"An untrained stallion in the breeding shed can be like having an orangutan on the end of a shank," began Dickson Varner, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACT, Chief of Theriogenology at Texas A&M University and Pin Oak Stud Chair of Stallion Reproductive Studies. Varner, who is world-renowned for his expertise in stallion reproduction and his contributions to the field, presented his methods of stallion handling during the 51st Annual AAEP Convention, held in Seattle, Wash., Dec. 3-7, 2005.

"Handling a breeding stallion can be dangerous," Varner explained. "A stallion's mind, like most men's, can get clouded with testosterone when faced with a hot-looking female. A stallion handler must be able to focus the stallion's mind on him, as well as the mare, and make him wait for instructions. This cannot be achieved through fear or abusiveness, but through training basic cues and maneuvers to the stallion before he ever reaches the breeding shed."

Handlers must be able to use logical reasoning to alter the way the stallion reacts. "Effective communication is the key," Varner said. "Stallions can read us though our words and actions, and we must be able to read stallions, that is understand their language, so that we may be on the same page and communicate effectively."
He said stallions should be approached with the three R's in mind: Respect, responsiveness, and radiance.  "We want them to be respectful of us, and to respond immediately to our commands, while not instilling dominance that leads to submissive or fearful behavior."

Tools for Handlers

The best tools Varner said stallion handlers can have at their disposal are patience, persistence, and positive reinforcement. A stallion's behavior should be shaped by using a positive, proactive approach so that they become a willing partner to the handler.

When it comes to dealing with new stallions, Varner said he likes to get as much history as he can on the stallion. "We want to know is he frightened of people, is he anxious, a man-eater, will he strike at you, or run you over," Varner said. "You have to treat all these horses as individuals, but you have to get as much information as you can. You should never be fully trusting of a stallion, even with a really quiet stallion. You can't go to sleep around stallions. That's when you get hurt."

Varner said stallions should respect the handler before they are ever introduced to a mare. When working with a stallion, he should not be tired, distracted, mad, hurt, or frightened. "We want to have a positive mindset so that when we work with these horses, we get the desired response," Varner explained.

Varner recommended using a quality leather halter and an 11-foot leather lead with a 30-inch chain. "It's critical that the halter fits properly," he explained. An ill-fitted halter can slide out of position, reducing the handler's ability to control the horse and creating unwanted pressure points on and around the head region. The chain should not be secured to the lead ring; instead, it should be run through the left stay, then passed under the chin, over the nose, or though the mouth, then passed through the right stay and snapped to the right cheek ring. "Some people think that stallions associate equipment with a job," Varner said. "I disagree with this. I think that stallions associate the environment with the job, and that the same equipment can be used when taking the stallion to the exercise paddock, presenting him to the public, or when covering mares in a breeding setting. However, he said some handlers like to use breeding bits, or Chiffney bits--a brass bit with a ring that goes under the horse's chin that are commonly used for Thoroughbred sales. He warns that while these devices can be useful, they can also cause problems.

"If you have a bit in their mouth, get rid of the rollers or players," Varner said. "They encourage a stallion to use their mouth more and it develops into a nervous habit. I don't like using Chiffney bits because when the stallion mounts the mare, he has the chance of banging the bit against his chin and startling himself." He also discouraged the use of muzzles unless the stallion savages the mare or handler. "It's best to get them over the problem that they have, rather than mask it."

Varner said the key elements of training include being able to work on a slack lead, teaching the stallion to maintain a safe zone between him and the handler, and making sure the cues used remain consistent.

Stop, Back -- Good Boy!

Teaching a stallion to stop and back is the basis for gaining his respect and focusing his mind on the handler rather than the mare. When working on the stop and back, Varner said, "I like the stallion to listen to my body language. If I face the horse and walk parallel to him, he should back up. If I walk toward his shoulder he should back at an angle. Always strive for softness in the body. Don't pick at the stallion; make your corrections and wait for him to make the mistake again.

"It's best to expose the stallion to the mare for the first time while she's in padded stocks, or while the mare is still in the stall, because either one can strike with lightening fashion," Varner explained. "The last thing that I want to do is put a mare on the floor with an uncontrollable stallion. Once we've put a stop and back on the stallion, make sure he remembers it when you introduce him the mare. We want to make sure that the stallion is always listening to us. I recommend backing him into position by circling to put him on the mare to reinforce that."

For overly aggressive stallions, Varner recommends consulting with a professional to help identify exactly what the horse is doing and why, then devise a plan to correct the problem. "Whenever you can capture the horse's mind, most of these stallions do extremely well. Applying these simple principles of stallion handling will yield a more safe and serviceable stallion."

About the Author

Chad Mendell

Chad Mendell is the former Managing Editor for TheHorse.com .

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