11 tips to improve his outlook on life and increase your safety!by Leslie Desmond
The number of stallions purchased for riding by amateurs and first/time horse owners is on the rise! It is unfortunate that the correct development of their behavior requires knowledge and experience that is not available at riding schools, summer camps or dude ranches, or from keeping geldings and mares. Most DVDs, books and horsemanship programs don’t focus on stallion care and management either, so it seems like a good time to present a few of the things I have learned, and that I do with stallions and other horses who are unsure about what is expected of them.
In no event should the tips in this article be considered “a guarantee”, “long-term cure”, or “quick fix” for every situation. I hope that the key points presented below will be helpful if you have just purchased a stallion, or if you have difficulty changing unwanted behavior in your mares or geldings. This short article contains a few basic rules for sound stallion management that are likely to carry-over well in most other horse-handling situations if they are presented with a feel the horse understands and respects.
Horses, being the adaptable creatures they are, will respond quickly to changes in the expectations, moods and movements of those around them. This fact ensures that we can smooth over the rough edges that will inevitably -- but temporarily -- be evident from errors we make as we progress along the simple and straight forward route to safe stallion management.
As a young girl growing up in rural Western Massachusetts, my only experiences with stallions were good ones. One was kept by family friends, Russ and Ellie Funk of Ashley Falls. They, and a well respected local furrier and horseman by the name of Clarence Martin from the neighboring town of Sheffield, advised all the kids around there to treat a stallion “just like any other horse”. Unless you were told, or could see the horse was entire, you would not have known that Ellie and Russ even had a stallion. He had good manners because he was set up to succeed. They expected him to behave and he could and did, because he received the same respect and love as the other broodmares and geldings their family kept.
Most important, for such tasks as leading grooming, tacking up and sending the horse around in a large circle for exercise, they were consistent in the way they positioned themselves relative to the stallions’ bodies. When a request was made for the stallion to follow, step aside, back up or stand on the end of the lead, the stallions were obedient and obviously at ease, and the horses were approached and handled equally well from either side. When they were in the stable, the paddock or pasture as it was time to halter them; they were approached first at the withers, not at the face where people customarily stand. The nice expressions on their faces clearly revealed pleasant dispositions, and they were usually in a relaxed and learning frame of mind. It was no different when the stallions were loose in the box stall. They were always calm and safe to be around in the course of feeding, grooming or mucking out because their behavior did not depend on equipment. It was the effective presentation of an expectation that produced the same good results. This is not to suggest that things were done rigidly, military style or that no changes or unexpected things occurred. They did, of course. But the thing main point that was clear was that any request, any at all, was not about dominance and submission, not about “making him do it”. It was so much simpler than that, both in theory and practice.
It was about the matter of whose feet needed to be where, in what sequence and at what speed. It was not about pushing and pulling, “turning up the heat”, setups for failure to justify the inevitable punishments, corrections, raised voices or whippings that I had witnessed elsewhere. “Feel and release” is not the same thing as “pressure and release”; it was never a matter of dominance, right-wrong, or horse vs. human.
Since that indelibly positive experience, I have encountered many other kinds of stallions and stallion keepers at the race tracks, breeding farms and shows. But, for the most part, I have met them in the countless backyards of good people. And by this I mean nice, caring, horse-loving people who were open to learning a better way to manage the time they spend with their stallion. Over the years, many of these misguided, ill-informed people whose dream-turned-nightmare eventually found their way to a clinic. Some drove in with their stallion. Some could not load their horse, and they came to watch. Some arrived with their new gelding.
I conclude that the majority of unhappy stallion-owner combinations can be traced to a couple of easily rectified human habits. I don’t want to make this sound too simple though, because it is not. But, have you noticed that the best horse trainers are extreme? Extremely careful and extremely observant! I am fortunate to have met a few men who fit this description and of these Bill Dorrance, a rancher from Salinas, California, was by far the most accomplished. He had the most knowledge and the most sureness, and I trust that this was in part due to his age. He was 88 years old when we became acquainted and 93 years old when he died. This sad day was just six weeks after the publication of, “True Horsemanship Through Feel” the book I wrote and published for him in 1999. Experience takes time. Knowing horses takes several decades. To know about them, takes a lot less.
