Stallion Housing Affects Welfare

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By Tania Millen

Satisfying the horse-specific needs of stallions is imperative for their mental and physical health. However, it can be challenging to provide living arrangements where stallions aren’t just surviving — but thriving.

Kelly Brook Allen is one stallion owner who is adamant about her horse’s welfare. “He gets to live a normal life,” she says. Allen owns Canoa Farms in Merritt, British Columbia with her husband, Ron Stolp. 

Allen’s stallion, The Huntsman (Hunter), is her regular riding horse and he’s turned out with her husband’s gelding and some unstarted geldings.

“Right now, they’re on about 10 acres,” she says. “They wander around and they interact and they face-wrestle and they play. And the funny thing is, none of my horses have any bite marks on them. They play but they’re not mean to each other. There’s never any real attitude.”

“They’re not in a small area and I think that makes a difference with a stallion,” Allen continues. “There’s enough room that they can get away from each other. I wouldn’t put them together if they had a small area because [in that situation] they’re more likely to hurt each other.”

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Research shows that stallions have the same needs as other horses. At Canoa Farms in Merritt, BC, The Huntsman (left) is turned out with geldings on 10 acres. Photo: Kelly Brook Allen

Allen didn’t plan for Hunter to live with other horses, but when she and Stolp moved to their farm there weren’t any pens.

“The place was not set up for horses,” Allen says. “We didn’t have any mares; we just had the boys. So we put them in a big hot-wire fence on about 10 acres until we got all the fencing done. They all got along so well we just continued to keep [Hunter] with other horses. It’s never been a problem since, and it’s been nine years now.”

Allen isn’t the only horse owner keeping her stallion in a herd. Researchers around the world are assessing how to safely keep stallions in groups, plus determine whether herd living increases their mental and physical well-being.

A May 2021 article titled Keeping Stallions in Groups — Species-Appropriate or Relevant to Animal Welfare? published in the peer-reviewed online journal Animals, found that housing stallions together is a growing trend.

The researchers analyzed 50 different studies and observed a Swiss National Stud experiment whereby individually-kept, active breeding stallions were successfully integrated into group living outside the breeding season. They wrote: “6 percent of stallions in 2003, more than 11 percent in 2012, and nearly 23 percent of the stallions in 2015 were kept in groups.”

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The stress of isolation from the practice of individually housing stallions can be seen in aggression and behavioural problems. A recent study shows that keeping stallions in groups has a positive effect on their physical and mental health, and represents the most species-appropriate form of husbandry for them when the size and design of the exercise area, the makeup of the group, and the characters of the stallions are considered. Shutterstock/Sergei Telenkov

The researchers also determined that living alone has “a negative impact on psyche and body health” of stallions. Furthermore, “almost half of all stallions studied showed undesirable patterns of behaviour, mostly stallions in individual housing.” Many of the stallions housed individually also had respiratory, digestive, and musculoskeletal disorders which improved when the stallions were placed in group housing scenarios. The study concluded that housing stallions in groups is best for their mental and physical health.

But the study also determined that integrating stallions into groups must take into account the size and design of the space, group dynamics, and individual characteristics. Stallions must be introduced to group living carefully, in small steps, by experienced horse owners.

“It’s important to have a really well-behaved horse,” Allen says. “Hunter is one in a million. I can throw kids on him. If we have people that have never ridden before and they want to sit on a horse, they sit on him. I think a disposition like that is really important.”

Heidi Eijgel agrees. She owns Windy Coulee Canadian Horses, a Canadian horse breeding farm near Pincher Creek, Alberta where she stands her stallion, Windy Coulee Dawn Zefyr.

“Zefyr was my main riding horse for two years,” Eijgel says. “We did working equitation and went all over the place. He liked seeing all the other horses and he was so well-behaved. Everyone commented on that, and that’s just because he’s trained properly.

“It breaks my heart to see how other stallions are kept, where they don’t have a job other than just breeding,” she continues. “They don’t have freedom or room to run, and they don’t have socialization. My whole philosophy is to raise horses in as natural a setting and way as possible, without unnecessary risks, and enjoy them through the whole process. And also train them and produce a horse that somebody is going to want to buy and enjoy. 

Related: The Benefit of the Doubt - Problem Behaviour with Horses

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At Windy Coulee Canadian Horses in Pincher Creek, Alberta, Heidi Eijgel believes in providing her stallion with as normal a life as possible. Windy Coulee Dawn Zefyr has a four-acre pasture as well as a run-out stall where he can socialize with other horses over a wooden fence. Photo: Heidi Eijgel

She didn’t plan to have a stallion. However, having purchased a mare that had a colt with important heritage lines — Zefyr — Eijgel decided to keep the youngster as a stud.

According to her philosophy, “he needed to run and have a pasture and companions and a normal horse life. Plus, I needed to have access to him, and he had to be trained.”

