In general, stallions get a bum rap.
A lot of people view stallions as some sort of aberration of what a normal horse is. Many consider them to be dangerous or at least difficult to manage. They think a person needs special skills to ride and handle them. There is a wide view that stallions require isolation and stallion-proof yards or paddocks. A lot of bad behaviour by stallions is automatically attributed to their surging testosterone. In short, many people treat stallions as something very different from normal horses.
My experience is that stallions are just like any horse. There are quiet ones and rambunctious ones. There are dull ones and sensitive ones. There are strong-minded ones and very compliant ones. And like most horses, stallions are as much as a product of their handling and training as they are of their gonadal status.
Stallions differ from geldings in two ways. Obviously they have a drive to serve receptive mares. The urge to reproduce can be an overwhelming impulse for a stallion if the training is lacking. It is generally the lack of good training that causes stallions to behave roguishly during mating season and a large part of the reason for their bad reputation by people with little experience with stallions.
The second way that they differ from geldings is less clear-cut. Stallions have a strong impulse to maintain order in a herd. They see themselves as overlords of the herd whose function is to keep the social order functioning as they see fit. This means keeping the harem of mares as a cohesive social group and the other males (intact and castrated) as subordinate and no threat to their status. This is mostly seen during mating season and occasionally when there is turmoil in the herd through introduction of a new horse or movement to another location or something other disturbance to the normal tranquility of herd life. But outside of mating season, stallions are usually peace-loving individuals with a minimalistic approach to keeping order in the herd.
Having said that stallions view themselves as herd overlords, I also have come across several geldings that behave in exactly the same way. In fact, we have one living with us. LJ (who was gelded as a foal) will round up the mares and put them into a corner of the paddock for hours and sometimes days at a time. Any mare that escapes from the corner is immediately chased and rundown until it re-joins the harem. Likewise, any gelding that gets too close is chased off to a suitable distance. LJ does this about once a year on average. The rest of the time harmony reigns in the paddock where the geldings and mares happily live together. So I believe this behaviour can be as much a consequence of a horse’s temperament than its specific hormonal status.
I realize that stallions are essential to maintaining the species, but I really wouldn’t wish any horse to be kept as a stallion. This is because the way we treat many stallions is really quite abusive, in my view.
We ostracize them from other horses by isolating them in yards or paddocks. In an attempt to keep our stallions safe, protect the other horses and prevent unwanted matings, we make the life of a stallion hell. We all know that horses require a herd to feel safe and this is even truer for a stallion. Yet, we so often put stallions in solitary confinement for being what we want them to be.
Many years ago I worked with a 5-year-old Andalusian stallion that had been stabled for 3 years with no contact with other horses and no exercise other than 1hr a day of freedom in a yard. He had been so crazy by the way people managed him that he had hurt 3 of his handlers. People said he was crazy and should have been destroyed. But it was people who made him crazy by their idea of how a stallion should be handled. I’m glad to say that he eventually became a safe riding horse.
We treat them like a biohazard. Show societies and governing bodies make rules that stallions can only be led with special bits or chains and need to be kept away from other horses. Any infraction by a stallion immediately labels the horse as dangerous in a way that would never happen if it were a gelding or mare.
I am not advocating that stallions not be given special consideration when it comes to handling and housing. But I do believe horses should be judged as individuals and not labeled according to reproductive potential.
I have worked with several stallions that were wonderful to ride and handle and lived happily in a mixed herd of horses. Yet, I have worked with a gelding or two that were far more dangerous to both people and other horses than any stallion I have encountered.
I guess my point is that we should seriously consider the way we view the handling of stallions. So many stallions live lives that are horrible and cruel simply because they are intact males and represent a significant financial investment to their owners. Can this be justified from a welfare point of view?
I would never subject a horse to the kind of life many stallions suffer. These animals are often the victims of people’s self-interest simply because they own a horse that looks pretty, has good conformation, been successful in performance or whose parents and grandparents came from the right side of the tracks.
If we are going to own a stallion than I believe the onus is on us to learn to give it the best education possible so it can live in as normal a setting as possible and get along with people and horses with a minimum of fuss. If we owe this much to a gelding or mare, we certainly owe it to a stallion.
The Spanish Riding School in Vienna only use stallions for their performances. These horses are trained well enough that being stallions does not seem to cause any special problems.