Entries in Understanding Stallion Behaviour (2)



summerhills solskjaer

Summerhill's Solskjaer
(Photo : Heather Maclatchy)

(Please click above to enlarge...)



Approximately two months before the start of the breeding season, stallions are evaluated physically. Movement, body condition, muscle wastage, temperament and back problems are checked daily and treated accordingly.

Several bacteria can be transmitted by sexual contact and a detailed veterinary examination is required to be carried out prior to the season, including examination of the urethra, penis and prepuce, and palpation of the scrotum and testes. Bacteriological swabbing of the prepuce, penis and external urethra is carried out to ensure that the stallion is not a carrier of a transferable disease to his mares, namely contagious equine metritis, Pseudomonas aeruginosa and klebsiella pneumoniae.

In order to do this one generally requires a mare from which to tease the stallion and previous work put in to control and discipline the stallion usually pays off.

In the immediate weeks prior to the commencement of the breeding season, stallions are test mated using a test mare which has no ovaries and is brought into oestrous, with Estrumate, to enable her to be covered. This serves two purposes for the stallion, firstly cleansing the testis and epididymis of older non fresh sperm and secondly to examine the nature of the ejaculate. This includes colour, which should be yellowish in nature and in certain cases sperm motility is also examined. Abnormalities may include the presence of blood in the sample indicative of haemospermia.


The management approach to covering mares may vary according to the mare or the stallion.

Maiden mares can be fiery, feel threatened and act accordingly towards the stallion.

Ideally, Welsh pony teasers are used to introduce maiden mares to the covering process, as they pose less threat to maidens and can tease and mount the maiden with no risk of covering.

The teaser breaks down the mare, mounting her several times in order that she poses no threat to the stallion.

The identification document or passport of the mare is checked to ensure that the right mare is going to be covered by the right stallion.

In the case of maiden or barren (older mares with no foal at foot), a veterinary swab report is confirmed to ensure she will not be introducing a transferable infection to the stallion.


As part of the breeding routine we teach stallions to learn to wait in the breeding shed.

Prior to mating, the aim is to have the stallion exhibit calmness in the breeding shed; ideally the handler is the man that keeps the stallion safe and the stallion is introduced to the mare once the “head man” on the mare is happy that his team is in control.

Firmness and control is essential to prevent injury to staff and horses in the shed.

The stallion is brought into the shed with a bridle, or head collar (with either a bit or chain, depending on the stallion) and is allowed to approach from the left side, usually teasing the mare (working down from the shoulder to the flank, hocks and behind – sniffing, nibbling, nipping lightly).

To encourage the stallion to mount the mare, the head of the stallion is often lifted above the quarter of the mare, or turned slightly away, normally he usually drops the shoulder closest to the mare and gently nudges her away from him to ensure she does present a risk to himself.

In the case of the maiden stallion, control is essential and if the stallion charges at the mare he needs to be stopped and backed up and possibly removed from the barn, after which the routine starts again. Stallion attitude matters, especially with the young novice stallion. Bringing the mare close up whilst covering, lets him think about mounting the mare, keeping the mare slightly out of reach encourages the stallion to rear up a little to assist mounting the mare.

Typically the stallion will be energetic in courtship, he will nibble, smell and nip.

We as handlers set the limit, you want the stallion to show some aggression and bite the back of the mare’s neck when mounted.

Maiden stallions can be hesitant about this behaviour. In general, we allow the young stallion to get around the mare as they often find it hard to believe that they can get close to one and are dumb struck by what they are supposed to do. Ideally the first mare should be an older “matron” well in oestrous. Allowing her to turn her head and solicit him by moving and adopting a breeding posture will assist.

A bad experience will lead to “breeding shed hang-ups”. Avoid panic, if the stallion shows no inclination to mount, we assist him by walking a few steps and allowing him to follow at his own free will (on the lead line), this often excites them. The “perfume bottle” in the form of previously collected urine may stimulate his olfactory senses, thus exciting him.

Assisting him to mount by attaching another lead to the right side of the head collar and lifting his head over the rump of the mare often assists the young horse in learning the approach to a mare.

We generally allow extended time to teach the young stallion (approx 2hrs over three or four sessions), letting him have some play.

They develop routines, and once they have bred a mare several times, we know each individual’s routine and what we mutually expect from one another. Patience is essential!

