Part 4

The Male Horse 

‘Fighting stallions’ have been a common subject in equine art for centuries, which is not at all hard to understand given the titanic clash of physical speed and power that this represents. So powerful is this image, and so deeply ingrained as a cultural totem in our racial memory, that for many of us primeval aggression and violent power have become synonymous with the very notion of this animal, resulting in a form of cultural monomania. And it is precisely this notion that is long overdue for serious challenge.

In this article we are going to peel back the ‘hype’ that overlays the nature of the entire male horse and look at what lies beneath the myth. As with any animal, human or otherwise, the environment is a powerful force in the moulding of development, both physical and psychological. We have become very good at assessing the impact of poor environments on the development of human young, but there seems to be some attitudinal Rubicon to be crossed before the same logic is also applied to the young of other species. Yet it is clear that the impact of a poor environment will have some very clear parallels in other social species – such as the horse.

Let’s start with a brief auto-biography of the first few years in the life of natural male horse. Born into the typical extended family group, or ‘harem band’, the colt is exposed to the culture of equine society from birth. Depending on the particular culture of the group and the status of the mare the birth may be closely guarded by Stallion and one or two high status mares. From as early as 12 hours after foaling, family members will form a procession to see the new arrival, just as human family members will visit a newly delivered mother – and with all the attendant expression of emotion – from the calm and dignified interest of herd Aunts through to the paternal pride of the sire and the excitement of brothers, sisters and cousins.  For the first few years of life the colt will never be alone, whether feeding, at rest or play. Within the social structure of the harem group he will always have a watch kept over him, either by his dam or a baby sitter such as an older brother or sister or cousin. Good manners are an integral element of equine society, and will be instilled and reinforced. His diet will be guided by elders, so that what he eats and for how many hours of the day he eats will be taught by social facilitation. He will observe the protocol for courtship and mating of his sire with dam and herd aunts – at close quarters. He will learn to play with his herd brothers the games of biting and rearing; including the etiquette of such games and, equally, that this same behavior must not be addressed to other individuals. In fact he will receive a paradigm for life as a member of a social group that includes all social, sexual, recreational, dietary and protective behaviors. As with a well-integrated and socialised human male, it is this complete education that results in a balanced individual. Finally, he will experience rejection from his natal band and be forced out into a new equine lifestyle – that of the young bachelor in an all male group.

Before going any further, this is a good point at which to deal with the question of age. There are major differences in the development of horses as a result of environment and, to be quite clear, let’s say that by this we mean all external stimuli, not just feed and water, although clearly these are powerful vectors. There may be as much as a two year difference in physical development between an intensively managed domestic horse and its feral cousin of similar breeding. For example, fillies in feral groups may not come into oestrus until the age of four, unlike their domestic cousins who may start to cycle from as early as 24 to 30 months of age. Colts are similarly affected, remaining sexually juvenile in behavior for much longer than, say, a domestic colt reared either just with its dam or with a few brood mares. Such domestic colts raised in all-female groups tend to be very precocious, becoming sexually active as young as two years of age, and we will return to this particular situation later to look at some typical psychological consequences of this early start.

The bachelor group strategy is common to a number of social species, including us. Just as young men of various human cultures will leave the tribal family group and spend several years – up to 7 depending on the particular culture – in an all male group, so too will the ejected colt. The social character of these groups is of particular interest, and in this sense the behavior of group members towards a new arrival is very revealing. (A number of case studies of this behavior have been recorded at the White Horse Equine Ethology Project, from which the actual times given in the following description have been taken.) The new arrival is greeted with great interest, the whole group forming a tight cluster of bodies around him, and amongst this bustle each makes repeated contact to sample the newcomer’s scent, paying special interest to the front ‘armpits’ and the sharing of breath – nostril to nostril. In as little as 15 minutes the group returns to grazing, with the newcomer in line-abreast, flanked on either side by the two highest status colts or stallions. In this format the two guide their charge about the grazing range in an inductive progress; facilitating the discovery of water, physical boundaries and other information essential to high speed escape should it become necessary. After only an hour the group is able to react in total unison to external stimuli and would, in the wild, be able to operate an escape manoeuvre with an excellent unity of purpose.

