The behavior of a herd stallion changes often and with a moment’s notice. One minute, he may doze alone in the shade, the next moment he may thunder into the mares, head high, bellowing, marching about, with his tail sweeping from side to side. He may turn from quiet grazing to rambunctious patrols in an instant. Often, his expression may turn from gentle acceptance to fierce commander, as in this image.
This carefree romp is brought to you by the That Herd stallion. Life is good.
Bravely standing right in the middle of somewhat tense communication between a stallion and his mother, this colt correctly displays the submissive mouth gnashing behavior. Many foals are intimidated by the stallion and keep their distance out of respect, but this colt has had no problem with greeting and interacting when the stallion is in close proximity. Even in this moment, he stands squarely in the middle of negotiations.
The herd stallion, looking quite fancy.
I have taken my time in introducing the That Herd stallion this year. He is a new individual to me, and I wanted to get a sense of what kind of horse he is. At this point, he seems very tolerant of my visits and displays a wide range of attitudes toward the mares. From aloof, to tolerant, to nurturing, to dismissive, he has shown many sides. Granted, I am only observing for very small pieces of time in the grand scheme of a 24 hour day. It is interesting to have observed so many different characteristics in these small moments though. It is evidence of how complex and individual horses are, especially when they have the freedom to interact and express their personalities among other horses.
“Those dreams are tied to a horse that will not tire.” – Sting, Desert Rose
The horses adapt. This is the dry phase of early summer. Coming soon, the drier and driest months.
” … (summer) is motionless, and hot. It is curiously silent, too, with blank white dawns and glaring noons, and sunsets smeared with too much color.”
―Natalie Babbitt, Tuck Everlasting
The size of this large mare, in comparison to a large stallion, is apparent. True, some element of spatial distortion (like holding a fish out toward the camera to make it appear larger) contributes a little, but really it’s a big horse next to a bigger horse. The intensive gaze of these two illustrates how these free roaming horses are in a state of constant awareness of their surroundings. The problem solving that inevitably comes with that makes for some clever horses.
I realize I have pointed this out before on this blog, but it continues to intrigue me. Stallions, for all of their demanding herding behaviors, know when to let soon-to-foal mares and just-foaled mares alone. The rules change for new mothers for a couple days. The eminently expectant and new mothers are not included in the herding routines set by the stallion. I’m not saying that they would be left behind, but they are allowed to move about on the far fringes of the herd, and at a more leisurely speed. This considerate behavior seems beyond the scope of an equine intellect, but it does occur. In this image, the stallion is moving the herd of mares and foals to another location for water but he walks past the mare that just foaled and she follows in her own time.
Believe it or not, both of these images are of a positive conversation between a mare and stallion. These interactions are brief and seemingly random but there is likely more to it than that. Stallions constantly check in with the mares in his harem, interested mares, pregnant mares, old mares, all the mares. Sometimes the conversation is entirely gentle and sometimes it’s almost violent. No one is upset in a negative way, even in the first image that looks aggressive.
A demonstration of mock battle among two young stallions includes chasing, rearing, striking, biting and lunging. These two colts collided, circled, leapt, and rose repeatedly, all with great force and height. Their intentions are non violent, oddly enough. These mock battles are common among all ages in horses. This rough activity conditions and prepares them for dominance in real battles when earning their own band of mares, theoretically.
A summertime morning dampened by low fog created extra leadership challenges for the stallion. Even though the visibility was low, he went about his business of collecting the widely scattered mares and foals with calm efficiency. Normally, the mares aware of normal routines respond to the leader’s cues from a distance. On this morning, the fog created the need for closer physical communication. Don’t be fooled by the aggressive posture of the stallion and the concerned fleeing of the foal; this was not a stressful interaction, merely a daily command and show of respect.
An early morning walk to a low flat area reveals a calm domestic scene with some That Herd members. Shown here are about a third of the mares and the stallion. The herd stallion regards my appearance and decides to ignore me. On this morning, he eventually strode off ahead of the mares to a more protected location on what would be a hot day. After quietly grazing for an hour, the stallion, in response to some internal schedule, walked away from the mares, leaving them to trail behind him and follow at their leisure. Eventually, all of the mares obediently fell into line and left the meadow one by one. I have observed that the stallion(s) move the mares by leading during calm times and drive them from behind when a more urgent purpose presents itself. The more urgent purpose may simply be at the whim of the stallion, or due to some external motivation. Incidentally, it can be noted that the black and white paint mare is facing the direction of the stallion, unlike the other mares. She is keeping a close eye on his movements. Their preoccupation with the each other lasted all season, not out of fear, in my observations, but out of some undefinable personality quirks.
Stallions are often the literary and cinematic subject of fiery metaphors and masculine bravado; they are seen in bold graphics with strong postures and majestic demeanor. In the professional equine world, stallions are the rock stars, promoted, managed, and celebrated. Only the loveliest imagery of their arched necks, flared nostrils, flowing manes, and studly postures are circulated. They often look dramatic or wise. Without a doubt, all of these images are testament to the stallion’s real beauty and strengths. However, in an unmanaged natural setting, stallions have lots of down time–that is, time spent in ways other than in the pursuit of breedable mares–where they amble about, explore, and even playfully interact with other herd members, young and old. This stallion is free from competition from other free roaming stallions, so he avoids the drama connected to proving himself with other males. Throughout his time with the mares, he seems to have some favorites and some less favored members within his herd. I have observed him to be mild and inquisitive but, on some occasions, also aggressive and unreasonable. As the leader of the mares and foals, stallions carry a lot of responsibility within the herd. This horse, a venerable leader, fulfills his stud duties, moves the herd into and out of different habitats suitable to the weather and time of day, and is quick to defend–with a cool head–any threat to the members in his care. He appears quite relaxed in this image, strolling without intent or pressure. I think he looks just as dramatic in his state of contentment as in any dramatic pose. After all, any stallion is, at a moment’s notice, a second away from the very animal that inspires all those spirited metaphors, and I can still plainly see that here.
In a few moments of self-indulgence, the herd stallion rubs, rolls and scratches in a soft spot in the soil.
To tell a story from the heart of a horse, now that would be the best story ever told.
This time, with a timid mare, the stallion takes a gentle approach, coaxing her attention with quiet nuzzling. This behavior stands out in comparison to rowdy interactions that mares with stronger personalities instigate. This illustrates that stallions are not just breeding brutes, but herd leaders capable of complex social interactions based on the dispositions he is dealing with.
Sometimes the stallion moves the mares from behind, rigorously weaving around individuals who choose a pace that’s not to his liking. Other times, he suddenly moves away from the herd, not seeming to care if they follow him or not. On this morning, scouting ahead of the mares, the herd stallion seems to lift the fog as he journeys across the meadow. Dutifully, the mares and foals will begin to file after him in long, informal ranks.
Interactions between mares and stallions are surprisingly varied. While some meetings are boisterous, squalling, dust-raising, kicking and pawing affairs, others are gentler, less obvious and barely noticeable. Often, the quieter mares merely glide in beside the stallion and present themselves without being pursued at all. Their communications and actions are subtle, demure even.
This stallion meets each moment with intelligence and interest.