Stallion Washing Aversion

My husband and I run a business of shipping semen from a few stallions that we board. We have some started ourselves, and some have started elsewhere. Most of them do really well with our simple collection routine. We bring them to the breeding barn, tease a little, wash them, tease a little more, then mount a dummy. Over the years, we have had a couple of stallions that we have had difficulty getting washed before breeding. Rather than hassle those stallions, we just collect semen without washing the penis and hope the antibiotic in the semen extender takes care of any problems. Last season we started one of these "no-wash" stallions. His first-year fertility turned out to be fairly poor. His 17 mares were spread out from February to September, so he had only a few collections per month. With the long collection interval, there was usually so much surface debris that it got into the sample. One thing we want to do next season is to wash this stallion, but whenever you even go close to his flank he will cow-kick like lightning. At the same time he loses his erection, so getting tough with him is just frustrating for everyone. There is the added danger that when you reach for him, he scurries away like he is really scared. He even fell down when kicking while cowering. He's OK for touching his penis once he is mounted. I think he's a very nice horse, but this problem is especially intimidating for us. What would be your advice for a stallion like this?          via e-mail

This is a common aversion for stallions. It can be a natural aversion, but more often is the result of having been physically punished for sexual arousal (having the flank or penis struck). We recommend re-training as early as possible with a therapeutic approach called positive reinforcement-based systematic desensitization. That means gradually getting him used to being touched and manipulated by rewarding successive approximations of the goal. We use the same methods you'd use to get a horse to pick up his feet on command, overcome injection shyness, or enjoy any mildly aversive, non-painful manipulation in exchange for a reward. We try to commit to all-positive reinforcement--calm and patient, without yelling, hitting, or getting frustrated. This has been successful for every stallion with which we have worked, and so we are generally very confident that stallions can learn to be washed for breeding.

We would consider starting this stallion's training for washing in the winter when he might be a bit more mellow sexually, and at a time when we can devote 15-30 minutes once or twice a day for a week or two specifically for the training. And for seriously scared stallions like this one, we might start the retraining in the stall or paddock--some new situation other than the breeding area where he has been successfully avoiding penis contact. These are some key points to how we would proceed:

  • We would start with grooming with a soft brush and your hand, starting somewhere he likes and then go from the shoulder, progressing toward the flank and belly toward the prepuce. I would use a food treat for each inch of progress that is tolerated. The goal is to reward tolerance and ignore resistance. The challenge is to proceed at a pace that doesn't provoke explosive resistance, and to end each session on a good note.
  • After just a few sessions, he should be tolerating manipulation of the prepuce and testicles for a food reward. We then might use some estrous mare urine on a cloth that he can sniff instead of the food treat. This might serve both as a reward, and as a sexual stimulus to introduce sexual context. It might stimulate partial or full erection so that touching the flank and belly can be combined with erection and positively reinforced. He might be a bit anxious at first and lose his erection as he remembers the association of punishment with sexual arousal. But just repeat the process calmly and hope that everything occurs in a positive context.
  • Then we begin the grooming and touching again in the breeding area without a tease mare. This is all done to provide the opportunity to provide positive associations of penis touching, the breeding area, and sexual reward.
  • We then might collect semen several times in rapid succession (without washing) to quiet him a bit and help to gain his trust, and to reinforce the idea that you and this little procedure are his ticket to the sexual reward.
  • Then we would repeat the step-by-step rubbing his shoulder to belly to penis, then the washing procedure itself.

We just have the goal of some progress with each session, and expect one or two sessions with regression. Temporary regression is typically a normal part of learning, and it usually doesn't significantly prolong the whole training procedure. Just go calm and easy; it's "all part of the job."

Stay positive and don't lose your cool. The last thing a scared horse needs is more aversive experience. You just wait to be able to touch the flank at first, then let him mount. Next session, just touch the flank and hope that he holds his erection and let him mount. Then in the next session, just a gentle hand-shake grasp of the penis with a warm sponge cloth on your palm, and let him mount. Then a warm water trickle. Then gentle massage of the penis to remove debris. With each step, we try to commit to staying calm and proceeding without flinching or reacting if the horse flinches.

One thing that can easily happen in aversion therapy with dangerous situations is that the animal flinches, the technician flinches, the horse jumps, and the technician bails out. This chain reaction inadvertently reinforces the horse to flinch and jump to avoid. He never gets to learn that the procedure was not all that bad, and that tolerance led to the big reward. We often suit up with safety gear so we have more courage to ride out a little resistance and avoid flinching or bailing out too early. We also try to work in an area where if the horse kicks back or scurries away, he doesn't run into something that results in an aversive outcome.

When we get to actually handling the penis, we take care to be gentle and make it as positive as possible. We avoid abrasive rubbing, rushing, or using water that is too hot or cold. We also avoid splashing hot water on the hind legs, which is aversive to many stallions.

It helps you recognize step-wise progress to keep a log of the time you spend and the progress achieved. If this is not your own stallion, you might consider discussing additional charges for your time and effort with this stallion. This helps you keep going and helps the owner understand their stallion's special needs and your professional approach. The time and money invested will be worthwhile for the life of this stallion. He will likely need veterinary evaluation of his fertility at some point, which involves evaluation of the penis and testicles. While it can be done with sedation, it's nice if you don't have to worry about the problem any more.

It sounds like you are starting at a point that will be a great advantage for success in this type of approach. You don't sound angry or in a power struggle with the stallions that have difficulty with washing. You seem to like this horse and appreciate that he needs help. But if you should have problems or if you judge the procedure too dangerous for your team or facility, you might be able to find someone with skill and success with these techniques who could work with the stallion. It would be great if you could observe (even by videotape) or participate, so that you could gain confidence with this particular stallion and for future similar situations.

Other temporary options until a horse is washable would be to collect and discard semen frequently. Breeding itself usually removes most surface debris. Once he's staying fairly clean, he should clean up with one collection and remain fairly clean for a day or so. So when you have a day's notice for semen, do a "clean up" collection and discard that semen. If you don't have a day's notice, even one collection with a fairly snug artificial vagina will yield a cleaner second collection later the same day. An added benefit of clean-up collections will be that it will also likely "clean out" some of the old stored sperm that is typical of the first ejaculate after sexual rest. For most stallions, the total number of sperm will be lower in the second ejaculate of the day, but there are often plenty of "good" sperm, and often a greater number of progressively motile sperm than in the first ejaculate. The clean-out alone might help the stallion's fertility.

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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