Which one is the right choice for you?
If you are currently in the market for a horse, you no doubt have given some thought about just exactly which characteristics are important to consider in making your choice. One of the most important is the gender of the horse: stallion, mare, or gelding. While each horse is an individual with different capabilities and talents as well as problem areas, certainly gender of the horse is one of the most important to consider, because gender determines to a great extent the behavior of the horse and also the risks in owning such a horse.
Everyone loves a stallion. There is no horse so beautiful, surely. Stallions have a majesty and a presence that other horses seldom have, and for that reason are often considered good choices, particularly if the prospective owner is in the market for a show horse. Additionally, it is tempting to think of the income in stud fees that a stallion will bring in, offsetting the cost of feeding and housing him. Sounds good, doesn’t it? But let’s examine the assets and liabilities of owning the typical stallion. While he may show great presence in the show arena and be a potential source of revenue, there are trade-offs to consider. First are the liabilities of owning a stallion: Many states require that a stallion be pastured only behind a six-foot fence, because of the danger of a loose stallion roaming the neighborhood. Obviously he will require his own pasture with a double fence or hot wire between him and other horses; few stallions can be pastured even with geldings, as they will at best try to court and breed them and at worst pick fights to establish dominance. Since the smallest stallion generally is much stronger than the largest gelding, injury to his sparring partners has to be considered. Likewise, his stall may have to be reinforced, and he will likely not be able to have a mare in a neighboring stall: Stallions will often attempt to climb the walls to get to other horses, either geldings or mares. At best, this results in his pulling off his front shoes; at worst, he might succeed in knocking down connecting walls and then starting a fight with his neighbor, which could result in significant injury to each. It is likewise important to have at least one fallback method of securing the stall, such as a chain, to make it less likely that he can escape, should the primary closure not be secured properly.
Riding the Stallion
If you own a stallion, you will have to be always on the lookout for thoughtless people who will lead a mare in heat under your stallion’s nose, who will ride a gelding WAY too close to your horse, or even occasionally run into you. Stallions view this as a threat to their dominance, and will want to deal with the offender. Will you be strong enough to pull him off the other horse? This means that you must ride always with protecting your horse in mind, keeping him out of trouble. It will be up to you to turn your horse away, giving ground on the rail, because other riders are typically unaware that your horse is a stallion and requires more space. Of course, all of these potential difficulties are less problematic if you own your own place and do not have boarders. But if you bought your horse to show, you will have to deal with all of these issues. Think of the flimsiness of the stalls at the last horse show you attended: Would you feel secure leaving your stallion in one of them unattended?
Standing Your Stallion at Public Stud
These are just a few of the difficulties that offset the pleasures of owning and riding a gorgeous stallion. Let’s also consider the potential of income from standing him at public stud. Before you buy a stallion, pick up the annual breeding issue of the type horse you want to buy. Look at the stallions standing at stud and carefully evaluate whether the horse you are considering will measure up to these horses, in terms of appearance, bloodlines, or performance history. If not, it will be hard to attract mare owners. Second, do you have the resources to advertise your stallion? A full-page color ad in a national magazine is very expensive. To have an effective advertising program, you will need to advertise monthly. Also, you have to consider where you will breed your stallion, who will handle him during the breeding (this is not for an amateur), where will the mares that are to be bred be housed, and who will handle them? To be competitive, you will also need to ship semen, which will involve collection costs and your driving the collected semen to a nearby airport for shipment. You will need access to a dummy to collect your stallion, and mares in heat to get him ready to breed.
For some people, this is just the sort of challenge they want, and they have the financial resources, excellent facilities, and horse management skills to make this enterprise worthwhile. For most of us, it is unrealistic and not particularly rewarding. Particularly if your primary interest is in riding your horse, you will find that the business side of breeding is too costly in money and time to make it a secondary focus of your stallion ownership.
If, however, you want to show and can master the challenges of stallion ownership, you may find that a stallion is a reasonable choice for you. But you must carefully evaluate whether you have the ability to keep your chosen horse-and yourself and others around you-- safe.