Getting cross often complicates matters and might have a negative impact on the stallion, and he may lose his erection, libido or interest. We give as much leeway, providing that it is not dangerous. Thoughtful handling teaches the young stallion what is expected of him.

When handling stallions we never take chances, a seemingly relaxed stallion can change quickly become stimulated into serious action, often triggered by proximity of breeding mares, or other stallions.


Better known as a “shy breeders”, these are stallions which appear unenthusiastic about their mares.

Some stallions are more selective or “smarter”, they can be efficient and highly fertile but do not want to waste time on a mare that is not about to ovulate. Stallions are able to outsmart veterinary science and they have the ability to scent a mare in oestrous and have the ability to reject a mare that is not ready to conceive. 

There are stallions lineage’s that are well known for their quieter, cautious disposition, but generally musculoskeletal fitness, obesity, or pain can cause libido problems.

Exposure to mares promotes reproductive function, isolation from mares or exposure to other stallions often suppresses reproductive function. A new environment can intimidate new stallions, by allowing them to tease freely or allowing better access to mares, will in normal circumstances improve libido


A post covering semen sample is taken from the stallion by an assistant using a clean polystyrene cup.

A few drops of the semen are placed on the slide and the semen is examined to check colour. The slide is then placed under the microscope with a cover slip and sperm motility and concentration is judged.

Sperm motility in a normal healthy stallion usually does not vary (unless fertility is an issue). Quantity of sperm does vary with the degree to which the stallion has been working and a measurement from 1 – 5, depending on number and motility of sperm present on the slide, is recorded to judge stallion’s performance.

Immediate sperm motility should measure at 80%, progressing to 60%, about 15 minutes after covering at room temperature. Semen extenders may be used post cover with sub fertile stallions (made of a mixture of skimmed milk, glucose & antibiotics which is inserted directly into the uterus of the mare.)

All mares are treated with ovulatory drugs to enhance ovulation post cover and they may be treated with an in-utero post cover antibiotic wash and oxytocin therapy 24-48 hours later to enhance conception.

In the event that conceptions are obviously low with a stallion, the status of their fertility is tested.

Such issues often become a factor in older stallions and as a result they are managed accordingly.  In normal circumstances, a normal healthy stallion is expected to have a fertility measurement of above 80%. 

Stallion fertility may be affected not by the stallion, rather by the mare, the breeding shed rely on other management and the advice of the veterinary surgeon to decide on the optimal time for covering, it is vital that teasing, veterinary examinations and coverings are effective.

In normal circumstances assuming your mare ovulated 2 to 3 days post cover, she would be tested in foal at 16 days and our work from the Stallion Barn is successfully complete!

By striving to ensure that our stallions are well-prepared and happy, we can maximise the chances of successful coverings throughout the breeding season.



greig muir and muhtafal

Greig Muir and Muhtafal
(Photo : Summerhill Stud)

Greig Muir's views of Managing Stallions

greig muir profile picGreig Muir, Stallion Manager at Summerhill StudFor many owners, reproduction is a straightforward procedure which begins with breeding ones broodmare and ends with parturition or foaling, the aim of which is to produce a superior equine athlete. In many cases the stallion is the forgotten part of the breeding equation, despite being responsible for half of the probability outcome of each breeding.

Stallions are the focal point of any breeding programme and have earned their “colours” as sires strictly because of five traits established before entering a breeding career, namely racing ability, pedigree, conformation, reproductive soundness and constitution.

The start of 2010 saw not only a close on the previous Breeding Season but the opening of another, which welcomes further equine athletes into the stallion fold to join other “working” stallions, all of whom are introduced to a new programme literally straight away in preparation for the start of another breeding season a few months later.

There are a number of things which may impact on the conception and an important tool for breeders is an assessment of the stallion (or mares) reproductive history and physical well being. With the commencement of a new breeding season, a stallion must have the ability to physically achieve a successful pregnancy rate when bred to a reasonable amount of fertile mares. Sadly, it is not always that simple, for there are several things that can occur that may complicate a pregnancy, resulting in fatal loss or no conception, which may be as a result of a poor performing stallion (or mare). It is therefore essential that your stallion is in good health and at peak fitness.

At the close of a breeding season, due to the stresses of consistent covering of mares, stallions may drop a few points on the body score meter, ideally a body score of 6 would be preferable for a working stallion going into a breeding season, whilst the outward bound body score can be as low as a 4 or 5.

