Playing With the Boys


Father and son; both mild-mannered but still stallions.

If you are breeding animals with live cover (as opposed to artificial insemination), you need to know how to deal with the boys. Consider that the average stallion in most riding breeds weighs 1,200 pounds and a mature bull often weighs over a ton. While a male gander might not weigh more than 20 pounds, they are fast and aggressive. A rooster isn’t very big, but between beak and spurs, he can do a considerable amount of damage in a very short time. Animal fatalities on a ranch or farm are mostly likely to result from bulls – many people who work in this field will tell you a purebred dairy bull is the most dangerous animal in the world. Playing with the boys is not for the faint of heart – you have to stay awake and be prepared for problems.
The male animal (I use the term to include poultry) most likely to give you problems is one that was raised alone. Fighting for dominance is a normal part of growing up in the herd or flock. A male raised alone will try to battle with the people who care for him to establish his place. That’s partly because the area in which he is kept becomes his territory – when you enter it, you are offering a challenge. Bull calves raised by the dam or a nurse cow are least likely to attack, as they have developed a proper flight zone, meaning they will move away if you move toward them. With horses, the mare is typically gentle and you want the colt to be easy to catch and handle, so the key is to establish your dominance while the colt is young and small.

Playing with the boys requires that you be alert. You must always pay attention to behavior. A rooster will circle you, often with one wing down, and then make a sudden rush. A ram is more likely to come at you from behind. A bull will stand broadside to you (look how big I am!) as an intimidation tactic. If he lowers his head and/or paws the ground, he’s considering a charge (rams do this as well). A stallion will usually put his ears back before engaging in any aggressive behavior. If he’s facing you, he may thrust out his head to bite. If you’re approaching him from behind, he may lift a foot.

The basic rule is NEVER tease or play with the animal. For example, colts instinctively nibble on things, including you. Let them get away with it and you’ll have a stallion that bites – those jaws can take off a finger or break your wrist. Calves naturally butt when nursing – let them do it at other times and you’re creating a monster. You must always be the boss. Animals understand and are more comfortable knowing what the pecking order is; you want to be at the top of the heap. A rooster that learns a sudden rush will be met with a swift kick stops trying to rush you (one of many reasons why I wear stout shoes or boots when doing chores). If he’s too stupid or too aggressive to learn that rule, he should become Sunday dinner. Yes, this means you may need to smack that sweet little calf or colt – pain is a natural mechanism built into the animal to help it understand what not to do. Mom has no hesitation about reinforcing her edicts with a head butt, bite, kick or shove; you shouldn’t, either. Hitting them with your hand just hurts your hand. For a colt or calf, I like a bat – a short leather whip with a hard core and a “popper” on the end. It stings and makes a noise. Use it immediately; once is usually enough to make the animal back off. Don’t peck at the animal – give him a good, solid swat.

A word about children. This is one of those situations when size really matters. A rooster or gander is easily able to reach the face and eyes of a small child. Kids don’t have the strength to manhandle larger animals and they are more likely to get sucked into games of let’s-butt-the-human. Don’t let kids spend time with the animals unless you supervise or set it up so they are safe. In the picture below, for example, the kids can “groom” the stallion but they are out of range of his feet. This stallion, by the way, is as mellow as they come. However, even he once bit me when there was another stallion in the pasture and I happened to move between him and his grain.

The final word – aggressive animals should always, always, always be culled (or at least gelded, and even then you’re taking a risk). This rule even applies to females. I don’t care how pretty they are, how good their bloodlines are or how much they cost. Handling an innately aggressive animal is well beyond the level of expertise for most of us – and I include myself. Playing with the boys means you have to step up to the plate and make a tough decision when an animal may put you or those you love at risk.

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