Mares as Performance Horses
It is said that a good mare with a fine work ethic is a wonderful horse. It is also true that mares can be more difficult to handle than geldings, and for this reason, many people pass them by when looking for a performance horse. This depends in part on the discipline that one is following. There are many very successful mares in the fields of reining, eventing, cutting, endurance, jumping, and western pleasure, among other fields, but fewer in dressage, for example, though Brentina certainly managed to dominate world dressage competition for her owners and rider for many years. Many experienced horse owners and trainers prefer mares. While they can be temperamental, they often have great endurance and willingness to work, and if you can win them over to doing things your way, they make fine performance horses. They can be difficult to handle when they are in estrus, but this is seasonal, and there are drugs to suppress heat cycles if they are especially disruptive, making the mare easier to work with. The heat cycle’s effects on the mare range from increased sensitivity (making grooming a chore at best and occasionally worse, as it’s not uncommon for mares to kick and squeal when the groomer touches the often numerous sensitive spots) to a decreased willingness to work to a tight back. These effects are more or less important depending upon the discipline one chooses. Certainly a tight back is a detriment to the work of a dressage horse. A skilled handler can avoid many problems simply by learning what his or her mare can tolerate when she is in heat, showing consideration rather than picking a fight with her about it. As more than one trainer of mares has said, “Don’t ever pick a fight with a mare; you probably won’t win and she will never forget it.” Finesse is the better choice. It should be noted that they generally won’t tolerate unfair or abusive treatment.
Of course, if you are lucky enough to buy a good mare and do well in you field of competition, you also have the option of breeding your mare and selling the offspring, or keeping it to train. As is true with stallions, if you are considering this as a later career for the performance mare you are wanting to buy, you must look to her pedigree to be sure that individuals with that pedigree both have a likelihood of doing well in your discipline, and are known to be relatively easy to train. Your most likely buyer will be an amateur, as there are more of them than there are professionals, so the bloodline should be a popular one, and one that is known to produce good individuals that are not complicated to work with. Also, you would want to have the prospective mare evaluated by a veterinarian as to breeding soundness. All that said, having a mare worthy of being bred can also make the inevitable injury easier to live with. If your performance mare sustains a severe injury, she can often be bred without consequence to the healing process, thus remaining productive as she recovers.
Is a Gelding Your Best Choice?
Geldings make very good performance horses, especially for amateurs. They are not as temperamental generally as mares and stallions are, and they generally don’t carry the same risks to the riders, handlers, and bystanders that mares (occasionally) and stallions (often) present. However, geldings at the highest levels of competition certainly can be quite full of themselves, and every bit as complicated to ride and handle as a mare or stallion. It really depends on the individual. Certainly there are not the issues of estrus or aggression (usually) with geldings as there are with mares and stallions, so they are often the safer choice for an amateur or for children. They tend to be even-tempered, less variable day-to-day, and less aggressive. Remember, however, that these are generalizations, and that there have been many performance geldings that were difficult to ride and handle, that had bad habits such as biting or kicking their handlers. So just because you’ve decided on a gelding because you like their even-tempered quality, you will still need to check this out for yourself. You can do this by watching the horse’s behavior when being handled by his owner: does this person take special precautions to prevent being bitten or kicked? Does the horse resent (shown by ear-pinning or baring the teeth) other horses coming close to him while he’s being ridden? Also watch him in the pasture, if possible: Does he get along with the group, or is he always in the middle of some melee? Does he kick and squeal at other horses frequently? Watch his reactions to sudden noises. Is he a bully? To people or only to horses? You may not think it’s important to observe how he is with other horses, but if he’s aggressive in the pasture with pasture mates, he is more likely to get kicked or otherwise injured. Even with a gelding, particularly if you are buying a horse to show, it pays to carefully examine the horse’s bloodlines. Horses of the same bloodlines often behave the same as their relatives, and perform the same as well. They will share similarities in how they move and in what disciplines they are most suited for, and if you ask people who are knowledgeable about the bloodlines used for the discipline you like, they can tell you what are that line’s good qualities, and what are its limitations. Be as informed as you can be before you sign the check!