The same addition of a new member to a female only group of range kept young mares or fillies provides a stark comparison in behavior. The newcomer is ignored at best or harried at worst and, instead of an hour to settle in as an integral member, it may take up to a week! So, why is there such a complete difference? We might suggest that female-only groups are not natural within equine society, and that this is sufficient explanation, but the actual reason has to do with a basic element of biological logic. For the fillies in the all-female group the newcomer offers little reason for celebration and, unless the group is so small that safety is compromised by insufficient numbers to maintain the watch for danger, the addition merely means an increase in competition for feed and water, for no social gain. For the bachelor group the matter is entirely different. In wild or feral herds, bachelor groups operate on the periphery of harem groups, from which vantage point they are best situated to carry out opportunistic raids for the capture of female progeny of breeding age.

Picture the scene of a harem group grazing: the lower status animals, including three or four year old fillies and colts spend the largest amount of time at the greatest distance from the high status nucleus. With the element of surprise in their favour, a bachelor group races in, the senior young stallion, perhaps a five or six year old, fixes his attention on either an individual filly or perhaps a pair or even a trio, while the other stallions and colts race through the circumference of the herd creating confusion and in effect running interference for their leader. The harem stallion falls back on the nucleus of the group, herding his senior mares and their dependent progeny into a tight pack. He has little interest in his older daughters who, by the natural process of exogamy would be driven out in time anyway, and, in the face of the swirling, co-operative high-speed raid of the bachelors his only hope is to defend those mares with which he is closely bonded and which can be relied upon to keep station with him. Defence of his daughters is neither practical, nor beneficial. For the bachelors, the reward for a successful raid is that the most senior member now leaves the group to establish his own harem, resulting in each of the remaining members taking a step up in the ranks and coming closer to the day when they too may capture females of their own. The scenario is not so dissimilar to the raiding strategies of our ancestors that we should have any difficulty in recognising the clear benefits of co-operation in male groups.

Having looked at the natural paradigm for colt and stallion behavior up to the point of the establishment of an individual’s harem we now have to compare this to the way in which so many young male horses are both raised and kept. Typically, management methods result in colts being foaled into small, female-only groups, often to a single mare. Rather than leaving weaning to the mare there will often be a forced intervention, resulting in a high degree of stress and attendant separation anxiety, often followed by isolation and loneliness. Such colts are deprived of the ability to observe any male role model, and of the play that is such an important part of their development. Were we to do the same thing with young human males there would be little surprise if they grew up to become socially dysfunctional adults with a tendency towards extremely poor impulse control, sociopathic urges and incapacity to initiate and develop successful sexual relationships. Equally there is good evidence that these results are common to individuals of other social mammalian species managed in similar fashion – and no good reason to assume that horses will not be similarly affected!

Many a highly valuable stud’s glossy exterior conceals a very poor state of mental welfare, with the result that grooms and handlers are subject to serious attack and injury, and handling becomes expensive and complicated. Co-operation is lost and in its place are substituted a costly array of protective pads, ties and restraints, and stallion bits that look like nothing so much as medieval devices of torture. Finally, high stress matings result in poor conception rates, with all the attendant costs of lost time, expensive veterinary pregnancy tests and increased service costs to mare owners. So even were we to forget any question of ethical animal treatment and concentrate only on financial efficiency this system of management is a miserable failure.

Earlier in the article mention was made of the precocity of many colts raised in small females-only groups. The response of mares in this situation tends to be very poor. The colt’s response to his female companions will become sexual well before he has attained the physical development with which to demonstrate his desirability as either a mate or protector.  Thus begins a mismatch in which his only recourse is to attempt domination by aggression.  This increase in aggression and lack of social graces also permeates the relationship between the colt and human handlers, with potentially disastrous consequences. If the dominant behavior results in fear on the part of the handlers – as it often will – the first reaction will be to punish, followed by use of control devices, perhaps increasing in severity. Yet none of these approaches deals with the root cause of the problem, and not only will they most likely fail to achieve the desired change in behavior but they may well further embitter the colt, creating an embedded sullenness.

The typical next phase in this catalogue of misunderstanding is that surgical milestone – castration. But, far from being the panacea that many believe it is, the outcome of this most intrusive of all management techniques is as uncertain as it is irreversible. Where there is an established history of anti-social or psychologically dysfunctional behavior, the operation will have achieved nothing, except to create real discomfort and perhaps confusion. The notion that the excision of a body part will somehow heal behavioural dysfunction resulting from an extended period of inappropriate treatment is so without any logical foundation that it should amaze us that there are so many people willing to believe it. Nor can castration be relied upon to extinguish sexual behavior, although it may do so. However, some geldings are able to maintain an erection and even to serve a mare, although there will be no issue.  Nor is the uncertain behavior restricted to the physical; geldings kept with mares frequently become fixated to the point that it becomes impossible to remove them for work without incurring a level of separation anxiety that prevents concentration on the task at hand and can be very dangerous for both rider and horse. Yet there has been no diminution of the sense of smell, so that when mares come into oestrus the gelding is flooded with pheromone signals but lacks the capacity to act in accord with their reception. The psychological impact is impossible to judge without almost certain anthropomorphosis, but only the brave or those determined not to admit the possibility would declare that there is none.

