In a crowd of geldings, his presence is conspicuous. The stallion that competes in sport adds extra energy to every step. His distinctive bearing attracts the eye, and he truly displays the look of eagles. Horsemen debate the pros and cons of the entire male as an equine athlete. The distinctive attitude can enhance his performance, even though his behavior might frustrate the trainer. Yet, owners continue to prepare stallions for competition, with the aim to develop and perpetuate a special aptitude.
A stallion must reproduce the athletic ability he inherited from his ancestors. To affirm his power as a progenitor, he also proves his own talents.
In the United States, horse owners expect the breeding stallion to establish a record in sport--either on the track or in the show ring. Then the horse retires to stud, attracting mare owners due to his accomplishments.
European horse owners follow a different breeding model for sport horses. They breed for the ability to perform, not necessarily the individual talent. Stallions bred for dressage and jumping rarely compete.
The breed associations select young stallions through processes established a century before horses competed in sport. In Germany, the stallion is selected through physical examinations and comparisons with his peers. Groups of stallion candidates then progress through controlled, standardized performance testing at central sites. They receive scores for their response to training, athletic ability, and willingness to perform. Only then are they permitted to begin breeding. Young stallions in France go through a similar performance test, competing at the ages of four, five, and six prior to receiving approval.
Whatever the nation, every stallion faces the challenge of reaching a certain age to prove his worth. Horse owners must evaluate the quality of a stallion's offspring before he's accepted as a sire. Occasionally, a breeder might decide to breed a youngster early, then remove him from the stallion ranks for training and competing while his first offspring mature.
North American stallions build their reputations primarily in breed shows. They make up a sizable percentage of competitors, usually performing against mares and geldings. Stallions also are often seen in the Western disciplines, such as cutting and reining. Some exceptional stallions compete in U.S. jumping and dressage competitions. For example, the Trakehner Peron was the sole stallion to represent the United States on the 1996 Olympic team.
Stallion Personality in the Show Ring
Many trainers and riders express firm opinions for or against the athletic stallion. California dressage trainer David Wilson said, "Stallions are a breed all their own. I find them entertaining, because they're a bit more humanlike than a gelding."
A stallion expresses his masculinity through his natural carriage. He excels in attractive appearance, especially when his naturally shiny coat shimmers in the sunlight.
The stallion's innate brilliance can apply to any equestrian sport. The highest levels of the sport of dressage demand a splendor in movement and expression, ideally suited to the stallion's attributes. The stallion displays impulsion, or the vigor of moving forward.
"The energy and the presence of a stallion work for you," said California dressage rider Melissa Meeker-Harnett. "The stallions have the fire in them." She campaigned the Hanoverian Domingo during several breeding seasons, breeding him to as many as 20 mares while preparing for competitions.
Dressage trainer Uwe Steiner described the brilliance of the stallion: "In the movement the stallion is performing for you, he forms the classical silhouette of the 'uphill' horse. It's very beautiful, the moment he's really on. But a stallion is much more likely to become sulky and hang back. Then the muscles can work against him."
The stallion's instincts can diminish his performance. In nature, the stallion is purposeful and driven. On his own, he seeks mares and wantonly invites them to breed.
The urge to breed makes the stallion quick and alert. Nancy Chesney, a dressage trainer from Colorado, explained, "They're more aware of what's going on around them, and more aware of their body language and their space."
This awareness can lead to distraction, with the stallion's concentration diverted by possible mates. Wilson described the stallion's major drawback: "He's always a bit looky. It's tough to keep his attention at times. If you don't have his attention, he's not so willing to give."
Of course, there are some exceptions. The stallion Peron demonstrated an exceptional focus when he won the 1996 USET Olympic Trials. Rider Michelle Gibson explained, "He's very unusual in that way. He concentrates, and I can keep his concentration focused on me--especially as a stallion. Oftentimes they're more susceptible to what's going on outside."
Fellow Olympic rider Robert Dover had previously trained Peron, and he recalled that even as a 4-year-old, the stallion could direct his concentration. "He would go down the centerline, halt squarely, and not look in any direction. He would only look straight ahead even at Training Level Test 1. That was always the beauty of Peron. Those are strengths of a true show horse."
Chesney explained, "If a stallion's mind is with you, he can really focus. When he focuses and works for you, there's a little bit extra because he is so keen." Her own stallion, the Trakehner Ibsen, displayed his exemplary poise at a recent show. As he passed in front of the judge's box before beginning his test, a piece of paper blew in front of him. He stopped and looked, then calmly resumed his trot on Chesney's signal.
