How Racehorses Make the Transition to Stallions

Many of us outgrow our entry-level jobs after a few years and undergo training for career changes. Our earning potential, however, pales in comparison to the new occupation enjoyed by Thoroughbreds who are fast enough or pedigreed enough to become stud horses. The millions and millions of dollars on the table for successful stallions make it imperative that the training they receive for their second careers be exact, coordinated to give the young stallion the right environment and encouragement to ply his new trade.  Attention to detail and patience are the key factors cited by the farm and stallion managers whose responsibility it is to make sure young stallions get off on the right foot. While they stress each horse is an individual whose routine can be tweaked to accommodate traits, there is a general regimen to transitioning a horse from racetrack to stallion barn, or, in horse parlance, "letting him down."

Barring injury, most new stallions are retired to their new homes in autumn, sometime after the Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships. With breeding season not commencing until the middle of February, the intervening months provide plenty of time for handlers to get their charges educated and ready for their new vocation.

The first order of business is acclimating the equine arrivals to their new surroundings. That entails knowing about, and treating, any injuries horses have brought with them off the racetrack. If they have retired healthy, most farms will pull their hind shoes off immediately, and either put flat plates on the front or let them go barefoot there.

Farms differ in how quickly they introduce a new stallion to his paddock. Some favor getting him in there within a day or two, while others like keeping him in a stall and hand-walking him for a period of time. A number of farms employ a round pen at first to acclimate the horse to having a bit of room to roam, something he hasn't enjoyed while stabled at the racetrack. Almost everyone we talked to said they administer a light tranquilizer when turning the horse out on his own for the first time, as it discourages him from running the fences and starting a chain reaction among his new neighbors.

"We'll hand-walk and hand-graze them two or three weeks, increasing the time gradually each day," said John Greely IV of Wintergreen Farm near Midway, Ky. "Once they seem mentally ready to be turned out--when they're not all hyped up and ready to go to the starting gate--that's when we'll turn them out in the paddock. The whole process usually takes a few weeks. 

"Most of them take to the transition because they were raised outside as foals and yearlings. Then they've been confined to stalls for a few years, so they're happy to get the grass beneath their feet again, happy to graze and have some free range."

When released into their paddock for the first time, the horse will usually find farm employees in the corners, making sure the horse doesn't try to barrel through a fence. "Most of the time they adjust amazingly well," said Tim Thornton, farm manager at Airdrie Stud near Midway, Ky., which will stand new sires Canadian Frontier and Friends Lake in 2005. "Sometimes you need to move them around to different paddocks until they find one they like. Even an older horse will run the fence if you put him somewhere new, and you don't want him running the meat off himself."

"We'll walk them around and hand-graze them in their paddock three-to-five days," noted Rich Decker, farm manager at Vessels Stallion Farm near Bonsall, Calif. "Once they're used to the surroundings we'll tranquilize them, walk them around, and turn them loose with guys in the corners. When the tranquilizer wears off they usually have their little run and then settle down."

"When they get tranquilized they put their head down and graze," said Garrett O'Rourke, farm manager of Juddmonte Farms near Lexington. "When it wears off they buck and kick and jump around. They like to rear up and throw their front legs in the air when they feel good. They have egos; they're typical men. And after a few days they're pretty normal."

At Claiborne Farm near Paris, Ky., where new stallions During, Strong Hope, and Stroll will take up residence for 2005, the stallions are turned out the first day, according to longtime farm manager Gus Koch. "We give them a little tranquilizer and put a few people in there. Back in the old days, when we didn't tranquilize them, we put a lot of people in there. We don't want any excitement. It should be as calm as possible."

Bob Washer, stallion manager at Hopewell Farm near Midway, Ky., noted that Skip Away was unique because he was so sound as a racehorse he hadn't been laid up or turned out in his four years at the races. "When I turned him loose he wouldn't go away; he wanted to stay with me," said Washer. "It had been so long he didn't know how to be a horse. He'd run to the gate and pace back and forth wanting to come back to the barn. I hand-walked him for almost a year, going on long walks two or three hours a day. Now, at two in the afternoon he starts banging on the front of his stall because he wants to go outside, and he wants to go outside now."

Feed programs are carefully implemented to smoothly transition the new stallion from his racetrack regimen to the farm's food, with or without structured exercise, depending on the farm. "We let them graze as much as they want and give them bran mashes, keeping the same quantity of grain to mimic what they were around on the track," stated O'Rourke. 