The flipside of this management limbo is that it is quite possible to work with the nature of stallions rather than to a blueprint that has only to do with commerce, possession and a misguided notion of convenience. The established fact that colts have a basic co-operative nature can be utilised to make training a positive joy rather than a contest.

Having looked at what can, and so often does, go wrong, and that results in the perpetuation of the old stallion myths, there is another, quite different character to which we should be introduced – that of the ‘family man’. It has long been considered, if only on an unconscious level, that the stallion contributes little to the raising of foals. Of course this is entirely understandable given that our central concept of fatherhood is that of the ‘bread-winner’ (or, more exactly, the ‘meat-winner’) a role that has no equivalent in grazing animals. Yet there are other ‘fatherly’ behaviors that we could have in common with our equine cousins – for cousins they certainly are – such as defender, teacher and role model for the pattern of social interactions with non-kin. Let’s once again invoke modern science in the form of comparative psychology as an analytical tool by which we may throw some light on what has been generally overlooked in the past. The impact of the lack of a male role model has already been mentioned, and there has been such a focus on the psycho-social problems of children growing up without any positive male paradigm that we are probably all aware to some degree of the research findings. Is there any compelling reason to believe that this should not also apply to horses, or that we should not bother to consider the consequences of male parental deprivation in species other than ourselves? Emphatically no! Yet the nature of such considerations is so subjective that proof can be hard to find – in fact, absolute proof is virtually impossible. But just because there is a difficulty does not mean the search has to be neglected. If there is no direct physical evidence that can be marshalled in support of the notion that stallions are an integral part of the social development of the young horse, then is there anecdotal evidence? And here the answer is a definite yes.

Observation of the two harem groups in the White Horse Equine Ethology Project reveals that stallions spend one-to-one time with the foals born into their harems, and it should be noted right away that there is no apparent difference in behavior towards biological progeny and foals born to mares introduced into a group when already pregnant. Most particularly, the foals of high status mares appear to receive the greatest attention from their father. On several occasions stray dogs have wandered on to the second generation group’s range area, and have been treated to a warning display from the resident stallion that leaves little to the imagination: a high speed approach, a powerful double stamp with the front hooves close on either side of the intruder leaving no doubt that bones would be shattered if the dog should make the mistake of harrying the herd members. This is followed by a pirouette and display kick with the hind feet that underlines the warning with brutal eloquence! If there is any question left unanswered by these displays it is not whether the stallion is prepared to defend his family but why he does not kill when he could so easily do so.

Studies of ‘morality’ on the part of individuals within various species have been carried out over the past few years, leading scientists to speculate on the behavioural roots of morality in human society, and there are good reasons to suppose that this simple ‘morality’ is a feature of the inter-species behavior that results in balanced ecosystems. The suggestion that well-socialised stallions may have an inhibition in regard to physical attack is important for reasons other than those to do with defence. There are times in the management of even the most carefully constructed analogue of the natural equine family when tasks need to be carried out that are tantamount to a direct challenge to the sovereignty of the harem monarch – such as the removal of a mare for medical treatment.

Each year within the project harem groups, round about mid-summer, two year old colts and fillies are removed using high status mares to lead them down to the yards where they are then separated prior to being introduced to their new groups. Preparations are made well in advance, with lower status mares - most often with foals and yearlings at foot - being removed for a short time, during which they are given a supplementary feed to compensate for the stress, and then returned to the group. These first removals are viewed with a certain amount of nervousness by the stallion – after all it does look as if one of his mares is being stolen; and there is clear potential for a protective display in defence of his harem. Were there to be no inhibition with respect to aggression it would be very difficult, if not dangerous, for the stallion to be shown that such removals are temporary. But instead of this he is encouraged to take part in the process, accompany the mare, preceding her in to the yards so that he is allowed an opportunity to assess any risks – such as the (non) existence of a potential rival.  He is also given a feed, which serves to reward the co-operation.

