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Stallion management: The behavioral aspect of owning, caring for your horse

Amy K. McLean
for Tri-State Livestock News
Exercising stallions is important for their overall health and fertility. Photo by Jan Swan Wood

Most stallions are kept in solitary housing situations due to fear of valuable animals breeding other horses or becoming injured. In a feral or wild type setting most stallions develop a “harem” meaning a stallion will keep a group of mares and foals together and move from one location to the next. When stallions are housed individually for logical reasons such as care, breeding regimes, and simply the economic value of many stallions used for breeding purposes, their innate instincts maybe removed. During a harem setting, stallions are allowed to express olfactory signs such as smelling urine and feces. They interact and court with mares and express play behavior with younger stallions. Fighting and aggression is typically seen when a younger stallion tries to enter the heard. Smells are extremely important to the behavior and survival of wild stallions. When a stallion smells urine or feces, then he exhibits the flehman response. The flehman response can be described as the stallion curling his upper lip in response to the smells. Such activities help promote libido in a stallion and/or interest in breeding mares or the phantom. A phantom or dummy is a device used for collecting a stallion for artificial insemination.

Ideally, an owner or manager should attempt to promote a stress free environment for the stallion. If the stallion is being housed or kept in an environment in which he is continually agitated or bored then he may develop unwanted behaviors such as stereotypies (like cribbing or flank biting) and even reduce spermatozoa production. When keeping stallions in individual runs or stalls, a manager or owner should consider allowing turn out time for a stallion to come in contact with other equine smells to promote normal stallion behavior. In the wild stallions actually form bachelor bands when they are young or old. A bachelor band is a group of young or old stallions, no mares. Granted, most owners or managers would not consider the option of turning out stallions together but it does work in the wild. One option would be to let the stallion at least see other horses and vocally communicate with them, this will help promote a healthier environment for the stallion and hopefully deter the development of stereotypies. When keeping stallions, the design of the facility should be taken into account. Paddocks or pastures, should be designed so stallions can still see one another and interact but not directly come in contact. Many stallion stations (locations that keep many stallions for breeding purposes) will allow turn out time for stallions in paddock areas that have a space between each paddock. Then the stallions have time to be horses and interact as normal as possible in such conditions.

Other ways to promote natural stallion behavior is allowing the stallion during breeding to sniff mare urine on the phantom (the breeding dummy or site of semen collection) or smell feces on the ground in the environment where he is being bred or collected. Some would even agree that allowing a stallion to express courtship such as nibbling of the fore and hind legs and even mounting several times prior to collection or breeding will also promote a more physiologically sound horse.

Other areas to consider in stallion management are the diet and exercise regime of the stallion(s). Exercise through riding, hot walkers and turn out will allow the stallion to maintain proper body condition and help promote good mental health. Many of the stereotypies are seen when the stallion becomes bored. Most stallions have previously come from intensive training programs and then once they enter the breeding side of business the exercise and training ceases. So, one takes a highly tuned performance animal and basically gives him an unlimited vacation. Many times the stallions enter the breeding side of the business at a young age due to early success showing, performing or racing which aides to the level of activity the horse is accustomed too. Daily exercise should be a must to maintain stallion mental and physical health. Stallions who experience little to no activity are prone to becoming obese.

Therefore, one must consider maintaining a proper exercise regime that will prevent the stallion from becoming obese. Obese stallions have been shown to have a decrease in spermatozoa production. Along with exercise a stallion owner should consider the stallion’s daily diet. The particular diet required by each stallion will depend on many factors but first and foremost a manager or owner should know the weight of the stallion. Horses should ideally be fed according to weight and not volume. Other factors to include when designing a feeding program for your stallion include; amount of exercise, weather, age, and the quality of forage and concentrate being provided. Most stallions can be fed at a level suitable for low exercise unless the stallion is still being used for racing or performance and then the diet (both forages and concentrates) should be adjusted accordingly to how many hours of exercise the stallion is performing on a daily basis as well as the intensity (amount of time spent at a trot/jog, canter/lope, etc). So, good stallion management should include proper housing so stallions are allowed to express some natural behaviors, appropriate amounts of exercise, and a prescribed diet that reflects the needs of each individual stallion according to factors discussed above.

Amy K. McLean is a professor in the equine departement in North Carolina State University.


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