"But they tend to lose their muscle tone after six weeks or so. Running around the paddock isn't the same exercise as galloping every day, so we lunge our stallions daily 15-20 minutes to keep the older horses fitter and maintain the younger ones. Otherwise you get that prominent backbone and the sagging on either side of it."
"We'll cut back on the feed until we get them to the weight we want them," noted Thornton, "so they don't get too big. During breeding season they're active so it's not a problem, but after that season they can get big on you real quick. We'll lunge them only if they get too fat."

Koch said Claiborne gives horses a mixed feed with molasses in it, and the horses take right to it. "The only horse I worried about weight with was Danzig," he said. "He came in here and let down quicker than any horse I've ever seen, but he was an exception."

Washer added some stallions can get bored with the lack of structure on the farm, so he'll lunge them or put them on a walker. Outside Three Chimneys Farm, most don't ride their stallions, though Washer said he takes Skip Away for a spin around his paddock three times a week.

After settling into his new routine for a month or two, it is time for the stallion's critical training to begin--his introduction to the breeding shed. Although it would seem a natural process for stallions to procreate, they have been strongly discouraged in their years at the track from displaying interest in anything other than running. As with most other tasks, it can take a few run-throughs until they master their new discipline.

"The biggest thing with new stallions is patience," said Ken Breitenbecker, stallion manager at Cloverleaf Farms II near Reddick, Fla., which will stand new sires Sarava and Alke in 2005. "You don't want to try and rush them, because what you teach them right off the bat is going to stay with them for life. Some come in and breed in 20 minutes; others take hours because they're timid and shy.

"The thing we have to overcome is for all their racing life, every time the colt drops down and gets excited about a mare, they're told 'no.' We introduce them to an old pony mare that will tolerate anything. I try to do it as close to breeding season as possible so I'm not teaching them something in August they'll forget when February comes around."

"We'll start to introduce them to their first mare as early as possible, October or November," said Joe Ramsey of Hill 'n' Dale Farms near Lexington, which will stand new stallions Medaglia d'Oro, Saarland, and Candy Ride in 2005. "We have a receptive mare and let the horse be the boss of the shed, within reason. It's important his first experience be without consequence physically. We don't expect the horse to breed the first time really well; we just expect him to want to and try, and we'll stop him before he gets frustrated.

"We'll do five or 10 dry runs before breeding season, and we use an artificial vagina the first few times so we can collect the stallion. Also, he doesn't have to know what he's doing because we can move it around and give him confidence because that first time was easy. That way he doesn't get on the mare and slop around and get frustrated. It's a more pleasurable and confidence-building experience."

Pedigree can have something to do with the learning curve as well. "It's bloodline dependent and horse dependent," noted O'Rourke. "The Mr. Prospector line are fantastic breeders, so we've been lucky with Distant View. You must be patient, because the last thing you want to do is let them get scared of what they're doing. They're going to fool around and jump up on the wrong side and be goofballs, but it gets easier each successive time. 

"When you reach the point where they get confident and aggressive and want to rush the mares, that's when you start teaching them manners. You don't want the stallion scaring the mare and having her kick. A bad experience can affect them the rest of their lives, so you want them to have a positive experience and then gradually get them around to your way of thinking on how to approach their job." Greely said the key is having a gentle, docile mare "who won't squeal and move around too much, because the young stallions will shy away from that. You need a mare who will tell them everything is gonna be all right." 

"It's a fine line to walk," added Decker, who will school new stallions Momentum and Jackpot for 2005. "You have to let them get a little bit overzealous and aggressive, but you don't want them to get out of control, biting and whatnot. Patience is the name of the game. The first time they may get an erection and mount, but if they don't get a penetration they may get frustrated. That's when you take them out of there, give them three or four hours, and bring them back." When possible, farms will get their own mares to young stallions first thing into the season to give the stallions experience, because maiden and barren mares, usually the toughest and trickiest ones to breed, come in the first few weeks. "It's usually baptism by fire," said O'Rourke.

While a small percentage of stallions carry with them a weak libido that makes procreation time-consuming, the overwhelming majority, especially given the controlled atmosphere and careful teaching, are able to fulfill their duty with aplomb, as nature intended. And in no time, even a young stallion will become experienced in the ways of his new vocation.

"Right about this time of year they start getting aggressive," said Greely, "because come their second year they know when the season changes and it gets cooler, it's time for the girls to start knocking on their door again." 

Next week: Turning race fillies and mares into broodmares.

About the Author

Lenny Shulman

Lenny Shulman is features editor of The Blood-Horse magazine and author of Ride of Their Lives.

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