Generally, a stallion in prime condition can be used one to three times per day without any adverse affect on pregnancy rates and today many popular stallions will cover over a hundred mares per season, which may result in four and occasionally five mares over a 24 hour period, therefore the physique of a working stallion is of as much importance as his health status, for muscle mass and condition are essential for the stallion to maintain throughout the breeding season.

As a rule we adopt a programme whereby the stallions have an annual break for a period of five to six weeks at the close of a breeding season, during which time there are no longer any mares for covering. During this period they are let out into their paddocks for longer periods of time during the day to ‘let down’ and relax. They are also subjected to a breeding soundness examination both administratively and physically should it be deemed necessary. Such examinations include breeding performance during the previous season, fertility, libido, injuries sustained and treatment administered, feeding programmes, inoculations and deworming.

Historic comparisons are important to assess problems that might have been induced through management protocols, or changes in management structure. 
Why conduct a breeding examination? When one considers the annual cost of keep for the average broodmare is approximately R28 000, coupled with an average stallion fee of R30 000, failure to yield in any one year represents a considerable loss to the owner of the mare and the stallion, it is therefore essential that these statistics are analysed annually. Specific information would include:

1.    Number of mares bred and the number of mares that conceived.
2.    Breeding frequency (number of mares bred daily as well as previous week)
3.    Number of services per cycle.
4.    Pregnancy rate per cycle.
5.    Cumulative pregnancy rate for the season.
6.    Pertinent information about the mares bred, maiden, barren, foaling mares, lactating mares and their respective pregnancy rates.
7.    Stallion behaviour, insertion of penis into vagina, premature dismount etc
8.    Quantity of dismount sample collected, and reinforced into the mare.
9.    Sperm present in the dismount sample
10.    Conformational traits
11.    Chronic injuries, lameness (careful attention should be paid to the limbs)
12.    Hind leg injuries or back problems can interfere with intensive breeding.
13.    Body temperature – effects sperm quality
14.    Age. The pubescent age of a stallion is between 12 and 24 months, sexually mature at 5 years. Puberty defined as the age at which the stallion ejaculate first contains 50 million sperm, of which 10% are motile (move forward in a straight line.)
15.    Libido

From this a management programme for each stallion can be planned in order that they may achieve ‘peak health and fitness’ for the start of the forthcoming breeding season, four to five months later.

The common forms of exercise programmes utilised for stallions can include regular walking, lunging, or riding. It is essential that stallions are not allowed to become over weight as this will lead to poor performance in the breeding shed. Following their end of season break, the stallions are gradually introduced to a programme of exercise that increases over a period of 8 to 10 weeks, this will vary from stallion to stallion, however generally on an automatic walker or lunging, this will range from approximately 6 to 10 minutes up to 20 to 25 minutes per day at which stage the stallion is becoming hardened and is able to undergo a regimen of exercise without losing body condition. Exercise also encourages a better mental attitude to the work a stallion will be required to do and prevent injury to all parties in the breeding shed. Monitoring nutrition and maintaining a regular check on body scores (and body weight if available) on a weekly basis is essential, adjustments can be made to either of the above should it be necessary, before weight becomes a problem.

Traditionally older stallion managers believe that the stallion handler should be equally fit and should partake of the exercise in their own time, to the extent of jogging around the lunge ring or walker to determine the extent of the exercise programme that he would incorporate for his horse.

For a racehorse retiring from the track to take up duties as a stallion, they are faced with challenges that many seldom consider. During training, normal sexual behaviour would have been actively discouraged and the change from racing to stud represents a radical change in the life of a prospective stallion and therefore management protocols must aim to prepare a horse not only from a physical and health perspective, but psychologically for the tasks that will be expected of the stallion during the breeding season. Young stallions require careful management and they may often be inhibited by disciplinary measures, previously traumatised racehorses or stallions may be aggressive to the extent they become dangerous. In the same way, not all stallions show intensive sexual or purposeful mounting behaviour, young, over-raced, physically or psychologically traumatized stallions may show little or no interest and exhibit weak libido and clumsy mounting behaviour.

Management directives might result in a traumatic experience for a maiden stallion, which can impact on the horse psychologically and can in some cases affect a stallion for life. Generally maiden stallions vary in the length of time it takes them to learn to cover, during which time they need to be assisted in a patient and understanding manner.

An old school stallion handler advised, “The most important thing with handling stallions is understanding stallion behaviour, becoming one with your horse, after that you can do anything”.