Where you find people who are always in a hurry, you generally also find that the horses around them will reflect this hurry. It manifests as tightness, edginess, jumpiness and a lack of sureness. Sometimes, conversely, it shows up as brazen over-confidence, and to many people this masks the horse’s unsureness and their response to this can lead to a fear-based stallion management style that, in turn, creates another kind of danger for both all concerned, including bystanders and people the horse has not yet met. But, whether fearful and fearsome in response to their human associations and, gender notwithstanding, neither type of horse is safe to be around for long.
I want to state unequivocally that fearful, careless and unobservant people should not be involved with stallions. This is because horses are the opposite way, and a stallion or young horse the more so. For better or worse, a stallion soon bears the mark of his handler(s). Therefore it is my suggestion that if you have decided to bring a stallion into your life, now is the time to sharpen up! And, because good training sessions are so quickly corrupted by the well-intended kindnesses, oversights and inadvertent transgressions of others, the best stallion management plans include education for all the people who have contact with him. For best results work with, get to know, and /or hire people who have made a commitment to improve their horse-handling skills and who support your decisions on how the stallion is to be managed.
Tip #1. Lead the horse, and teach him to follow. Leading does not mean dragging him along behind or over the top of you, or looking back at the horse, confronting him as you pull him into your space. When a horse is being lead, he is following and this does not involve bumping into someone’s hips with the shoulders, or leaning into someone’s elbow with the neck. Horses that are not taught to lead properly will collide with you as they are “lead” from point A to B. This is easy to change around when a person has a clear idea where his/her own feet should be. Then, only then, is it a simple matter to place the horse’s feet where they should be to make a safe trip anywhere, under any circumstances. (Note: Leading with feel is not a matter of strength or force and does not require special equipment, or any equipment. Horses are instinctively set up, internally conditioned, to want to follow. So, just allow that, and if you are not able to do this safely, you can learn this from a coach who owns, or can shortly prepare for you, a well-mannered horse that does not crowd.)
Tip #2. Keep mares elsewhere. Not in the same barn, and if possible, not within sight, at least until your stallion and you have the partnership and mutual respect that enables you to control him without force and violence.
Tip #3. Hired help is a fact of life for most horse keepers – and this includes the barn manager, grooms, muckers, weekend turnout help, exercise riders, riding instructors and trainers who either work for you or at the facility where your stallion is kept. For best results, the horse must feel comfortable with all the people who need to handle him and vice versa. The time and effort you invest to help each of these people -- who contribute to your stallion’s experience of human beings – acquire the skills they need to help you fulfill your goals for the horse will be handsomely rewarded. Retain a vet and a farrier who are comfortable around stallions and have a nice way to handle them.
Tip #4. Like other horses, stallions need to run, buck, rear up and roll everyday. Plenty of exercise and room to run with other geldings and stallions, or alone, with a well maintained electric or solid and high fence should be possible. (Note: Young stallions are commonly raised in herds by the breeders Spain, Portugal, Germany, France, Scandinavia and parts of Canada, South America and the US and UK. If you are not confident and comfortable doing this, do not do it. If you think it would improve your stallion’s mental and physical condition to lead a more normal horse life, and then seek professional help to make this transition, and be sure the owners of the other horses are in full agreement with the plan.)
Tip #5. If possible, lower all food and water sources to the ground so the benefits of a full release of the top-line can be achieved every time he eats. On the related topic of hand-fed treats, his expectation of the human hand will change completely when all (100%) of the treats he is offered are presented to him on the floor. Toss carrots and apples to him from 10-15 feet away in the paddock, or let them show up in the bucket on the ground at feeding time.
Tip #6. Hand feeding behavior has to stop if you want to establish or re-establish your stallions respect for you. Fondling and tickling the nose and lips, and cuddling the head and shoulders of a stallion as you stand in front of him or pass him at the stall or cross-ties creates the expectation that you want and expect that social-emotional exchange. The crowding of his forehand (incl. head, neck and shoulders) teaches and reinforces the lesson to a stallion that to push into a person and engage with them orally is an expected, necessary part of the relationship. It is dangerous and leads many unaware people to punish the horse for the exact thing they are inadvertently training him to do. Over time, this will frustrate and eventually enrage many of them. Appropriate exchanges of affection with your stallion will be discussed next month.