Chesney said, "Ibsen is really steady. He loves an exhibition and is usually on his best behavior. He loves the crowd and to show off. He settles, and he listens."
She noted the frustration she's had with some stallions, which can produce an exceptional performance or become distracted and fail to heed the rider's aids. "A young stallion's focus is lost quicker, and it's harder to get back. At first, his mind is all over the place. You try to bring him back into the arena--he'll focus for a little bit, and then he's gone again."
Competing or Breeding?
The horse owner guides the stallion. Through training, the stallion understands when he is permitted to breed, and when to obey the handler or rider, against his instincts.
A few exceptional horses can maintain both careers at once. The practice of breeding through artificial insemination can help horses behave in separate environments, with the prime example being the German champion Donnerhall. This Oldenburger stallion has compiled an outstanding show record while also siring champion offspring.
Steiner noted, "Now we have quite a few stallions who are showing with consistency. I feel it's a lot to do with the breeding approach. In the stallion's mind, he can separate work ethics and breeding ethics.
"Keep the breeding areas as separate from the work areas as you can," he advised. "It's little things, like at your barn, take the horse out of a different door for breeding than you do for work."
At inappropriate moments, the stallion's instinct can overcome his training. A mare in heat will distract the breeding stallion. Trainers can resort to tricks such as rubbing Vicks Vaporub in the horse's nostrils, which diminishes the stallion's sense of smell.
For showing at the international level, the Federation Equestre Internationale forbids such substances. Meeker-Harnett recalled competing on Domingo at the 1995 Volvo World Cup, where her stallion shared the holding pen with a mare in heat. "It was everything I could do to keep him from jumping on top of the mare. In the arena, when we were going away from the pen, I could hardly get him forward. Then we got good scores in the extended trots toward that direction. All he could think about was that mare."
In racing, competing and breeding are completely separate. The horse proves himself on the track, then retires to stud.
Stallion managers prefer separating the two careers, primarily for physical reasons. Sperm production is affected by the stress of competition. Often the fit stallion has to be let down prior to the breeding season, to adjust to a different occupation.
Hauling a stallion to shows exposes him to viruses, inadequate ventilation in a van or trailer, different time zones, and changes in feed. If he develops a fever, the result can be poor semen quality. With a sperm production cycle of 50 to 60 days, the competitive stallion might be out of service for two months.
A stallion which has both a breeding and show season can lose weight breeding. When he enters the show ring, his condition might not compare favorably with competitors.
Muscles that the stallion uses in breeding differ from those in sport. Chesney noted that stallions seem to become sore in the back, hindquarters, and stifle. "You can't expect the horse to go from being on his hind legs, hollow in the back and really tight to lift himself up, to the frame you want in dressage."
Handling the Athletic Stallion
Stallions require extra respect. The horse must respect, but not fear, his rider. And the rider must dominate the horse and be sure of himself or herself.
Chesney advised not to tolerate threats. "If a stallion gets aggressive toward you, you need to get twice as aggressive back. You have to challenge him--to alpha him. Let him know you are the boss. He definitely has to know that you're God.
"I don't allow a stallion any leeway. He has to stay on a path parallel to me, and not interfere with my body space. He must pay more attention to me than what he wants to look at, and he listens. You need to give the stallion space and your constant attention. This means staying aware and thinking for both of you.
"A stallion can go from acting like a gelding to being on top of a mare in a split second. If you ever lose the thought that you have a stallion, you'll get in trouble at some point."
She believes that amateurs shouldn't handle stallions. Most amateurs do not have a personality stronger than the horse and will likely back down when stallion starts to act aggressively.
The athletic stallion has to learn manners at a show, before he's ready for the pressure of competition in the ring. When a stallion is entered in a show, the owner must assure that show management provides secure stabling, with no chance that the stallion can escape from the stall. The owner also should arrange for the stallion to be placed beside appropriate companions.
Not all stallions can overcome distractions and compete successfully. Yet for those that respond to training, their unique attitude can make the entire male a superior performer and a proud representative of the breed.
About the Author
Award-winning writer Charlene Strickland lives in Bosque Farms, N.M. She has published 8 books and over 600 magazine articles, and is a member of the International Alliance of Equestrian Journalists.
POLL: Managing Working Horses