Geldings are the Buicks of the horse world. They’re general-purpose vehicles, family-safe, good for all road conditions, and won’t give you the kind of grief a sexier vehicle will.
But when you’re writing your novel, especially if it’s in a genre that likes the sexy, a nice gelding just won’t do it.
So that means…Stallion Time!
The hard part is cutting through the underbrush of myth and misunderstanding to the reality of the species. Some things are true:
- Testosterone is a powerful drug. It makes the user bigger, stronger, and more muscular. It also makes him more aggressive.
- In the case of a horse, this means he will,on the average, have a third more bone mass than a mare or gelding, notably more muscle mass (which builds faster and gives him more strength), a massive and crested neck, and a broad, deep jaw. He may be slightly shorter than the gelded version (gelding keeps the growth plates from closing as fast, so a gelding as a rule will be an inch or two taller) and slightly taller than his sister, though in the case of my full siblings, she’s both taller and more massive–but he has the bigger neck. Genetics. Love ’em.
- The stallion is the Enforcer of the herd. He guards and defends it. He is Not A Tame Lion.
- It takes a particular kind of person to handle a stallion well. But that may not be the person you think it is. See below.
Some things are either partially true or simply not so.
- Every stallion is an uncontrollably sex-crazed maniac who will attack anything that moves, regardless of gender or species.
- Only a strong and macho man can handle a stallion.
- A woman cannot possibly handle a stallion, both because of her physical weakness and because he will sense her hormonal status and try to treat her like, ahem, a mare.
In reality, a properly trained and socialized stallion is an excellent equine citizen. He keeps his hormones under control or allows himself to be controlled when temptation becomes overwhelming. In groups of stallions and geldings, with no mares in the vicinity, he will suppress his hormones and be effectively a gelding. He keeps the advantages of testosterone (greater strength, faster muscle development) without the disadvantage of hormone-induced ADD. He is, as the old riding masters of the baroque period declared, the best mount for the nobleman who studies the art of horsemanship: strong, fit, focused, and charismatic, with great heart and a great gift for his work.
Note the word lacking here: Machismo. Not that it’s not a factor for your knight or your hidalgo, or your well-born military commander. But it’s not the be-all of what a stallion is.
In fact, one of the greater open secrets among horsepeople is that the best handler for a stallion is not a big, strong, macho man but an experienced and quiet but firm woman. A stallion is wired to respond to an alpha male as a rival, and to an alpha female as She Who Must Be Obeyed. Muscle power is never going to get a human anywhere with an animal who weighs in at half a ton or more, packs more power than a load of dynamite, and can run up to 30 miles per hour. The strength of a horse is truly amazing, and there is no way any human can go head to head with it. But, she can rule by force of superior mind and moral power.
A stallion is never exactly a pussycat, but a firm, fair, calmly confident handler, especially if female, can do exceptionally well with any but the most emotionally damaged stallion–and in such a case, it doesn’t matter the gender; a horse that messed up is dangerous under any circumstances.
What you don’t want handling your stallion is anyone who triggers either his aggression or his instinct to stomp annoying vermin. Your macho guy will get into a fight he can’t win, or if he wins it with whip and chain and physical abuse, he’ll turn the stallion vicious. Your timid, fumbling person of any gender will get run all over. Where a gelding might tolerate her or a mare actually nurture him, the stallion will seize the upper hoof and take off with it. So–not for everyone. But for the right person, a stallion is an amazing friend and partner.