Tip #7. To help get a stallion over the habit of nipping or biting, you can lead, longe, groom and handle him while he is wearing a headstall that has a very loosely adjusted bit. I set the adjustment with no wrinkles, and with one-half to three-quarters of an inch gap between corner of the mouth and the top of the bit as it hangs from the headstall. This will encourage him to chew and lick, bite at, hold and teethe on the bit . . . instead of you, your clothing, cross ties, brushes, lead rope, reins, etc. This is a temporary solution that, when done properly, permanently stops his inclination to bite. It has the added benefit of causing the root of the neck and poll to relax. In turn, this relaxes the diaphragm and encourages longer and fulfilling exhales, which increases his capacity to take deeper breaths. Over time, this expansion of the chest cavity with the neck low (be sure to adjust your cross ties so his head is not suspended in the halter, or is hangs heavily from the ties) while at rest, can release-relax sacro-lumbar tensions incurred from work on the lounge with the head and neck set in fixed and semi-rigid position with side reins, bitting rigs, drop-nose cavesons and the like.
Tip #8. Handling the feet. When a stallion is not yet able to have his feet handled safely, but can be handled safely on a lead rope, and can be bathed without panic or pulling away . . . increase the water flow to one leg at a time until, gradually, he moves the foot you want him to pick up. Immediately (without stress or fast, jerky motions) redirect the stream of water to the ground. In time, through your experimentation of feel and release, you will be able to “ask” him to stand still as you bathe him and wait there, patently. Or to move -- by shifting weight from one foot to another, one foot at a time -- to another position. Practice this on another, gentler safer horse first to more fully understand and appreciate the effectiveness of this approach. After you can control the timing and placement of each foot, and the stallion is accustomed to communicating through the feel and release of the water directed by your hand, move in closer until he can accept your hand and the water on his leg at the same time without moving, or becoming alarmed and distracted. Using the same feel and release with your hand that you taught him with the water, you can, in most cases, and then ask him to lift a leg up, and also to allow you to run the water over the leg while he holds it still for you. Remember, our job is to help that horse, and no amount of harsh handling or restraint at the head, or jerking, raised voices, or confrontation will quiet a horse that is having trouble keeping still and focused on your requests to release his legs and feet to your hands.
If the weather, physical setup or other circumstances are not conducive to this experiment, you can use a long lead rope (min. 12-15 feet.) around the pasterns or a flag under supervision to learn the feel and timing necessary to get proficient presenting a request to give you safe access to a leg and hoof.
Tip #9. Let him see! When you begin to approach the horse at the withers instead of the head, many things that once were thought to be problems fade away. When 50% of the horse’s vision is obscured, the horse may become anxious. Unless the horse nudges you out of the way or cranes his neck far right to have a clear view of things around him, he may start to fidget, shift the feet, tighten up, take shallow breaths, talk to other horses, try to walk off, eat grass to get a better view that way, or yank the rope out of your hand. If you are not comfortable with this transition, or the horse at first cannot accept you there, turning with you so his mouth and face are in the “treat-ready!” position, start carrying a brush with you so he associates the new presentation at the withers with familiar experience of standing to be brushed. This could take a few minutes, hours or days. But by the time he will stand still to be approached on both sides at the withers, you are developing a foundation from which you can prepare him to stand and wait for you if you take a tumble, or if you need to run over to him and mount up in a hurry. Horses and handlers that are hooked on the “handouts” connection at the head cannot ever expect to enjoy that experience under saddle, unfortunately.
Tip #10. Most stallions would make nice geldings and be happier, safer horses to have around. If your best efforts have not produced the results you hoped for, and if your stallion has not responded well to the training you have invested in his development, consider gelding him, and give him a lot of time off. If possible, turn him out with other geldings (pull his shoes if he has them) for a few months so he can adjust to his new life. Horses are herd animals after all, and this will increase the chances that he can bounce back more rapidly to state of mental and physical equilibrium. This is apt to happen more quickly in an environment better suited to a horse than the confines and conditions of stall life and fixed, schedule-driven routines.
Tip # 11. Last, but not least. Before you purchase or lease a stallion, set yourself and the horse for success by doing your homework first. Travel to stallion farms, breeders, trainers and exhibitors to watch them in action. If you like the results you see, watch long enough, and ask enough questions to find out how these results are achieved and maintained. When you like what you see, the chances are better that you can imitate and reproduce similar results when you learn how to do what those people did to get them.