I sat in the saddle with chills on the back of my neck. My heart was pounding. And I was grinning from ear to ear. The thrill I felt is one few people in North America have experienced. I had just ridden a Crioulo. No, this is not some exotic animal; it’s a horse. Not just any horse but the South American version of our Quarter Horse. The chosen mount of the legendary Gauchos, the Crioulo horse is the symbol of equestrian cultures in South America. There are only about a dozen Crioulos in the United States, in contrast to the 164,000 live registered Crioulos in Brazil.
But the icing on the cake for me on that particular day was that this horse is a stallion. A well-trained and beautiful stallion—powerful, spirited and a true joy to ride. This is what ultimate riding can be, I thought. But is it for everyone? More specifically, are stallions for everyone? I think of the many dangerous behaviors a stallion can exhibit and my answer is: Perhaps not.
Once A Behaviorist . . .
I am a behaviorist. I work with horses and people to solve the problems that develop between them. For years and years I’ve observed bolting horses, spooking horses, bucking and rearing horses—and remain convinced that all of these behaviors can be rehabilitated.
On the human side, I often encounter horse owners who want the best for their horses. Yet their search for answers more often than not leads to confusion for both the person and the horse.
I mention all of this because as dangerous as this confusion can be for the average horse owner, it is exponentially more so for the person who owns a stallion.
Stallions: Set Apart from the Herd
The stallion, by its very nature and biology, is different from other horses. Within their individual breeds they are generally bigger, stronger, faster and more powerful. To add to that daunting picture, their psychological makeup is such that the average horse owner may not be equipped to deal with it. I know some of you are saying to yourself that your stallion is gentle and easy to train and ride. I acknowledge that this can be true. But I also acknowledge that you and your skills and the nature of your stallion’s physical and psychological makeup may be much different than the next person or stallion that comes along.
Think Before You Buy
It’s truly exciting to see stallions perform in shows and other equine competitions. They’re bold, their necks and jowls are distinctive, their presence is very regal. But it is also disturbing to see this “stallion excitement” cause people with average or limited horse knowledge and skills to buy a stallion. These same inexperienced people are also typically not set up to properly house a stallion. Their fear of the animal builds over time, which just compounds the issues. They lock their stallions away, keeping them from any natural socialization and then wonder how their wonderful stallion turned into a man-eating monster.
And I literally mean man-eating. There is more than one story told of stallions literally savaging humans by performing incredible acts like picking up the human by a shoulder or arm and shaking them; in fact, there are lots stories of stallions literally killing their handlers (just ask any groom in Kentucky). The one common thread? These horses are locked away in stalls with bars on them for 24 hours a day, and the only time they’re handled is to breed a mare. It’s no wonder that when their halter is put on, they get excited and want to run over or destroy anything in their way.
Who’s to Blame?
But is this behavior the fault of the stallion? No! It’s the owner’s fault. It’s the inexperience and naivete of the horse owner that causes the horse to act out and misbehave. Couple that with inappropriate stall/pasture environment, no time for the animal to just “be a horse,” and the results can be very dangerous.
When a stallion is not allowed to socialize properly, they begin to act out of conflict. Their natural instincts are to be with other horses, but the inexperienced owner doesn’t allow this, thus the horse acts out. The owner sees the horse’s power, speed, size or perhaps the breeding behavior, and they become not only uncomfortable but afraid, and then they isolate the stallion by locking him away by himself.
The Right Environment
I own stallions. All my stallions are housed and kept with mares, which is a totally natural environment for both the mares and the stallion. These stallions have access to their band of mares and I keep them in pastures that are made to handle separate stallion bands, so there’s no fighting between the stallions. What’s the result of this natural environment? No aggression. No anxiety.
All my stallions are well-behaved. They know their place, and they know when it’s time to breed, and when it’s not. They understand that screaming, biting and generally misbehaving will not be tolerated. This isn’t because I intimidate them or abuse them in any way. It’s simply because I have trained them to be what I expect them to be: Conflict-free.
So What’s the Answer?
The average horse owner who wants to buy a stallion should first seek professional help when assessing and purchasing a stallion. They should not go to a trainer who has what I call the “I’ll-show-him-who’s-boss” attitude. They should go to someone who understands the psychology and physiology of stallions—such as the service my National Equine Behavior Center provides. This service offers horse owners help in purchasing a stallion or any new horse. Getting professional advice is paramount; don’t overlook it.
This service will teach the buyer what to look for when they observe a stallion, mare or gelding. For instance, how does this horse interact with the herd? If he’s not in a herd environment, how does he act when he’s simply led past other horses? How does the horse interact with the current owner? How does he act on a lead line or under saddle when being ridden? What did he do when he was saddled—did you watch his eyes, did he fidget when being girthed, did he move when mounted? Do his responses under saddle seem dull? Do go-forward or stop cues cause bad behavior? (Watch for tail swishing, “cranky” ears, teeth grinding, etc.)
After noting all this, ask the professional you’ve hired to help you assess this information, with suggestions as to what’s easily overcome and what’s not.
Don’t Forget to Evaluate Yourself
You need to know how to evaluate these equine behaviors, the horse’s current level of training, physical condition, mindset, etc. These topics are also covered in the services I offer and should be offered by any other professional you employ.
