Stallion Handling for Breeding
Take Home Message: Directing a stallion through the performance of a specific set of low resistance manoeuvres, including backing up and circling in hand using flank pressure, is a rapid means of establishing respectful communication and control of a stallion. The low resistance manoeuvres allow the handler to proactively assess the stallion's training and manners prior to semen collection or breeding in a novel environment.
Introduction: Breeding is a common activity in the equine industry. Pasture, Hand-breeding, and semen collection are all techniques used to get mares in foals. Semen is collected from stallions for breeding with fresh, cooled transported (CTS), or frozen semen. Because of the widespread acceptance of many breed associations of artificial insemination (AI) as a breeding method and the overall acceptable pregnancy rates with this assisted reproductive technique, AI has become a common strategy for breeding. Stallion owners are often asked to provide semen shipments, even when the stallion has a small book of mares. Frozen semen remains the only practical method of preserving a stallion’s genetics. The use of CTS and frozen semen has created a growing need to provide semen collection as a routine veterinary service.
One option is to simply turn the mare in with the stallion in situations where handling is not an option. However, most people believe that handling the stallion is a safer way to proceed when breeding mares. The use of AI has resulted in there being fewer stallions of higher quality. Because there are fewer and fewer stallions around the expertise for handling stallions is not as widely available.
Hand mating and semen collection are routine procedures for properly trained personnel, when the personnel are familiar with stallion behaviour, knowledgeable about safe conduct around mares and stallions, and have contingency plans for various outcomes or situations. Many farms or veterinary clinics cannot financially justify the employment of a full time stallion handler, but in terms of professional liability it is advisable that a qualified individual such as a staff member or veterinarian handle stallions during the hand mating or semen collection process. Stallions are often brought to breeding facilities or veterinary clinics for hand mating and semen collection, and veterinarians are responsible for the safety of their clients, staff and the horses they work on. It is not advisable to put trust in people unfamiliar stallions, because the safety of the stallion handler, and their staff are at stake.
If a person wants to learn about breeding behaviours they should spend a few days at well managed farm watching the behaviours of teasing and breeding. There they will observe that aggressive breeders need to move through the process quickly with an organized crew like a well oiled machine, but timid stallions should not be rushed and patience is required. It is essential to be aware of the normal sexual behaviours of mares and stallions.
Specifically there is also a need for stallion handlers to have a rapid means of establishing respectful communication with a stallion, while assessing the horse's training and manners prior to going to the breeding environment. The assessment process will facilitate the development of a rapport with a stallion so either the hand mating or semen collection is performed safely and efficiently. The goal in hand mating is to provide a safe and controlled breeding for the personnel, mare and the stallion, and in the semen collection environment the goal is to obtain a high quality ejaculate in a safe and controlled manner, while providing a sexually pleasurable experience for the stallion.
The ground manners and habits of the stallion are key to having a respectful and pleasurable interaction with the stallion. Many stallions are well mannered and tractable in their performance activity, but may not have handlers that are familiar with breeding. Typically inexperienced handlers punish normal behaviour and are often fearful and nervous around stallions. Punishing normal behaviour such as vocalizing and prancing, only confuses a stallion. Performance stallions have been taught not to show any or minimal sexual behaviour, therefore it is difficult for the performance handler to now accept the normal behaviour. Therefore the person handling the stallion for performance may not be the same one handling the horse for breeding. Stallions are quick to pick up on contextual clues and rapidly learn where and when sexual behaviour is appropriate. Using a special halter or lead, a special place for breeding are usually incorporated in the training routine to give the stallion clues that this is the right time to show sexual behaviour.
A stallion knows what behaviour is normal and will become confused and try to escape the punishment of normal behaviour. Bad habits such as rearing and kicking may form and be left unchecked as he tried to escape. Temperamentally aggressive or mishandled stallions may have had excessive physical force applied against them in an attempt to gain control of them for other reasons. These stallions are difficult to handle because they associate people with a fight or with pain.
Stallions fall into different categories based on experience, temperament and handling. The initial assessment includes a determination if the stallion is: well - trained, well - mannered, timid, rowdy, disrespectful, fearful, or if he has a combination of these traits.
