering hooves to lay claim to his new mate.

In a few days, with the breeding completed, the mare would be sneaked out of the field when the stallion let down his guard. Otherwise, he would not allow her to be taken from him.

The above scenario sounds dangerous for everyone involved, but the natural breeding setting actually is the best way of managing this stallion. The owner's previous attempts at semen collection and hand breeding-in which both the stallion and mare are under direct human control-had been abandoned because the stud turned into an unruly, dangerously determined suitor in that situation, too. When he mated, he wanted to do it his way and would not tolerate human interference.

This pasture breeding arrangement successfully allows about 15 to 20 mares to be bred each year. The stallion is able to live with several mares year-round, which provides him normal herd socialization. He remains quiet and docile (except when his territory is invaded, as in the above example) under these conditions. I could tend to his and the mares' medical needs right in the field, as long as we did not try to separate him from his harem.

Going au naturel
Stallions are naturally possessive, protective, aggressive, and highly territorial and will rear and strike, bite, and kick. Testosterone has a way of supercharging many horses' psyches. In some I call it testosterone toxicity. Otherwise gentle riding and performance stallions can get very obnoxious when presented with a mare in heat. Even a mature stallion like amateur Sue Attasani's Thoroughbred Simbalu, a perfect gentleman while competing in regular working hunter divisions at shows, becomes quite a handful in the breeding shed.

One way of allowing stallions to behave normally while minimizing the threat of harm is by keeping them in a natural setting-in which mares, stallions, and offspring are allowed to commingle-as much as possible. In natural herds young colts quickly learn horse-breeding etiquette. Older studs rule the herd through domination. A colt learns to approach mares with caution, carefully reading the mare's receptivity by observing her responses to his advances before initiating copulation. An experienced mare's kicks would slow and correct an overly amorous young stallion. I've found that stallions kept in either a natural herd or with geldings are more docile and easier to deal with during breeding than isolated stallions. One client keeps 10 stallions in one 200-acre pasture. Each stallion maintains a harem of about five mares, and, while there is some fighting between the stallions, injuries have been minor.

Most owners, however, want to protect their stallions from injury by raising them in a solitary environment-with individual stalls and turnout paddocks. However, this can lead to a variety of psychological and sexual behavioral problems, such as excessive biting, kicking, and exaggerated aggressiveness. In the breeding shed, improper socialization might show up as rough or charging breeding behavior.

If you can't keep your stallion in a natural breeding situation or with a herd of geldings, he must be taught that you call the shots in the breeding shed. In his 1995 book, The Stallion (Howell Book House), James P. McCall, PhD, offers excellent insight into the inclinations and behavior of stallions and gives excellent advice about managing them. His two basic rules, "Never trust a stallion" and "Never ignore a stallion," should not be forgotten. Regular riding and handling often help keep these studs controllable, as does establishing a specific breeding routine. A chain shank over the nose or under the chin usually is the only extra measure of control needed if the stallion is well-trained.

Hand breeding and artificial insemination have allowed breeders to lower the risk of injury to mares and stallions during mating. But, because handlers are in such close proximity, these controlled breeding procedures require a well-trained stallion. Handling and managing a stud horse takes understanding, concentration, and determination for us to establish and maintain the dominant controlling role in the horse-man relationship.

NOTE: The American School of Equine Dentistry is a private school.

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