After you have observed and evaluated the horse, you should be totally honest with yourself and decide whether or not you have the ability to provide for and train this particular horse. If the answer is not a firm yes, then don’t purchase this horse. Look elsewhere. There are lots of good horse on the market. Don’t get emotional about the first horse you see—there are other horses!
On the other hand, if you feel you can fulfill the needs and training for this horse, then develop a plan that outlines your goals and how best to accomplish them. Be realistic in setting these goals. You should take into account how much time you can devote to the horse and how long your work sessions need to be.
But above all you must consider how much patience is needed for the work you are about to begin. Horses require patient, repetitious training. You must also fully understand the nature of stallions and that sometimes aggression is a choice they make. A stallion owner must be able to handle the horse and have a plan for dealing with and hopefully eliminating the aggressive behaviors that the horse may exhibit.
Once prepared with all the planning outlined above, then act on it with the knowledge that this plan will hopefully be rewarded with a wonderful horse and rider relationship. If you can’t successfully execute this plan, don’t feel as though you’ve failed. Ask for professional help as to what the next step should be. The horse world is full of possibilities!
The Joy of Owning a Stallion
I want everyone to understand the joy of owning and riding stallions. But I also want these horses to be cared for in the most natural way available and for the owner to be safe. Does this mean that everyone has the potential for being a conscientious, credible stallion owner? No. I truly believe that stallion ownership is only for those who are willing to take the time and make the investment in training that these horses absolutely need.
Those of us who own stallions know the joy and the bond that develops between us and these animals. Working with and bonding with a stallion is not for everyone. My admonition to each of you who loves horses the way I do, is to first be safe and have fun!
For more information on Ryan Gingerich’s Connective Horsemanship program, visit http://www.connectivehorsemanship.com
or simply call 800.359.4090.
More About Crioulos: Particulars About the Breed
To speak of the Crioulo is to speak of the Gaucho, of working cattle from horseback, and of the pampas of South America. The Crioulo is the native horse of Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil and Paraguay. There is some thought that the Crioulo may have the best endurance of any horse breed next to the Arabian; the Crioulo’s low basal metabolism may make it a better long distance horse than the Arabian in prolonged races. The Crioulo breed is known for its hardiness, courage, tenacity and stamina.
One example of the breed’s fantastic endurance was the ride made by Swiss rider Aimé Félix Tschiffely in 1925-1928. Tschiffely took two Crioulos, 16-year-old Mancha and 15-year-old Gato, on a 13,350 mile trek from Buenos Aires, Argentina to Washington D.C., crossing snow-capped mountains, the world’s driest desert, the thickest tropical jungles and riding in all types of weather. Alternating riding and packing between the two horses, the trio took three years to finish the trip. Although Tschiffely went through many hardships on the trip including a bout of malaria, the horses did wonderfully in the wide array of extreme topographies and climates. Even after enduring this long journey, Gato lived to be 36, and Mancha lived to be 40.
Other astonishing Crioulo stories include Jean-Francois Ballerau traveling 5,000 miles across South America with four Crioulos on his honeymoon, and Emile Brager riding Crioulos across the Straits of Magellan all the way to Fairbanks, Alaska.
The Crioulo is a hardy horse with a muscular and strong body. They have short, strong legs with good bone, resistant joints, low set hocks, and sound, hard feet. The long muzzled head is medium- to large-sized and has a straight or slightly convex profile with wide-set eyes. The croup is sloping and the haunches well-muscled, the back short with a strong loin. They have sloping, strong shoulders with muscular necks. The body is deep with a broad chest and well-sprung ribs.
The Crioulo is described as tractable, intelligent, willing, and sensible. The Crioulo averages 14.1 hh, and varies in color: line-backed dun, bay, brown, black, chestnut, grulla, buckskin, palomino, blue or strawberry roan, gray and overo colors.
The breed is famous for their athleticism, endurance capabilities, and ability to live in harsh conditions.
The breed dates back to 1535, when a shipment of 100 purebred Andalusian stallions traveled from Spain to the Rio de la Plata area on the east coast of South America. In 1540, Indian hostility forced the Spaniards to abandon Buenos Aires and between 12 to 45 surviving horses were set loose. When Buenos Aires was resettled in 1580 it is estimated that the feral horse population numbered around 12,000. The process of natural selection undoubtedly took its toll: Since it largely reproduced in the wild, the Crioulo developed into an extremely hardy horse that was able to survive the extreme heat and cold, subsist with little water, and live off the dry grasses of the area. Settlers later came and started capturing horses for riding and for use as pack animals.
Throughout the 19th century a large proportion of the horses were crossed with imported European Thoroughbred, coach and draft horse stallions and a larger, coarser, long-striding, multi-purpose cart and saddle horse resulted. However, the crossbreeding nearly ruined the native Spanish horse type. In 1918, the Argentine breeders decided to create a purebred Crioulos registry and the breeder’s association in Argentina was formed in 1923.
Today, the horse is used mainly as a working cow horse and in various reining and cow horse competitions, but is also a pleasure and trail horse and has contributed a great deal to the ideal Crioulo/Thoroughbred polo pony.
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