Monday 7 August 2017

Tires & Testicles (Part 3)

You can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.  There wasn't supposed to be a Part 3 but let's just say it bears out the truth of the expression.

This post is about the agonizing decision of whether or not to geld my Friesian stallion.  A lot of people seem to think this decision should be easy, that of course I would geld him, but it's not a simple decision at all.  It's irrevocable so it's not a decision to be made lightly or for temporary convenience, and it means giving up a significant lifelong dream and goal.

From the time I was a horse-crazy kid, I always assumed I'd have a stallion someday.   From the Black Stallion and other stories, from seeing famous horses in racing and other sports, even from collecting Breyer horse models, I saw that the most beautiful horses, the ones with the strongest bonds with their owners, the ones with presence and speed or talent or intelligence were usually stallions.

I realised it would be challenging to keep a stallion but when I became involved in the Friesian world, I saw that the performance horses at expos and demos and in competition were mostly stallions.  The first Friesian I met in person was a stallion; he was an ambassador for the breed and you could plop a toddler on his back, and I met women who had Friesian stallions as pets with no intention of ever breeding them.  I also saw Friesian stallions ridden or driven with other stallions, and with mares.  Some lived in bachelor herds or with barren or pregnant mares or gelding friends rather than being stuck alone (which is cruel for a herd animal).  Friesian stallions weren't as difficult as stallions of other breeds; their sweet temperaments made them seem as safe and tractable and easy-going as geldings of other breeds.

When I finally got my dream Friesian, thanks to the generosity of a horse-loving relative, I wanted to keep him intact for two reasons:

1) Type:  He is a baroque-style Friesian, sired with frozen semen from a long-dead baroque-style approved stallion.  I love the baroque Friesian and they are rapidly dying out because a more modern style is taking over the breed.  The breed registry (I realise this will bore Friesian people, but I am also writing for an audience that doesn't necessarily know or care about such things) is only approving modern type Friesians because that is what the market is demanding at present.  My plan was to present him at keuring and give him his chance at approval, knowing that it was unlikely due to his type, but I felt strongly that he should be given a chance.  If he was not approved, the plan was to have all of the same tests done on him that are done on approved stallions and, if he passed, to make him available to those Friesian lovers like me who don't want the baroque style to die out.  There are quite a few of us, and no stallions to breed to anymore (and few baroque mares left as well).  When I tell Friesian people this, some protest that I am wrong and send me photos of approved stallions that they call "baroque".  And this frustrates me because they are far from baroque, and have no hair anymore.  It make me heartsick to see what has happened to the breed.  So, I have felt not just a personal preference for keeping the baroque style alive but also an obligation to the breed and to other baroque style aficionados.

2) Looks: Even if he were never bred (and, just to make this doubly clear, I would never consider breeding him if he did not pass the rigorous health tests that approved stallions must undergo—I am not a general advocate of breeding to unapproved stallions and my ONLY reason for considering it is the fact that the registry has made it necessary to do so to get a baroque Friesian), only stallions have the Friesian look—the hair, the presence, the hair, the high-stepping, floating gaits, the hair.  Unlike in other breeds, you would never mistake a Friesian mare or gelding for a stallion, in person or in photos.  When horses lose the testosterone, they lose the hair.  With most breeds, you can't tell the difference but it's very obvious in Friesians.  I know many people who have Friesian stallions that they have never bred and have no intention of breeding but they keep them intact for the look.  Since Friesians are like giant Labradors, the fact that they are stallions appears not to be an issue in terms of safety and handling.

Given the above, why is there any question of gelding him at all?  Well, as Robert Burns noted so memorably, "the best-laid schemes o' mice an' men gang aft agley".

His height:  As I stated above, even though the registry is not approving baroque-type Friesians anymore, I have intended to give him his chance.  Colts can go to be judged starting at age 3 but they must have a minimum height of 15'3".  Silas was a good-sized foal and weanling and a normal sized yearling.  At 18 months old, he reached 14'2"….and there he has stayed.  I couldn't bring him to the keuring at 3 because he was still 14'2" and I can't bring him now at 4 because he is still 14'2".  By the time he reached age 2, I was beginning to worry about his height but thought he'd inevitably have a growth spurt soon.  When he never did, I consulted many vets, and the Fenway Foundation, and had tests done.  The collective opinion of all the experts that have examined and tested him is that it's a mystery.  His conformation and movement are not only correct, they are excellent.  He is as close to perfect as anyone could dare hope for except for looking like you left him in the dryer for too long and he shrunk.  He is not a dwarf and his hormones and everything else are normal.  It's just that people keep asking me jokingly if I got a Fell pony by mistake.  Friesians grow until they are 7 and I desperately hope he will get taller but there's no magic formula to make that happen.  If I feed him more, he just gets wider.  If he does grow, it seems unlikely he will grow enough to reach 15'3" and ever be able to be presented at keuring.  Also, I am 5'9", so my dream of riding him in costume in exhibitions is already shattered because I will look ridiculous on a pony.  I am aware that gelding increases height but, based on my research, that is only true when gelding occurs as a foal.  It's too late for gelding to increase his height now.  But this is the main reason to geld him:  Even if he is otherwise perfect, he is too small for anyone to want to breed to him and too small to be shown as a magnificent Friesian stallion.

