I have bred my first colt this year and thus far have followed handling practices we have used on our previous two filly foals with great success. We have a beautiful Welsh Section C colt who is unafraid of most things, is very people friendly, will pick up all his feet for you, doesn't bite, and enjoys a walk on a headcollar. No issues, no problems. But he is now 5 months old. With a filly I would simply keep going with current activities, play, leading work, etc., until age 2, when some harder work starts--bitting, longeing, etc. But I would like to keep this colt for future breeding and, being fully aware that stallions need slightly different handling, I have searched and searched for advice, a training program to follow, a step-by-step guide, or just some narrative from someone who has been there and done it! I've bought lots of foal books from Amazon and from eBay, but none have separate sections on raising a stallion, so it's all to no avail I'm afraid.

I run a small herd of goats, and if I bring a male on for breeding, it is really important that play is curtailed and a fairly strict regime is put in place, so that in the future you don't finish up with a dangerous billy! I don't want to make mistakes with my colt. Can you offer any general guidelines on how raising and handling a young stud would differ from raising fillies?

--Isobel


A: These are all good questions, and it's surprising you can't find much written advice on rearing colts. I'll try to address some of the specific issues you raised and some of the general guidelines.

Play For your breeding goats you mention stopping play and going to a fairly strict regime. I am not sure what you mean by playing, but in general it's probably good to refrain from physical contact play with colts at any age. Some colts and even some fillies can become too physically playful with people. It's as if they start to interact with you as if you are another horse, and so as they mature and gain size, their simple rearing and boxing, pushing into you, or nipping at your face or your legs to initiate a play encounter is just too risky. What can be fun and fairly harmless with a youngster can be dangerous as the animal develops the size and vigor of a stallion. Also, unsuspecting individuals can be caught off guard and easily hurt, should the colt try to initiate play.

When will he mature? And what will that bring? A common question is when to expect the mature, studish behavior to come on. In the spring of your colt's yearling year, his testicles will likely start to produce some of the hormones that drive adult stallion behavior. He might or might not be fertile in that first year, in terms of producing mature fertile sperm, but most colts start to show that teenager-style burst of enthusiasm for life. Those male hormones, even in small quantities, tend to increase the male-typical behaviors, which include the obvious higher energy level and stallionlike social behavior. He will become more animated and vocal, greeting any newcomers and noticing any departures from the herd.

With the onset of exposure to male hormones, colts also become more touchy about the legs and feet as well as the mouth, lips, flank, and genitals. These are the areas of the body where stallions initiate sparring, and so it seems this mechanism has evolved for guarding their important parts. So all of a sudden pressure at the mouth is the push button for rearing or biting, pressure on the lower leg for kneeling and nipping, and touch at the flank or groin for squealing and kicking.

These are all normal and healthy behaviors to be celebrated in your maturing colt. And what is really cool is that simple acclimation to touch without a battle usually leads to compliance with human contact at those points.

Less obvious hormone-driven male behaviors are some of the investigative and marking behaviors that are evidenced by defecating in the same place over and over and all the sniffing and flehmen responses to urine and feces.

The testicles will continue to mature and produce higher levels of male hormones through his 2-year-old and 3-year-old years. Horses' hormone systems are influenced by day length, so the testicles are somewhat less productive in the winter months, and they increase activity in the spring. So in the maturing colt, each spring you can expect a burst of male-type behavior or "coltiness," which means he'll likely be a bit more fresh and rompy, nippy, and generally full of himself. Together with restricted exercise typical of winter in colder climates, that first nice day of spring can be a challenge.

In our research we have followed the behavioral and hormonal development of hundreds of colts, and, interestingly, in Pennsylvania, the first big onset in studish social and sexual behavior often occurs during the week of Valentine's Day. I find that if you are anticipating this and start working with the colt a few weeks in advance, you can make the most of this burst of enthusiasm. For example, you can establish a little exercise and work routine on a longe line or in a round pen, where you give positive guidance and he follows without frustration or confrontation.

In my experience, some Welsh ponies tend to be a bit more nippy as colts, and some stallions are more likely to retain this tendency into maturity. On the one hand it is playful, but on the other it is dangerous. If you take the punishment approach, it can be challenging to find a happy medium that effectively discourages the nipping without your actions leading to some head shyness and loss of trust or the perception that you're participating in the "game." Many of the verbal and physical disciplinary responses we have are very similar to that of a playful combatant, and so they essentially reward the nipping and increase the tendency. The best, but not always the easiest, is to just try to keep the colt busy and focused on forward momentum and avoid and ignore the nipping. I have found a good strategy is to start working a colt in the winter and establish a peaceful relationship and the expectations for his taking direction from you before the springtime hormone surge each year. Also, having pasture playmates can dissipate some of the urgency for play aggression with humans.

It is especially good that you have started working on picking up his feet, and you want to do this regularly. That's because colts tend to be guarded and goosey about their legs. When colts are play fighting or stallions are sparring or frankly fighting, they often initiate a battle by nipping each others' lower legs. Colts that are not acclimated to human touch of the lower leg can get themselves in trouble by responding naturally to touch of the lower leg.

In addition to being intentional about touching the legs and picking up the feet, you should acclimate colts to having their bellies and genital areas touched. At least once a month you can run the hand along the shoulder, under the belly, over the prepuce, and to the scrotum. Gauge the touch to what he will tolerate, but don't touch too light so as to elicit a ticklish response or too rough so as to elicit discomfort. Pay attention to the size, shape, and orientation of each testis. They should be more or less symmetrical and freely movable within the scrotum. His comfort with gentle palpation and manipulation of the genital area will pay off, especially if you decide to breed him. But even if you geld him, sheath cleaning will be easier with a colt that has grown up accustomed to genital manipulation.

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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