Assessment of a Stallion's Training and Manners: Training of a stallion includes basics such as accepting a halter, leading, and responding to vocal or physical cues to whoa, back, walk up, and turn while on a lead line. “Manners” is used to how a stallion responds to the handler when the various cues are given. It is important to find out about the routine and habits of the stallion in the breeding shed prior to handling him. It is important to have a relationship with a breeding stallion as a handler.
Establishing a respectful relationship with a Stallion - Low resistance handling: Assessment of an unfamiliar stallion, and the establishment of a respectful relationship with him, is required of stallion handlers. A technique that we have found to be very useful is to start by haltering the stallion and depending upon his temperament, attaching a lead rope to or running a chain through the halter rings. The stallion needs to be lead to a safe area or enclosure where no mares are nearby to distract him.
Once in a safe area, the handler stands on the near side of the haltered horse at the stallion's shoulder, with the lead in their right hand facing forward as if they were going to lead the horse. The handler then moves to also hold the lead with their left hand, and walks backwards away from the stallion’s shoulder towards his hind quarters keeping the lead slack. You must keep your shoulders facing forward (90 degrees to the long axis of the horse) as you walk backwards. Most horses will turn their head and look as you move past their point of balance at the shoulder. As you walk backwards more line is released until you have reached the flank area. Turn to point your midsection at the horse's flank and using your right hand push into his flank. The left hand, which is now the only hand on the lead line, is positioned on the back of your left hip. The stallion should move away from the flank pressure, and the head of the stallion should flex into the turn. This allows the handler to join in the turning movement. Pushing into his flank area coupled with light pressure to the halter, will turn the stallion in a tight circle.
The idea is for the horse to learn that he is following you (i.e. you are the chaser, and he is the chasee) and for you to determine if the horse knows how to yield to pressure. This is a very simple method delivered using body language familiar to the horse. The body language that you are applying to the stallion indicates dominance. A dominant horse always chases a subordinate horse. Turn at least 3 circles. Stop the stallion. Many stallions if responding to the exercise will lower their head and will lick their lips.
Walk to his head standing in front of him and little to the side, then ask him to back up by lowering your head and inside (left) shoulder pointing your midsection at the horse. Apply light backward pressure to the halter and as you ask him to back with vocal cues. Move toward the stallion with your midsection straight and facing his hindquarters, so he will back straight. Later experiment with turning your core slightly to clue the stallion to back in a more diagonal direction, backing him in an arc. Stop him again with whoa, ask him to walk to the starting spot and change sides. Standing directly in front of a stallion is a big challenge to his authority so any head lowering and licking of his lips would be a good sign.
Repeat the movements on the far side of the horse. Some horses are “sticky” on the far or off side because they are not as accustomed to people working on that side. Be patient. Make sure the stallion is standing square. Keep your body facing forward and your shoulders square as you step backwards past his shoulder. As the stallion turns his head to look, turn into his flank and lighting push into the flank with your left hand and leave the right hand on the line positioning it on the back of your right hip. This controls the stallion’s head as you apply flank pressure. Move the stallion in tight circle 3 times. Follow with a whoa, After the circling of the stallion on the far side the lesson continues by asking the stallion to stop, back up, and walk up again. The stallion should be praised for a job well done.
The goal is to see the stallion turning in a tight circle and moving away from the flank pressure in both directions. You have assessed if the "gears" (whoa, forward, back, turn) and they are working in the stallion you are ready to move to the breeding shed.