However, not all removals can be temporary. Two years ago weather conditions did not allow for sufficient grass growth which coincided with the second generation group exceeding an optimum size, further impacted by a record foal crop during the previous season. As a consequence, population pressure on resources began to trigger signs of social disharmony. For the first time mares were often observed refusing the stallion’s amorous attentions, causing him in turn to become more dominant in his behavior and, as a result, two mares suffered bites on the crests of their necks.  Apart from the annual draft of colts and fillies it became clear that two mare/foal/yearling trios would also need to be moved to the foundation group in order to stabilise grazing resources. The only two that could be removed were, in both cases, higher status mares that were unrelated to the foundation stallion, having been progeny of mares bought in-foal. Yet the stallion could reasonably be expected to object seriously to their removal. It was not without a lot of consideration that the removal of bonded mares was carried out, and it took me some time to surmount my misgivings over the potential for a bad outcome. In the end the stallion accepted my decision with the best of good grace and did nothing to stop me removing his mares even though he could have very easily done so. Nor was there any negative impact on the relationship between the two of us as a result.

It has often surprised me that mares that are well socialised towards people do not always produce foals with the same attitude. However, in my experience, mares that are poorly socialised towards people can generally be guaranteed to produce similarly affected offspring unless early intervention is carried out. We know that foals learn by watching their dam, most particularly regarding food, so why not also with regard to attitude towards people? If the foal sees ‘mum’ in willing and relaxed contact with a person every day why does that foal not also learn to accept such contact? It was only by accident that we discovered that while the mare might not be able to directly sponsor trust in foals a stallion can. Visits to the group for health checks and so forth follow the general protocol that the stallion should be ‘reported’ to first, followed by the head mare. On occasions the work schedule allows for prolonged periods to be spent with the group, and very often, unless he is otherwise occupied with matters of oestrus, I’ll spend some ‘quality’ socialising time with the stallion, as friends do. It soon became obvious that we would slowly be surrounded by a ring of foals – even those that had previously shown fear and refused contact with me.  I needed only continue grooming the stallion, teasing knots out of his mane or removing insects from his coat, for the foals to press in closer and initiate contact with me. Clearly there is some particular behavioural mechanism involved here that is gender specific, not unlike the process whereby it is the human father from which children copy the paradigm for interaction with society at large. So, could it be that not only does traditional stallion management, in which most are kept isolated and deprived of any opportunity to enjoy family life, compromises the psychological and social development of stallions but also robs us of a most excellent natural tool in the socialisation of the young horse to human handlers?

We have, quite naturally, focussed on the male equine throughout this article, but this is not to say that there is no ‘fatherly’ impact on naturally raised fillies. As with the behavioural difficulties that arise in colts as a result of unsupportive management methods, so too there are impacts on fillies. The most obvious of these is seen when it comes time for service. The filly or mare, which has most likely never seen an entire male in their life, is confronted by the spectacle of a rampant stallion in a high state of excitement. Use of the term ‘spectacle’ is totally appropriate – as the sight can be quite awesome. Very often the volatility of the situation is increased by the use of stallion control devices that operate on the basis of pain, unfamiliar surroundings and numbers of people in various protective wrappings. The poor mare is brought into this situation entirely by herself, with no herd sisters on hand for support, and cannot be blamed if she reacts with fear.

In the natural courtship process the mare and stallion are together well before oestrus, and the progressive hormonal cycle produces a gradual, and mutual, heightening of interest. Researchers have recorded observations showing that the courtship preceding the first service of a maiden mare is of much greater duration than those with older, more experienced, mares. For her part the mare is able to signal her increasing willingness to participate in mating behavior by ‘signal urination’ which allows the male to make scent analysis, serving both as an indicator of precise stage in her cycle and, when the right pheromones are present, to excite full readiness in the male. The normal point of address for a stallion to a mare is initially from the front and side, with particular attention being shown to the front ‘arm-pit’. This allows the mare to kick out vigorously and emit the squeal that typifies her not being quite ready without doing the stallion any injury. As her willingness increases the stallion will very often stimulate the mare with his tongue, which serves the dual purpose of exciting the mare and providing a degree of lubrication prior to entry.

It is not at all hard to understand that a great number of maiden mares will react badly to the lack of any such courtship during in-hand service, and kick out in fear. The standard procedure at such a point is to fit ‘hobbles’ that prevent such kicking, load the mare into a service chute in which she is totally restrained, and then to encourage the stallion to mount without further ado. The experience is clearly very stressful for the mare, and, with due deference to those whose sensitivities might be offended by such a notion, equates, in my opinion, to a form of assisted rape. Typically, the next time such a mare is sent for service she will be even worse, requiring not only restraint but sometimes sedation as well. It should not surprise us that this type of service, with all its attendant stress, results in such a poor level of fertilisation that many are now moving towards artificial insemination in preference.

