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Stallion Keeping is a Challenge

Horse stallions often don’t have it easy. Many prefer to keep their hands off them or keep them separate from the herd. With the necessary expertise and empathy in education, however, things can be different, as the Swiss Animal Welfare Agency shows in a report.

Anyone who has already visited horse breeding farms will quickly notice that stallions are usually separated from the rest of the herd. Visual contact is the only thing that the male animals are allowed to their conspecifics for safety reasons. However, this is by no means a natural attitude. In the wild, stallions almost always live together in groups. Even if they do not gather a harem around them, they form bachelor or so-called bachelor groups in order to search for mares together.

“Horses, therefore, need social contacts just as much as mares and geldings,” says Sandra Schaeffler, who is in charge of the Pets and Horses department at Swiss Animal Welfare STS. She is also the project leader of the STS research “stallion keeping – a challenge”. There is a simple reason why stallion owners do not always meet the needs of their animals in many cases, as Schaeffler explains: “When mating mares and other males of the same species are present at the same time, stallions exhibit strong sexual and therefore competitive behavior due to hormonal factors.”

The “solitary confinement” is therefore a logical solution, but not a good one. The lack of social interaction and the often insufficient exercise are stress factors that affect the well-being and health of the stallion and also have a negative impact on dealing with people. It is all the more important for Schaeffler and the STS to point out that it is also possible to keep stallions in a species-appropriate manner with social contacts and to guarantee the safety of the other horses. 

Positive experiences from professionals

The prerequisite for this, however, is a good deal of specialist knowledge and horse expertise. The Swiss National Stud in Avenches VD demonstrates how this can work in practice. After a research project on group housing of stallions from 2009 to 2019, after the end of the breeding season, it successfully kept a group of an average of eight of its breeding stallions on a four-hectare pasture with shelter from the weather. 

This group of stallions was in a relatively remote location with no mares nearby. After many years of experience, the National Stud judges this type of husbandry to be quite possible. However, it also makes it clear that specific factors must be met for this to happen. This includes a sufficiently large pasture, keeping away from other horses, and secure fences. The stallions should also not wear horseshoes.

So far so good. However, the numerous horse owners who also house mares and geldings in their stables face problems. In such situations, it is hardly possible for them to keep a stallion in the herd or group. “If stallions are stabled in boxes, you should allow them social contact in addition to daily exercise and grazing, for example in half-open boxes or in social boxes,” demands Schaeffler and names Fredy Knie Jun. a prominent role model. Around 50 stallions live in the winter quarters of the Swiss National Circus Knie, but in this case, they are kept at a distance from the mares. Each of them has a single box available, often connected to an adjacent run. 

About ten years ago, Circus Knie opened half the walls between two stallion boxes. This means that the horses can not only see and sniff each other but also make direct physical contact with each other. The system works as follows: Instead of a closed wall, there are vertical bars spaced 30 centimeters apart, through which the horses can put their heads to the neighboring horse and sniff each other.

But here, too, there is an important point to consider: the neighbors must get along with each other. “You shouldn’t stable stallions that are very dominant next to each other,” warns the expert Sandra Schaeffler. Even stallions that get along well can experience friction, especially before feeding. Fredy Knie Jr. has therefore closed the lower part of the contact wall in its social boxes. He also had a fold-up grille attached to the half-open wall so that the open part could also be temporarily closed if necessary.

Sensitive machos like it gentle

But species-appropriate accommodation alone is not enough. Sufficient exercise and variety are also essential, emphasizes Schaeffler. This includes not only regular riding and sufficient grazing. Hay that is offered several times a day, for example incorrectly attached nets to extend the feeding times, is a good employment opportunity. According to Schaeffler, the relationship with people should also not be underestimated. The caregiver must respond to the character of the stallion and remain the boss despite gentle handling. 

Fredy Knie Jr. sees that too. so, who treats each stallion individually and refers to the sensitive nature of the supposed «machos». If you get rough with a stallion, it will come back to you, says the horse expert. Careful handling is therefore the foundation for a good human-animal relationship. And if the many challenges of keeping a stallion are too demanding for you, the STS recommends castration. As geldings, male horses are easier to socialize with. The owners can therefore face them with less fear, which has a positive effect on both sides.

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