Coupled with handling stallions and putting them through their paces in the lunge ring or breeding shed, we have to continually strive to repeatedly maintain individual routines and teach the ‘new boys on the block’ their new role in life.

Most domestic breeding stallions do not have much of the harem stallion experience as they are accustomed to daily routine and necessary handling since foaling. Harem bands experience a structured social organization and do what comes naturally. Animal husbandry and selective breeding practices have created a whole new set of rules which are different from those in nature, many developed over decades forcing stallions to comply, often with negative results. Observation and incorporation of natural behaviour and practice can be beneficial to both the handler and horse, saving time and effort, avoiding bad habits and in many cases reducing the risk of injury to both your team and your mare.
The typical harem stallion interacts with his herd, tending, approaching and retreating amongst other members of the herd, he is generally more aggressive and has a higher libido than a maiden stallion, but he participates in the social group to the extent of being attentive and gentle with his offspring and providing parental care.

On many domestic farms, stallion populations are composed of horses with subdued reproductive and aggressive behaviour traits and they are often housed in almost unnatural barns with paddocks away from the broodmare band, they often have no contact with mares until introduced at the breeding shed. Stallions, must be allowed to interact with mares through ‘teasing’ or hand held walks through populations of mares and foals prior to the breeding season, so they understand that approaching other horse populations does not represent an opportunity to cover (this can also be carried out in the breeding shed). Allowing stallions to carry out olfactory investigation of urine and faeces, raising of the lip or Flehmen response, and teasing of mares as they come into oestrous, are ways of encouraging a ‘natural’ approach to covering your mare.

Stallions breed more efficiently with more contact with mares and it is essential to promote this practice throughout the off season. Serious infertility and sexual dysfunction can be avoided through exposure to mare populations, positively affecting stallion behaviour, stimulating sexual interest and response, and improving sexual physiology. Without this stallions can develop serious libido and fertility issues, which are more often than not interpreted as other problems at a management level. Limited access to mares can lead to “souring” during the breeding season and unwanted displays of aggression to both handlers and their mares. 

The many aspects of sexual behaviour of stallions are learned, if manual discipline is excessive or inappropriate, this can prevent normal behaviour in the breeding shed. Handling stallions should be consistent and firm, but not aggressive. Encouraging a social rapport with your broodmare population is beneficial to all parties when it comes to the breeding season. 

Similar to programming mares for the breeding season, we do the same for the stallions. It is well accepted that photoperiod is an important factor that influences the endogenous reproductive rhythm. Additional light and heating during winter and early spring advances the onset of testicular activity.  This practice is adopted several weeks prior to the start of the breeding season (mid June in the Southern hemisphere) and is started to artificially extend daylight hours and although artificial long days during winter are not stimulatory, the shortened period of darkness transmits a “signal” to the brain, with ‘traditionally’ 35 days of long days sufficing to tell the stallion that the winter solstice has passed, inducing early onset of sexual function, which initiates endocrine events leading to maximum reproductive function culminating in the production of viable sperm.

In addition to artificial lighting, heating in the form of infra red lighting is supplied to each stall and combined with similar conditions of photoperiod; increased temperature induces early reproductive activity.

Coupled with this, further nutritional stimulus is offered utilising green fodder in the form of Italian Rye, which further ‘tricks” the body into believing spring is approaching.

Throughout the breeding season nutrition and body score is monitored constantly and formulation of a balanced diet is left to the professionals, whose research goes to great depths today. Prior to the season the stallion are changed onto a higher energy ration (12% to 16%), and further supplements are added including ulcer preventative medications to cope with the stress of the work the stallions do, Vitamin E, Corn Oil and Hyaluronic acid joint supplements. 

Generally we make sure training is in place long before the breeding season commences. A top performing stallion requires fitness and health to perform at his peak, he also needs to recognise the fact that when he is out and away from his stable there is no possibility of becoming familiar with a mare to the extent of covering, if they are not started in this manner, there will always be the question in their minds. The stallion has to feel good about what he is doing; patience is required to teach the horse to respond in the right manner, he has to pay attention to what he is doing and to the handler.  All this commences from day 1, the first day in January, ending on the last day in December. A well behaved stallion knows that he will be handled with care and finesse, and disciplined when he oversteps the line. A stallion can be trained and still forget 50% of what he has learned, repetition creates routine, changes in the routine often cause the stallion to become stressed.

By maintaining fitness, routine, levels of nutrition and handling management, we all develop a mutual respect for one another.

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