For untrainable, uncontrollable, or unwanted horses, slaughter is an almost inevitable path; but why so many stallions?
Based on an informal study conducted over three days at a horse slaughterhouse, the Palmetto Equine Awareness and Rescue League of South Carolina observed that 70% of the horses brought in were stallions. “Well over,” PEARLSC concluded on its website, www.equinerescuesc.org , “the 33% that one would expect in a ratio of mares-to-geldings-to-stallions.”
What makes us love and fear stallions, even from a distance? Debunking some entrenched myths about gelding, breeding value, and management can help more horses lead productive lives and avoid becoming a tragic statistic.
Colt owners may opt not to geld for several reasons:
- He will mature into a bigger, taller horse.
When a stallion “puffs” up to maximum equine braggadocio, he appears to command a lot of space, but this is a classic case of stallion mythology. “The truth,” says equine reproduction specialist, Karen Hayes, DVM, MS, “is testosterone, the hormone that makes them act like stallions, causes growth plates in the cannon bones and other long bones to close earlier than in a gelding.” Once those plates close, all further growth comes to a halt. Colts gelded before puberty will grow (about a half-inch) taller than if left intact.
- His conformation is so nice/his bloodlines so rare/he’ll be easier to sell.
“If his bloodlines are that rare,” says the South Carolina rescue league, “there is probably a reason. And if he’s that pretty, a knowledgeable professional will negotiate a fair price for him as a young horse. Professionals are interested in purchasing, promoting and competing a stallion, and they pay for good stock, (but) few horses meet the criteria. If yours is that pretty, take him to shows or events. If no one makes an offer, he’s probably not as pretty as you think.”
A nice stallion makes an even better gelding. Ask Massachusetts 4-H judge, Pinnie Sears, who briefly stood her black Arabian stallion, Aladdin. She ultimately decided, “Although our boy was a good stallion...he is a terrific gelding.”
- Gelding is unnatural and cruel.
According to PEARLSC, gelding horses to control breeding and temperament dates back 4,000 years: “It can be painful if surgery is not followed up with the correct aftercare, especially if you wait until the horse hits puberty. After the testicles begin to produce sperm, they have a huge blood supply. At a few months of age (a colt’s) testicles are tiny and it is almost a bloodless surgery. Vet schools and veterinarians are doing this procedure as soon as two weeks of age.”
Another myth is that a stallion’s testicles descend into the scrotum at puberty. “In most cases, full descent has taken place before birth, or within ten days after,” says Dr. Hayes. “There are cases in which descent occurs as late as two- to three-years old, but that’s the exception rather than the rule.”
One of the best arguments for gelding is the Appaloosa horse. The first documented case in North America of a regular gelding program is credited to the natives of the Palouse region of the Pacific Northwest, who gelded to increase the chance of foals with those fantastic arrays of spots.
Choosing to own a stallion also comes with its “myth-understandings”:
- Stallions are too dangerous for women to own or handle.
“When it was time to take my first stallion home, I faced an intervention,” says Peg Fox of Pennsylvania, owner of 2006 triple dilute (sable) champagne cream dun Quarter Horse, Sierra Hesa Chief. Peg was called to the home of the farm owner who, joined by his wife, their trainer, and Peg’s grandfather and mother, “Sat me down and declared I must geld my two-year old, that one day he would hurt me because I would get between him and a mare in heat. I thought they were out of their minds and stood my ground. I had raised (my stallion) and knew him better than anyone. I was 17 and maybe a hundred pounds, so I understood their concern, but I refused to let him be gelded. At the end of his training, I took him home with all his parts. I rode him for years in every situation imaginable and he never hurt me or caused a problem. Instead, he protected me.”
- Stallions cannot be kept with other horses.
Don’t say that too loudly around those who not only turn their boys out with other horses, but with mares and foals. Given the opportunity, they say, stallions are not just polite citizens, but gentle, caring fathers.
To start, says Dr. Hayes, “Stallions don’t fight over real estate. Stallions kept in the same pasture get along as well as geldings might. Large-scale breeders commonly turn stallions out together during the off-season.”
Turning a stallion out with others, Sears adds, “Will manner him quickly, especially with older mares. Treat him like a horse and he will thrive.”
