Giving the Boys Their Due

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(c) Lynne Glazer

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.
(c) Lynne Glazer

(c) Lynne Glazer

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.

(c) Lynne Glazer

(c) Lynne Glazer

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Giving the Boys Their Due — 11 Comments

  1. I would love to try handling a stallion, but I have a feeling I would be tromped….

    So, in a situation where you have a lot of horses, like an army camp of a certain period, say, would mares be accommodated separately from the stallions to reduce the risk of incidents? Or did the military simply not use mares?

  2. The bias against performance mares is, I think, a descent from European military. I’m curious as to how the Bedouins managed it with their preference for war mares.

    I think there were probably more geldings in the military horse bands than people like to admit.

  3. Thanks, Joyce :). I suppose it might just be something our protag’s friend didn’t think about when gifting him the mare….

  4. Any experienced horse person would think about it. Or would expect the mare to be taken to the farm and not kept in the military camp.

    That being said, mixed company is quite doable. Separate the sexes in their stalls or horse lines and socialize the stallions so that when they’re at work, they’re at work. That’s how horse shows operate. I’ve been on group rides with multiple stallions, and been riding mares at the time, too. There were no problems. In such a situation it’s a good idea not to ride the stallions up behind the mares–put the boys in front as much as possible–but other than that, everybody behaved like a civilized being.

    Stallions really are capable of thinking about more than mares. It’s harder in the spring or when the mare is in standing heat–then she’s literally shoving herself in his face–but bring them up right and they know the difference between free time and work time. The major problem really in any mixed situation is more likely to be the mare than the stallion–and the mare owner who, through lack of education and/or lack of a clue, lets her sidle over till she’s propositioning the stallion. That’s another myth: that the sex drive is all on the male side. Believe me. It’s not. The mare controls the interaction, and if she’s flashing the green light in his face, who is he to refuse?

    I’m not in favor of novices or timid horsepeople handling stallions. Stallions will zero in on weakness, it’s what they do. You always have to be On with a stallion, because he’s always On. A good part of what he is is hyperalert, hyperaware, and intensely focused on keeping his herd safe. If something triggers that and you’re caught flatfooted, you can get hurt. I can show you scars from times when I was weakened or distracted, and there was a mare in the mix. Not A Tame Lion.

    Even so, I like stallions. I love the sensitivity and the power, and the way they give you everything once you’ve proved you have the right to ask it.

  5. Judith,

    Is there a particular type or breed of horse that is more common in the desert amongst nomadic cultures like the Bedouin?

  6. The Bedouin are renowned for their Arabian horses–supposedly the oldest pure breed in the world (mitochondrial DNA takes it back 200,000 years, according to one study).

    The Arabian is a desert running machine. Smallish, light but very dense in bone, sturdy, with legendary endurance (the 100-milers are mostly Arabians) and famous beauty: there’s nothing quite like the Arabian head, with its dished profile and flaring nostrils and its big dark eyes. We only half-joke that the Arabian runs with its head up so it can see the raiders over the dunes, and flags its tail over its back because, well, pretty!

    The Arabian has been bred into quite a few horse breeds–adding refinement, stamina, intelligence, and fire. The Lipizzan is a cross of Spanish and Neapolitan stock, the native horses of the Karst Plateau, and the desert Arab. The Thoroughbred is Arab and Barb crossed on English horses. Even the Percheron has Arab blood–that’s where the grey coat comes from, and the exceptional fire for a draft horse.

  7. For me, the main things is that mostly, a stallion is a horse. They’re not mystical beings, they respond to the same kind of firm-but-fair handling mares and geldings do. If your protagonist has learnt to handle horses well, and is used to youngstock, they won’t have many problems with a trained stallion. (Some geldings can give you plenty of stallion-handling practice.)

    I’m not in favor of novices or timid horsepeople handling stallions.

    Absolutely. You need to judge the situation and stay proactive. Novices tend to misjudge situations, and often ignore potential dangers (and then step in too harshly or get flattened completely), while timid handlers often overreact out of fear and annoy the stallion, or reach for harsh bits etc.

    Training beats equipment any day.

  8. That being said, mixed company is quite doable. Separate the sexes in their stalls or horse lines and socialize the stallions so that when they’re at work, they’re at work.

    Exactly. One of the best performances I’ve seen was at a Foundation Quarter Horse show, during a stallion parade. One stud’s owner didn’t realize that meant he had to display stallion plus offspring…so he rode his stud into the arena. Bareback. With a halter. To prove his stallion was biddable, gentle, and could do whatever was asked of him.

    I was sitting on the fence next to that stud before he went in (a friend was running the gate). He drowsed quite happily, ignoring other horses, including mares. He’d been trained to work, and Boss was up on him.

    Folks I know who’ve worked with breeding stallions often used a different bridle for breeding time–one piece of tack means it’s time to go breed, while everything else means it’s time to go work.

  9. I too have met wonderful biddable lovely stallions. One couple I used to trail ride with regularly would routinely bring their Morgan stallions on group rides, with mixed company. Out of courtesy (and, I think, an awareness that not everyone on the ride would know not to allow an in-season mare to approach a stallion), they didn’t tend to do so in the height of spring heats, but I will say those stallions were better behaved than many many of the other horses on the rides (including, at times, my own!).

    And when we took Juno to be bred, the stallion was a perfect gentleman. It turned out that Juno was finished her cycle, so when taken out to do the deed, Smokey just whiffled hello, and then they both set to grazing — I guess he figured he should buy her dinner before knocking her up ;). And during her next cycle, he did just that ;).

  10. We own a stallion, an intermediate eventer. He is a good boy, clever, but much less spooky than most horses. He has been bought up with a clear set of rules for how to behave at shows, and can ride out happily in a group. He finds large groups of horses exciting, for example at a veterinary trot-up , but can handle that.

    Stallions may show aggression to other stallions or geldings; it depends on the individual and the social hierarchy in the group. Ours has kicked out at other horses twice; this was clearly deliberate, and you have to manage the horse with this possibility in mind to avoid problems.

    On the other hand, he is very gentle with youngsters. Over the last winter we would sometimes let the colt foal out on the yard, who wandered over and stood in front of the stallion’s stable, and played various mock biting games with him in charming way.