“So I built a four acre pasture with a wind fence, automatic waterer and no fence-line in common with the other horses, having heard about all sorts of wrecks that people have had with stallions trying to mount horses over fences or gates,” Eijgel says. She also built Zefyr a stall and run where he can socialize with the other horses over a wooden fence. “He’s always had other horses [to socialize with]. When he was two, he lived with three pregnant mares.”

But having both mares and stallions living on the same property can prove challenging and it’s something Allen is trying to avoid.

“I have no mares on my property,” explains Allen. “The only time there are mares on the property is if we have a clinic or if I’ve got some coming in for breeding. I used to keep them right below Hunter’s paddock so he could see them. But now I’m building paddocks so he won’t even be able to see they’re here. And I think that makes a difference in breeding season. If he can see them, then he’ll pace the fence-line. It’s frustrating and stressful [for him]. If he doesn’t see them and we just take him to them for breeding, then it’s a lot easier.”

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Having mares and stallions living on the same property is challenging, says Kelly Brook Allen, owner of The Huntsman. There are currently no mares living on Canoa Farms, and mares only come to the farm now for breeding or clinics. Photo: Kelly Brook Allen

The commitments of Allen and Eijgel to their stallions’ welfare may be unusual in the horse industry but “freedom to express normal patterns of behaviour” is one of the five freedoms of the World Organization for Animal Health. The National Farm Animal Care Council (NFACC) 2013 Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Equines states: “While stallions may not be suitable for turnout with other horses, efforts should be made to meet their social needs and/or provide environmental stimulation.”

Cassandra Jessop is another horse owner who is trying to provide stallions with the best life possible. She’s a grand prix dressage rider who operates CJ Sport Horses in Innisfil, Ontario. Jessop is standing nine stallions this year of breeds ranging from Arabian, Dutch Warmblood, Friesian, Lusitano, Oldenburg, Westfalian, to Miniature. She collects semen on the farm, offers live cover, and sends some of the stallions out for breeding or collection elsewhere. Although she runs a busy operation, Jessop believes good horse welfare is paramount, and that extends to stallions.

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Most of the stallions at CJ Sport Horses have group turnout. Owner Cassandra Jessop believes horse interaction and turnout is important for their welfare. After breeding season is over, some of her stallions are turned out with other stallions. “They are not ‘studdy’ towards each other at all. They’re like a pack of teen boys. They just play rougher than mares or geldings.” Photo: Cassandra Jessop

“My stallions have to behave like geldings that can make babies. But I want them to live their life,” Jessop says, stating that horse interaction and turnout is imperative.

“We have one barn aisle dedicated to the stallions. They’re all just in stalls next to each other. So they’re inside at night and go out during the day. In the barn, they’re not separate from everybody,” she explains. “There’s a communal wash stall, communal cross-ties, communal arena, all that stuff. So they’re still with horses to be handled and worked. We [also] trail ride with other people.” Jessop believes that’s important for their well-being and welfare. “I want to make sure that they can have a life with other horses. 

“We have two paddocks for the winter. One is 20 metres by 60 metres with wood fencing and they have a round bale out there so they can play and stuff their faces. The other paddock is flex fencing with electric wire on the inside and they can see the other horses. It’s about 60 metres by 200 metres.”

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One barn aisle at CJ Sport Horses is dedicated to stallions, with stalls right next to each other. Photo: Cassandra Jessop

There are extra safety features on the farm, too. Jessop explains that a fence divides the stallion paddocks from the rest of the property. “If the mares or stallions get out, at least there’s that extra layer of protection.” 

There are two older breeding stallions at the farm that haven’t been turned out with other horses since they were young, so they get individual turnout. But most of the other stallions have group turnout.

“When they’re breeding, it’s not fair to have the stallions in with each other, and then take them out to breed and then put them back in with each other. You’re asking for one of the horses to get hurt, or us to get hurt,” she explains. “But when breeding season’s over they change a lot.” So after the breeding season, the stallions go out individually for about a month, then Jessop puts them together.

“Two of the stallions go out together once the breeding season is done. The mini stallion goes out with some of the young horses. He’s kind of like a babysitter; he doesn’t let them get away with anything,” says Jessop. “There are three stallions that go out together for the day and then they’ll come in and be stabled separately. They are not ‘studdy’ towards each other at all. They’re like a pack of teen boys. They just play rougher than mares or geldings.

“Fhitzgerald [2004 Oldenburg stallion], because he is getting older and he’s a joker, we’re thinking about finding gelding friends for him — figuring out who can be his buddy because he’s the least ‘studdy’ of them all,” she says. “We’d want to make sure that the owner of Fhitzgerald and the owner of the gelding both agree. I don’t think they’ll do anything to each other, but they play rough.”

Finding buddies for stallions to live and interact with is one of the challenges for owners committed to good horse welfare. Research has shown that stallions have the same needs as any horse — including the freedom to move and the opportunity to safely interact with other horses. But providing those freedoms without injuring highly expensive horses is something not every owner is willing to risk.

As Allen says, “I don’t think many people would want to do it the way that I do it.”

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Main Photo: Shutterstock/Karengeswein Photography