Gender roles and priorities

In a typical natural family group or harem, there is usually one stallion with several mares.

The mares have their own hierarchy, with the leaders being those responsible for guiding the group to the best grazing, to water and to safety when under threat.

The group stallion, or the highest ranking stallion “alpha” stallion if there is more than one in the group, is responsible for ensuring the production of foals and for protecting his mares. While each mare has her own “bubble” of personal space, the stallion has two “bubbles” – his own, and one that extends around his mares and their foals.

Here, the mare lets her own foal drink, while she also keeps an eye on another baby. “Baby sitting” is part of the social behaviour of the natural group.

A mare’s top priority is her own survival and the survival of any foals she may be carrying or have at foot.

Mares are not usually confrontational by nature, and apparently aggressive behaviour in a mare very often stems from insecurity and anxiety.

A stallion’s top priority is to protect his mares from predators, and from other stallions who may try to take his mares away.

An alpha stallion will aggressively drive stallions from other groups away, fighting them if necessary. If the group is under threat from predators, the stallion will drive his mares together from behind, then if necessary turn and fight the predator.

Stallions win their own mares by proving they are stronger, faster and tougher than the other stallions in the area. So, if a stallion or gelding behaves aggressively, it is often an issue of authority.

A wild stallion (left) and a domestic gelding (right) playing and testing their strength

Geldings do not undergo a character-change when they are castrated – the same traits and instincts are there, the volume is just turned down!

Of course, there are nervous geldings and domineering mares, but in general, we usually need to be more reassuring in handling mares, and more authoritative in handling stallions or geldings. This is underlined in the old saying “tell a gelding, ask a mare.

Another useful rule of thumb is “he bites, she kicks”, which reflects the more likely behaviour if a male or female is under threat. Stallions mostly fight with biting and pushing, while mares typically turn their hindquarters and kick.