Unlike these poor mares, the naturally raised filly will have witnessed the mating of her dam and sire at close quarters while only a few days or weeks old. As she grows up she will witness other harem mares being mated in an atmosphere of relaxation and mutual intent, and will have received the necessary education so that, when it comes to her turn, she will be a willing and co-operative partner. It seems strange indeed that we would continue to do things in such a way as to make mating less reliably productive, with all the waste of time and unnecessary expenditure that this implies, more complicated, potentially dangerous and both labour and resource intensive than it need be; and this is without mentioning the ethical considerations that should increasingly be a hallmark of treatment of the animals which enrich our environment, and to which we have a duty of care.

Many are sceptical with regard to the portrayal of stallions as having the potential to be co-operative, polite, gentlemanly, moral and nurturing, and there are even some whose instinct is reactionary, open hostility to such an idea, as if it somehow impugns their management methods as inhumane. However, for the sceptics I offer one final proof.

Several months ago a colt foal became separated from its dam very soon after foaling. The result was that by the time the two were reunited the mare refused to accept the foal as her own, and had little milk with which to suckle it had she done so. Despite knowing the difficulties with bottle raising foals, particularly colt foals, he was brought down to the garden where we proceeded to bottle feed him. After a few very difficult weeks in which it seemed highly unlikely that he would survive, the colt got old enough – and large and strong enough! – for us to become concerned with his future behavior. Typically ‘pet’ foals become unruly and overly boisterous around people, and often have later problems socialising with other horses. The best remedy, where available, is to find a mare whose own foal has died to take over, but in this case there was no such mare. Equally it was clear that he was too young to be expected to fit into a bachelor group. Various scenarios were considered, but all required that the ‘foster-carer’ had to be removed from the group that they were in so that a careful watch could be kept over foal and carer, and bottle feeding could continue every three hours during both night and day. On close scrutiny of all sixty or so horses in the project it was the eight year old stallion, head of the bachelor group, that would be least inconvenienced by separation from his group, as he was already spending some time apart each day for riding training, for attention to any of the few visiting mares that are accepted from owners in the immediate area and to make use of the small areas of grazing available around the yards, orchard and gardens.

First, the two were introduced to each other with a low wooden post and rail fence between them, but there seemed to be no sign of any intolerance on the part of the stallion. As the foal began to follow his progress up and down the orchard as much as the fence would allow, the two were put in together. It is one thing to expect a stallion to show care for a foal born into the harem group of which he is monarch, but quite another to nurture a foal to which there is no direct biological tie. Yet this was exactly what happened. A somewhat ambiguous, or disinterested but tolerant, attitude might have been considered predictable, but a far more surprising and faithful level of surrogate fatherhood resulted. The stallion first led and later accompanied the little colt up to the house for his milk feeds, and then returned with him, sometimes over half a kilometre, back to where the pair had been grazing. Just as mares will stand watch over their foals while they sleep, so too did the stallion – not going off to graze until the foal was awake again and ready to move. The colt is now fourteen weeks old, learning proper equine ‘manners’ and thriving in the stallion’s care, an idea unheard of in the past. Yet if this challenge to the traditional status quo is possible what else might be?

In the 12 years the project has been running, there have been many times when it has only been possible to control the relatively large number of horses with the help of the resident stallion and when, by socialising with one out in the paddocks, he has successfully sponsored my first contact with youngsters that might otherwise have required much greater inputs of time and energy. Stallions have assisted in bringing several mares down to the yards for veterinary care due to foaling difficulties, and have stayed with the mare while foaling has been assisted, lending support and alleviating any separation anxiety. On a number of occasions over that period, adult harem stallions have been in direct confrontations due to the failure of a fence or gate, yet in each case there has been no injury caused and the two have allowed me to walk between them, separate them and return each to his range without threat to my safety. At times it can be such a humbling and deeply emotional experience that there is no shame in having tears in the eyes.

For those whose luck it is to experience the magic of partnership with a stallion it can be truly life changing so that they never forget the experience.    Isn’t this a good enough reason to plead for a change of perception and of management practices?

© Andy Beck – W.H.E.E.P. 2004

 Part 5