I'm a veterinary student from the United Kingdom and have been riding with a stud farm veterinarian in America going from place to place. I am trying to figure out the art of handling stallions for breeding. Can you please enlighten me on the intended purpose of the various stud shank configurations--not just the various styles, but the significance of the different ways to put the chain part of the shank over the nose, around the nose, or through the mouth? Also, what is a breeding bridle?          Jan

My hands-on experience is fairly limited to the methods that we have used and taught for decades, and occasional attempts to try alternate configurations.

I have observed other methods around the country and around the world, and I have developed impressions and opinions. Probably no one method is the best for all stallions. Let me explain from the perspective of what we do and coach at our veterinary school facility, then I will comment on alternative methods.

By custom at our facility, as well as when we teach primarily novice or unskilled stallion handlers, we generally use a very simple halter and chain shank configuration.

The lead is an eight-foot cotton lead shank with a 40-inch English brass chain. Ideally, we use a leather breeding halter that is well-fitted to the horse. A stout nylon halter with good brass fittings is also acceptable.

The leather breeding stallion halters have 1.25-inch double-thickness, supple, triple-stitched noseband, cheek, and crown pieces. The throat latch is half-inch rolled leather shaped to the contour of the jaw. One-inch quarter-circle leather stays connecting the noseband to cheek pieces prevent rolling and rotation.

For balanced, directional control of the stallion's head, adjust the noseband to sit approximately midway down the bridge of the nose, well above the crease of the lip, and with approximately three fingers of slack. Another important feature of a breeding halter, especially when using a chain shank configuration, is high-quality, rounded brass fittings.

The stallion breeding halters usually have 4-gauge, two-inch brass rings. When putting the chain on and removing it, the snap will pass easily through the two-inch diameter ring. When handling the stallion, a similar high-quality soft brass oval-link chain glides through the cheek rings.

One reason a good halter is so important is that fine increments of tension can be smoothly applied and released to guide the stallion. Especially important is the instantaneous and smooth release of pressure to return to light touch as a reward for the desired response.

In contrast, rings of poor-quality metal, or with poor-quality chain and having square corners, result in unavoidable prolonged and/or heavy injudicious pressure. Even in skilled hands, this chain shank is inefficient for basic respectful control and behavior modification.

A well-fitted breeding halter appears to have a positive level of "psychological" control--not too loose or too confined.

Considering what we know of the history and temperament of the stallion, the skill and preference of the handler, and any specific recommendations by the owner or trainer, we will begin with the chain either over the nose or through the mouth over the tongue. In either configuration, the chain is put through the near and off-side rings and up to attach to the high off-side ring. This high off-side attachment of the shank gives most handlers smoother and lighter directional control of the stallion.

With extremely shy stallions, we might simply clip a cotton lead to the lower ring on a halter. Use of the chain over the nose, and especially use of a chain over the tongue, require some training and skill to be effective and humane.

It takes some skill to maintain slack on the chain and apply tension only as needed to cue the stallion. If tension is continuously applied, or if it is injudiciously applied or inadvertently caused by the handler failing to move with the horse, the method becomes ineffective and counterproductive.

The goal is not to jerk the chain, but to apply gentle tension. Specifically, jerking of the chain should not be used as a form of "attention getting" or punishment. Jerking the chain on the tongue or nose might incite dangerous, evasive, or offensive behavior, especially striking, rearing, or even boxing while rearing, as if fighting the handler or the restraint.

Horses can get used to being jerked around or to nervous jerking on a chain, and some not only tolerate it, but they appear to become conditioned to it as a predictor of breeding opportunity. Alternatively, it can lead to "learned helplessness," known to horsemen as "souring" or "sulking," which is counterproductive.

Other configurations of the chain, such as under the chin, completely around the nose, or diagonally over the nose or under the chin, can be used effectively. But in general, these arrangements seem even more likely to provoke rearing if the tension is not well-controlled.

We view a gum chain as an even more severe level of restraint. In skilled hands, a gum chain can effectively calm some overenthusiastic stallions in breeding situations, especially those stallions that tend to rear. Especially with a gum chain, just the right level tension must be maintained so as not to exacerbate those tendencies, provoke savage aggression, or injure and sour the stallion to breeding. My experience has been that a high level of skill is required to effectively or humanely apply a gum chain for breeding. A handling device designed to apply steady pressure to the gum is commercially available under the brand name Stableizer (www.thestableizer.com). It is my experience that considerable skill is required to appropriately apply such a device.

A breeding bridle is a stout leather bridle with a bit. Although not as common in North America, breeding bridles are used in some regions around the world. For example, Thoroughbred operations in England and Ireland typically use breeding bridles.

Again, it has been my experience that a very high level of skill is required to effectively and judiciously use a breeding bridle without inadvertently inciting problematic behavior. With this type of restraint, there seems to be an unusually high incidence of rearing and striking.

In evaluating problem situations as well as observing handlers skilled at using a breeding bridle, it appears that certain stallions behave as if "trapped" and thwarted by the stout bridle and bit arrangement.

Their behavior suggests a conspicuous approach-avoidance anxiety state, and some are continually "on the edge" of exploding or attacking. Breeding bridles seem to reduce the tolerance of the stallion for inadvertent or nervous jerking on the bit by the handler. With time, some stallions show behavior suggesting a learned-helplessness loss of libido or even an aggressive or passive souring. These behavioral changes can result from misapplication of any head restraint or pattern of repeated injudicious correction in the breeding situation, but they seem more common with use of a breeding bridle.

About the Author

Sue McDonnell, PhD, Certified AAB

Sue M. McDonnell, PhD, is a certified applied animal behaviorist and the founding head of the equine behavior program at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine. She is also the author of numerous books and articles about horse behavior and management.

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