Stallions can thrive psychologically under natural herd conditions. Management of stallions usually falls into one of two categories: confinement/isolation management or natural/herd/pasture management. Natural management allows a stallion to run in a pasture with a herd of mares. The advantage is that the stallion is allowed to behave like a horse, and may exhibit fewer vices; mares may cycle – and settle into pregnancy -- more readily.
“My stallion, Wilderness Storm, lived with his mares and foals, and took great care of them,” says Ann Moore, of Ottawa, Canada. “He grew up within a herd, so he was in with my mares the minute he got here. He always groomed them more just before they foaled and was very particular about my grooming. He used to walk away from me, not wanting to be brushed, and at first, I didn’t know why. Then, as he nudged his lead mare over to me, I realized he wanted his girls brushed first! Only after the mares were brushed would he stand for me to brush him. He was very good to his mares, slept with his offspring, and taught them all they needed to know in a fair and loving way.”
On her North Carolina farm, Claudette McNeil Griffith has seen doting behavior from her Gypsy stallion, Cash the Man in Red. “I keep him with bred mares and foals as often as possible. When foals are weaned, they go with him, and he keeps them busy. This season, I didn’t breed anyone, so he’s on a common fence line – not ideal, but better than no interaction. I’ve got a weanling colt coming and will put them together. He’s great with foals so I expect things to go well.”
In Tennessee, Elisabeth McMillan believes in the buddy system for her 13-year-old Dutch Warmblood, Primeur. “I’ve had him for four years. Initially, I left a stall between him and the next horse. Now, he is next to my gelding (who was gelded at nine and thinks he is still a stallion). They snipe a little but basically like each other. You have to be careful with all horses in order to house them safely. My gelding doesn’t get along with one mare, so I don’t put them within arguing distance of each other.”
- Stallions require more maintenance.
On the contrary, when it comes to stalls and sheaths, testosterone is your best friend. Most stallions meticulously designate one spot in a stall as theirs, known as a “stud pile.” In the wild, a stud pile is marked by multiple stallions, and is the site for macho battles. But in a stall, if the stud pile is in an easy spot to muck out, just leave a little manure behind to maintain the spot; if you’d like to relocate the pile, coax him to the new, desired location by moving a few urine-soaked manure balls there first.
As for sheath cleaning (removing the waxy smegma that builds up around the urethra), again, thank testosterone. Because a stallion has higher levels of the hormone than a gelding, he’s probably ‘dropping’ several times daily, even when it’s not breeding season, which helps shake off small accumulations. Geldings, conversely, tend to only drop halfway to urinate, and with less testosterone in their system, are rarely inspired to fully extend their penis. Cleaning the sheath twice a year is safe for geldings (you want to avoid disrupting normal bacterial flora on its delicate skin); and once a year for stallions. “Although managers used to wash a stallion’s penis as many as three times daily during breeding season, this practice has fallen into disfavor,” says Dr. Hayes.
“I like working with the boys,” says Rebecca Cook, owner/operator at B and B Training Stables in California, who represents stallions including a Lipizzan, Knabstrupper, Friesian, Quarter Horse, and two Thoroughbreds. “Their personalities are usually great, and once you bond with them, they will work very hard for you. I got tired of seeing stallions mishandled either by over-handling (abuse) or under-handling (spoiling), so it became my niche. I’m 5’8”, about 140 pounds, and wear a size 5/6. Not big by any means, but most go without chains, we do some live cover, and everything is very relaxed and mellow. Some stallions go out with others, some don’t. Depends on their personalities. My Quarter Horse lives with a draft-cross and it does wonders for him. The Oldenburg – he’s two coming on three-years old - is a klutz. He can’t be with himself most of the time,” Cook laughs, “so we don’t turn him out with others. The Friesian lives with a Quarter Horse or another Friesian.”
“Unfortunately, due to over-breeding, more horses are going to slaughter each year,” concludes PEARLSC. As to the overwhelming majority of stallions who, over three days, passed through that slaughterhouse: “Would those horses have gotten a second chance at life if they had been geldings? No one will ever know.”
Holistic Horse Contributing Editor L.A. Pomeroy of Northampton, Massachusetts, has been an equestrian photojournalist, award-winning publicist, and member of American Horse Publications since 1992, working with the U.S. Equestrian Team, Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, Equisearch.com, and Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association, as well as heading development and marketing for zoological institutions in New England. She enjoys trail riding in her native Catskill Mountains of upstate New York, collecting/researching equestrian art and collectibles, and making life better for the animals that share this planet with us.