Sparing

I wanted to talk about something that I feel gets misunderstood. Sparring is commonly used to describe rearing and kicking, but for the purposes of this post I’m using the word to include any interaction between two or more stallions. I’m also going to attempt to categorize sparring by severity to help explain why sparring sometimes isn’t as violent as it seems.

First, let me explain why stallions spar. Sparring is a ritual that stallions do when they meet one another. It’s a four part process: step 1. Find stallion and stud pile, 2. Show off bravado, 3. Add to stud pile, 4. Repeat. This process would be one of the more extreme cases, sometimes stallions spar just to play. This brings me to the scale that will either help clarify or add to the confusion.

Sparring type #1 is play. While I see older bachelors do this, I am mostly referring to the type of sparing younger horses do. Usually, when foals play they chase each other. Then, as they get older, the play becomes more like the wild horse equivalent of wrestling. The slow motion of what they’ll be doing when they have bands of their own. It is a way to develop their technique, but not get hurt in the process.

Sparring type #2: For lack of a better way of putting this I’m calling it sparring. Like what foals do, it is also play, but it is more intense. By the time the horses are bachelors, they need to not only know how to play, but defend themselves. Soon, bachelors will win their own mares and they’ll need to be prepared to confront other band stallions and bachelors.

This leads me to sparring type #3: confrontation. In this case it’s more about protecting mares than the stallion. Sometimes, confrontations end in rearing, other times one stallion will chase the other one from his mares. It often looks serious, and stallions can get injured from confrontations, but it is a part of wild life. If horses didn’t play throughout their lives they would not be able to maintain a band when they are older.

I’m sure there are people out there that would equate sparring to fighting, but there is a reason why I am choosing not to. To me, the word fight has a malicious connotation. Not always, but sometimes fights happen solely to inflict harm on the other. I don’t believe that is the stallions’ motive when they act like that. Yes, the well placed hoof or bite can help get the point across, but usually that doesn’t happen until a stallion has been provoked. I truly believe that a stallion knew what they were getting into if they fought so hard for mares they got injured.

Since pictures are worth 1000 words, I thought I would share some photos showing the different sparring types above. I thought they would be useful in showing the difference in body language depending in the situation. Since I’m using pictures for examples I’ll only focus on the visible indicators, although horses sound different depending on why they are sparring. When in doubt, ears are a good indicator of mood. When a horses’ ears are up the horse is alert, but relaxed, whereas ears pinned means angry. Considering that horses are adapt at reading body language, it could be assumed that the stallion has plenty of time to get out of harm’s way before being confronted by another stallion.

Navajo plays while members of her band try to keep up.

Navajo plays while members of her band try to keep up.

Two yearlings gently play.

Two yearlings gently play.

Two bachelors spar.

Two bachelors spar.

The two brothers Cloud and Diamond talk boundaries. Notice their ears in this picture.

The two brothers Cloud and Diamond talk boundaries. Notice their ears in this picture.

To summarize, sparring is a natural part of wild horse life. To determine its severity it is helpful look at the body language of the horses. However, that doesn’t mean that horses are being malicious when they spar with each other. Even in the case of Cloud and Diamond, both stallions are not close enough to touch each other. Yes, they are not happy each other, but there body language is doing more of the communicating than anything else. See what I mean by bravado? The point is, while sometimes sparing can seem spectacular and violent; I really believe that it is more for show than anything else. It’s part of what makes the horses wild.

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