The stallion is being asked to yield and turn his head and neck, and move both his front and back feet. There are 2 elements here that test the training of the horse. If the horse moves away with flank pressure he has been taught to move away from pressure (push on the left flank he moves away from the pressure) this is a natural response by the horse. If the horse is halter broke and leads he has been taught to move in response to and in the direction of the pressure. He follows the pressure cue (pull on the right he follows and turns to the right). Therefore what has been described is a push and pull pressure test. By circling him and using flank pressure you test both elements simultaneously. It follows then that the horse that is not broke to lead very well balks at pressure on the halter, (he pulls back and shakes his head to free more line) because he is feeling he is trapped. A stallion that is exclusively broke to lead and has no other training, such as a halter stallion, may be confused by flank pressure. He will tend to bunny hop away from pressure or kick out. Poor manners includes signs of resistance to pressure which include the stallion: pushing back against your flank pressure (opposition reflex), moving ahead, or bunny hopping forward, shrinking away from your touch or dropping when touched, keeping his head and neck straight or stiff when you apply pressure to the halter, cow kicking, and just moving his hind feet, or laying his ears back in response to cues. A horse that has been handled with a heavy hand may aggressively lean, slam back, or cow kick at you when you exert flank pressure, which in general means these horses associate touching with pain.
If the stallion does not respond to these cues appropriately this is important to know and the stallion should not be brought to breeding shed. Additional back to basics training should be planned to fix the misbehaviour. This means slowly going back to relearn being groomed and good ground manners. A horse learns to move away from pressure more easily than he learns to yield to and follow pressure. A horse that has been broke to ride in general is familiar with both types of pressure and generally quickly learns what is expected of him.
It is common to position a stallion by backing him up and applying side or flank pressure, when he is near a mare or in front of a breeding phantom therefore these are fundamental skills required for safety. If the stallion performs these tasks successfully he is likely to be very cooperative. A cooperative stallion will lower his head following the lesson, keep his ears forward or neutral and usually licks his lips. Praise him for a job well done.
Common Mistakes: If you are afraid the stallion will know it. When you back up you may be tempted to turn your shoulders towards the horse, or you may fail to change hands with the lead line before you apply flank pressure, don't let the lead line out far enough when stepping backwards so you jerk on his head, or fail to move far enough back towards the flank of the horse, in which case you will not be able to turn the stallion, you will just push him away from you. You will then not get the message across about who is the boss.
If he does not perform these tasks well he has either you are not delivering the technique very well, he has not received much successful training, he has been mishandled, or he has chosen to resist the tasks as a strategy and has poor manners. Some stallions are poorly socialized, to other horses and to people, and may need to have other interventions performed such as retraining before being ready to be handled in the breeding shed. This would involve more work on ground manners or may involve the use of a round pen, other stallions may be handled in a way that anticipates their undesirable behaviours in the breeding environment and requires timely, rapid, authoritarian actions when the horse misbehaves. Generally the discipline takes the form of a distraction where you direct the stallion’s attention to something else or a visual or auditory clue. This may mean snapping a whip on your boot, stomping your foot, speaking firmly saying no, using your hand with the end of the lead rope to make sure you maintain your space etc.
Common undesirable behaviours include: rearing, pulling away, biting the handler, head throwing, pushing with the head, rearing or striking to get a front leg over the lead line to pull it out of the handler’s hands, or wheeling around kicking out or at a mare before or after breeding. All of these behaviours are undesirable and not considered breeding behaviours. The goal of these behaviours by the stallion is to either express frustration or to get away from the handler to get to the mare. None of these behaviours would be included in a controlled breeding routine. The reason they are in the stallion's breeding routine is that there was a breakdown in the training of the stallion, and the stallion may be confused and disrespectful. Some handlers elect to use minimal prior manoeuvring, and try strategically timed negative reinforcement to teach the stallion to stop the negative behaviours. Most of the stallions had developed the negative behaviours as strategies to get to the mare, and they are resistant to give them up even in the face of negative reinforcement. Trying negative reinforcement again with them in the breeding shed escalates the behaviour in some individuals as they perceive the need to fight back.
Rather than being reactive and trying to institute negative reinforcement steps to change a stallion's behaviour, we have found the proactive low resistance manoeuvres approach to establishing a relationship with the stallion to be highly successful when used prior to going to the breeding environment. Praise the normal behaviours. I recommend that every time the stallion is handled for breeding the handler spends a few moments circling him to establish a routine and “make nice” before going to the breeding shed.
Claire Card DVM PhD dip ACT
Authors' Address: Dept of Large Animal Clinical Sciences, 52 Campus Drive, Western College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, SK, Canada S7N 5B4. email: firstname.lastname@example.org