Thursday, March 12, 2009


Like a million other horse crazy girls, Walter Farley was a favorite childhood author. I'm not sure how many times I read The Black Stallion. Let's just say it was more than once. In reality, keeping a stallion is not like it is portrayed in the book. It is more like owning a pit bull. A stallion seems to inspire fear and suspicion, no matter how well behaved he is. The unspoken admonishment: You better have a darn good reason for keeping this animal.

I never wanted a stallion. Never even crossed my mind. Though I do prefer "boys," a good gelding has always been my idea of a best horse friend. Until about a year ago, I knew little about stallions. They had a certain mystique and romantic appeal but I had a good deal of fear, too. I'm not sure why. The Black never hurt anyone. He was ridden by a child for goodness sake.

Then Chance came along. He was a stallion, not by any merit but by neglect to acquaint him with a good vet. Because of his state of starvation, I was unable to castrate him right away. This made me nervous. And for good reason.

I'd owned Chance a scant couple of weeks when I decided to practice some ground skills with him. At seven years old he still didn't lead well. Seemingly docile, I haltered him and removed him from the round pen. We began walking around the field. Chances body language was subtle. He curved his neck toward me, considering me out of the corner of one eye. Ever so slightly, he edged closer. I'll never forget the feeling that came over me. Though naive to the ways of stallions, I felt suddenly threatened as if the horse was planning something unpleasant. The hair stood up on my arms. Quickly I walked Chance back into the round pen. The minute I turned to unhalter him, he gave a sinister nicker and reared up and struck at me. Since that day I never second guess a horses body language or my gut feelings about their behavior. If I feel uncomfortable about the way a horse is relating to me there is always a reason.

Chance was gelded two months after I got him. He was the kind of stallion you want to castrate twice, just to be certain the jobs done. I don't take his attack personally; there is more than one explanation for his behavior. However, the experience is one I won't soon forget.

Fast forward a year....I find and fall hopelessly in love with a horse. He happens to be a stallion. Fortunately, he is a vastly different sort of stallion than Chance. I have immersed myself in learning about stallions. It is fascinating so far.

In the wild, a stallion is not the herd leader. They are the herd protector, constantly on alert for threats and vigilant about keeping their harem safe from other males. The documentary on the wild horse, Cloud, is an educational and entertaining look at the life of a stallion. I highly recommend it. What I have learned in the short time I have owned stallions is that fear has no place in handling and training. First and foremost, a stallion is a horse--not to be overly romanticized or considered a hormonal terror best kept in isolation. He has the same needs for security, guidance and companionship as any other horse. Stallions are different than mares and geldings in a couple of ways. Firstly, they are very sensitive. It is uncanny how a stallion can "read" his environment. Eli reacts to my moods even if he can't see me--he feels my emotions. A stallion also has a greater propensity toward aggression, especially if mishandled. In race horses, aggression is a desirable trait and carefully bred for. The stallion Hard Tack, known best for his famous son Sea Biscuit, was such a horse. Derby winners aside, a naturally aggressive horse is one begging for the knife, I don't care how fine he is. Every stallion should be handled with respect as they have an incredible sense of fair play. Some will not tolerate abuse and decide to fight back. Unfortunately, stallions are often victims of harsh and unfair treatment simply on account of their gender.

Fear is at the root of much of what is ugly and cruel in the world. In Brennan Mannings excellent book, "The Importance of Being Foolish: How to think like Jesus," he aptly describes the insatiable quest of human beings for security, pleasure, and power. Those needs are at the root of all behavior. Fear of losing them has spawned untold atrocities throughout history. People and things become props to soothe the fragile ego. I see this in the horse world, too. Perhaps it is most grossly on display in the handling of stallions.

If the phrase, "In riding a horse we borrow freedom," is true so is, "In riding a horse we borrow power." Nothing is more awe inspiring, more potentially terrifying, than the 1,000 pounds of raw masculine beauty that is a stallion in all his glory. Stallions are made to suffer, some permanently soured, because of human beings who admire this power but abuse out of fear and ignorance. The end-this horse will respect me--justified by the means--I'll beat/shank him with a chain before he has the chance to challenge me.

When I fear something I am in no position to think clearly but am operating in reaction mode, ready to defend myself against anything that is a threat to my security, pleasure, or feeling of power. That said, I think a bit of fear, a bit of humility, is healthy when handling horses--mare, gelding or stallion. Anytime I strap myself to a large, panic prone animal I'm assuming a good deal of risk. There is a reason horseback riding is considered an extreme sport. This should inspire care and devotion to good horsemanship methods. A positive side affect of a bit of healthy fear.

In Europe stallions are routinely kept as riding horses. A gelding is a rare find. Does this mean everyone should keep/ride a stallion? Of course not. And stallions like Chance should be removed of their offending parts post haste. My own future in stallion ownership is unclear at this point. There are practical reasons to geld and I have no dreams of breeding, especially in this economy. I would like to get Eli a bit further along in his training before deciding for sure. In the meantime, I'm learning all I can about stallions. As in everything, I commit to prayer and feel confident God will direct me, perhaps through Eli's own behavior. So far he continues to conduct himself as a kind, quiet gentleman who is a joy to have around. Seems even a horse knows, "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom"(sorry, couldn't resist:).

A little fear can be a healthy thing.

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