His hormones: Until mid-March, when he was nearly 4, he lived in a big pasture with a herd of geldings.  He also had the best temperament you could ever wish for, even in a breed known for good temperaments.  The fact that he had no clue that he was a stallion made it easy to keep him as a stallion.  But that abruptly changed when the mares at his barn went in season this past spring.  Like an adolescent boy who wakes up one day with sticky sheets and a deeper voice, Silas suddenly became very interested in girls.  Since he didn't have access to them, like incarcerated men, he humped what was available: the none-too-pleased geldings.  This led to his removal from the herd and subsequent difficulty in figuring out where to put him at a stable that doesn't have the facilities to accommodate a second stallion (the owner has her own).  Like teenagers of all species, when puberty kicked in, he underwent a Jekyll & Hyde-like personality transplant.  I would now classify him as dangerous, and I won't handle him solo for my own safety.  He settles down to work, and he is NOT mean—he is still the same sweet boy under the raging hormones—but he is so excited by other horses that he can accidentally harm people.  After being so easy to lead he'd follow anyone like a lamb, you now need a whip in hand as a precaution and he rears and pulls and screams and when you finally get him in the cross-ties, he fidgets and calls and tries to bust out to get to any other horses he can see or hear.  He's not trying to be bad or evasive or hurt anyone; he is just controlled by his hormones now.  And I am not exaggerating when I say this happened almost literally overnight.

His happiness:  Silas loved living outside with the geldings.  He hated being cooped up in a stall and he hated being separated from other horses.  To some extent, it was good for him to get used to a stall and to get used to being by himself—he was too herd-bound.  But having lived with other horses all his life, he is very social.  He loved his friends (even if they didn't always love the baby who wanted to play all the time) and he loved living outdoors.  I never intended to condemn him to a stallion's life of living alone.  When he was purchased for me, I was underemployed and the arrangement of him living 250 miles from me, with my friend's geldings, was meant to be just temporary.  I intended to board him closer (and eventually have my own farm) and to have a gelding buddy for him to live with.  I also intended to handle him daily so that by the time the hormones exerted themselves and he became an obnoxious teenager, we'd have a bond and he'd respect and trust me.  As a first-time horse owner, I would not have bought an adult stallion.  But raising one from a foal would give me a chance to get to know him and acquire skills that would keep me safe by the time he grew up.  My money situation did not improve.  In fact, it got worse: my partner left me two years ago, when Silas was two, and my living expenses doubled.  A year ago, I began freelancing and my income is both insufficient for even my basic living expenses and erratic.  I also expected to be out of debt by the time Silas grew up and instead I am in more debt due to long periods of unemployment when I lived on my credit cards.  Due to severe OCD-induced procrastination and a total lack of a work ethic, I am in some respects unemployable, which limits my income potential.  So, I have never been in a position to move him closer, nor have him in regular training, nor see him often enough to build a bond or increase my confidence and skill to the point of being able to handle him now that he is an adult stallion.  If he were gelded, he could go back out in the field with his buddies, which would take the strain off my friend who is keeping him for me for free, it would make him easier and safer to handle, and make him easier to board if I ever have the money to bring him closer.  He would no longer be alone nor be driven crazy by his hormones.

Given those reasons, why is there any hesitation in gelding him now?  Well, gelding spells failure.  It means I failed to acquire the money to raise him properly—to handle him, have him trained, build a bond.  It means I have failed to help the baroque type stay alive.  It means I give up my dream of ever taking him to a keuring or ever having an announcer say that I am entering the arena to perform a musical freestyle on my Friesian stallion.  It means giving up my Friesian dream.

Finally, I fear that I have a simplistic idea that gelding him will fix all of his new temperament issues but he is still a young horse.  He will still have the attention span of a gnat with ADHD and he will take about 12 months to settle down from the gelding—by which time, with regular handling, he might have settled down anyway.  I don't want to cure a headache by decapitation.  Gelding is irrevocable.  If he grows, if he settles down, if he turns out to be magnificent—his movement and balance are remarkable and he is showing a talent for performance that is lacking in the baroque type; when asked if they'd ever approve a baroque-type again, a Dutch judge said "show me a baroque Friesian that can move like a modern one, I have no prejudice against them, they just can't do the movements with their build"—I don't want to spend the rest of my life regretting it.  I feel like I am rushing into it because I am scared to handle him right now but he will still be a bratty teenager, even when gelded.  I also feel I am rushing into it because of short-term money issues.  If I find a rich husband, I don't want to have implemented a permanent solution to a short-term problem.  It's a HUGE big deal and it violates everything I ever intended or expected about owning a Friesian.  If his hair thinned, if his temperament didn't go back to his old self, if he reached 15'3", I know I would regret it bitterly for the rest of my life.

I have sought advice from my Friesian acquaintances around the world and I have deeply appreciated their honest, heartfelt, and difficult answers.  Some of them have tried to assure me that gelding him so late means he will retain some of the hair, but there is no way to know for sure; it is a risk.  Geldings do not have comparable hair as a rule.

Finally, there is the issue of bonding.  We haven't spent enough time together to form the bond that I want to have with him but, when he was younger, he seemed to be attached to me and focused on me when I visited.  Now, he's all about other horses and pays no attention to me.  I realise every parent goes through this with their teenager.  But I feel that I am counting on gelding to bring him back to me, to make him focus on me.  That seems selfish and pathetic, and there is no guarantee that gelding will do that.  I am just counting on him being less distracted without the testosterone and that seems logical but may be wishful thinking.

Since this has all come up so suddenly since spring, I was planning to send him, as soon as I could afford it, for a few months of driving training, to buy time where he is not driving my generous friend nuts and where he would be in full-time training, learning some stallion manners.  But this is now complicated by the fact that the farm where I was intending to send him just had a devastating fire, so it is unlikely they will be in a position to train him for the foreseeable future.

So, here is what I am planning to do:  1) Get him tested for genetic diseases; 2) If he passes those tests, get him collected so I at least have some baroque semen stored if he does turn out to be worth breeding in future; 3) Then it looks like, unless something changes drastically, I will have to geld him.

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