Recently I had an email exchange about the use of stallions vs. geldings as warhorses and riding horses. In hopes that some of this might be useful for other writers, I put together the following compilation of my responses. As always, my opinions on horses and horsemen are my opinions based on my own experiences and research.
From Greek times up until into the late eighteenth through mid-nineteen century warhorses and cavalry horses were stallions. Alexander rode a stallion into battle. Caesar directed his battles from the back of a stallion. Knights rode stallions on the field of battle. Gustavus Adolphus rode a stallion as did all his contemporaries. The tradition continued on, unbroken for centuries. Stallions were the only fit cavalry mounts.
The only exception to this was when dragoons joined the cavalry ranks. The dragoons were troops who rode to the battle and then dismounted to fight. Dragoons’ mounts, it was felt, could be geldings as the animals were simply transportation and did not take part in the fighting.
Stallions had extra strength, endurance, fire, and dash that were absolutely necessary for battle. That was the firm opinion of everyone who mattered when it came to war. It was not considered an opinion but a rock-ribbed, absolute, God-given fact. Geldings were timid and fearful in battle. They lacked the strength to keep going on forced marches. They lack dash and élan when charging the enemy. Mares? Who would be sissy enough to ride a mare into battle? A prancing, snorting stallion was a reflection of the rider’s manhood. A gelding was also considered a reflection, only far less desirable.
This opinion lasted until into the mid-1800s when most of the major armies converted their cavalry to geldings. A number of factors led to this change including the realization that geldings worked just as well as stallions with far less fuss. Economics spurred on the changes, too. Stallions, you see, can be troublesome. Stallions also require a higher level of horsemanship to successfully handle. For those who are interested in the process by which this occurred, I’ve included a URL for an article discussing the British experience with switching over to geldings. It also outlines some of the problems using stallions pose.
Among European and American armies, officers were still expected to ride stallions well into the twentieth century. Higher ranking officers were also expected to provide their own mounts. It was tradition with a strong dose of social expectations.
Which leads to the second part, the stallion as a riding horse. Again from the time of Xenophon the stallion was the only suitable mount for a noble male and, by Early Modern times, any wealthy man with a high social standing. In Spain and Portugal this still holds. If you are a male with any social standing to speak of you ride a stallion. Geldings and mares were for women, invalids, or the infirm. Real men ride stallions. You can still find this sentiment proclaimed today by some American males.
Equestrian portraits of noble men and some noble women show them on stallions. Every piece of period literature and serious study of warhorses I’ve read indicates that European males rode stallions unless there was no other choice or they were very low in social status. If you see a reference to “whole,” “natural,” “un-cut,” “entire,” or “stoned” horses the animals being discussed are stallions.
Back to the military and cavalry use of stallions or geldings. By the American Civil War the common soldiers were mounted on geldings with the officers providing and riding stallions. The U.S. Army had been, out of necessity, an early convert to the use of geldings as cavalry mounts. At the start of the ACW the Union cavalry used geldings for all lower ranks. Lower ranking officers (lieutenants and captains) could be issued a government mount if they could not provide their own or when their animal broke down or died. It was a bit of an embarrassment for a captain to be forced to ride a government issued gelding. During the war some officers created scandalous talk when it was discovered that they preferred riding geldings. In truth, many officers were not particularly good horsemen and a nice, well-behaved gelding was more their speed.
Above the rank of major there were higher social as well as military expectations of the officer being able to provide a string of several mounts. For marching, a soft gaited gelding might be acceptable but there was an expectation that during battle the officer would be mounted on a stallion.
High ranking officers such as General Grant, a noted horseman, General Sheridan, and General Sherman were occasionally given mounts by civilians. Captured horses could be bought by the U.S. Quartermaster Corps and issued back to the officers whose troops captured them. All and all, these mounts were almost always stallions.
By the end of the war stallion vs. gelding became a moot point as the Q.C. Remount was having trouble finding large enough numbers of suitable animals regardless of the state of their reproductive equipment.
The Confederate cavalry started out with every officer and most ordinary cavalryman providing his own mount. Among the Southern gentlemen there was a higher social expectation that they were excellent horsemen and would gallantly ride the fieriest stallions. While a higher percentage of those joining the Confederate cavalry units were good to excellent horseman, not everyone was. Not everyone joining up had the resources to bring along a high quality horse, either. War is hard on horses and after not too long the Confederate cavalry and artillery forces were taking any animals they could find.
The South thought that they had a massive advantage in having the best cavalry because they had so many fine horsemen and horses. They did have a lot of very good quality horses at the start of the war and it was true that they also had a higher percentage of good riders among their cavalry in the beginning. The advantage, however, didn’t last.
The Union cavalry struggled with turning city boys into riders. By the middle of the war the Union cavalry was equal in horsemanship to the Confederates and had a definite advantage in the number of good, solid horses available to them. The Union may not have started out with as many high quality horses as the Confederates but they had a much larger reservoir of good, useable animals. The Union Quartermasters struggled to provide the number of animals needed but they could find them. The Confederacy lost control of some of its best horse raising areas early on and a large percentage of their high quality horses proved unsuited to rough campaigning and battle.
The American Civil War stood as a practical experiment in the question of stallion vs. gelding. Foreign observers took note and the remaining insistence among some armies for stallions only cavalry died out. Officers were, of course, gentlemen, and the expectation remained that as such, they would ride stallions.
So what is the problem with stallions? Stallions tend to be easily distracted from the task at hand. When a mare in heat or, sometimes just a mare, is present, all thoughts other than of mating are pushed out of a stallion’s head. Other stallions are rivals, to be warned off by bellowing, screaming, pawing, striking with the forelegs, and kicking with the back ones. If the other stallion fails to back off, then a fight is likely.
As a side note, a stallion’s scream sounds remarkably like a woman screaming. Many people hearing it for the first time are startled at the similarity and that such a sound can come from a horse.
A stallion within smelling range of a mare in heat, will, if not restrained, attempt to reach her. If he’s in a breeding barn he may limit his actions to calling to her and banging his stall door. Stallions have been known to literally climb a fence to get to mares in heat. They’ve also broken down fences, stall and barn doors, and busted lead lines. In the presence of a mare a stallion may literally walk over a person, unaware of having done so. A stallion that hasn’t been taught manners or is allowed to misbehave is a train wreck looking for a place to happen. In breeding facilities the mares are kept downwind of the stallion barn to limit this behavior. For stallions, out of smell, out of mind.
Stallions can co-exist, especially when bred for it and taught good behavior from the start. I’ve seen four Andalusian stallions doing free-style dressage patterns that had them moving closely together, at times with their noses in another stallion’s tail. The Andys didn’t fight or bellow or kick, they applied themselves to the job at hand without fussing. Non-Andalusian horse people around me were stunned, especially when it was announced that these four stallions and their riders had been practicing together for less than two weeks. Most horse shows don’t have mixed sex classes, that is, mares and geldings might be shown together or geldings and stallions, but stallions usually aren’t allowed in classes that include having mares in the arena at the same time. The Andalusian shows I’ve attended haven’t included mixed classes, either. In the barns, however, mares and stallions are often housed close to each other. Despite this, there is remarkably little noise and fuss in the barn area.
The Andalusians have an advantage in that they’ve been bred for four hundred years to be docile at hand or under saddle. Most other breeds either were never bred for it or the breeders stopped doing so after the beginning of the twentieth century. To be registered the Andalusians have to pass both confirmation and personality tests. Most other breeds that require a confirmation test don’t require a personality test. Thoroughbreds, for instance, have had two hundred years where bad stallion behavior was tolerated (and sometimes glorified) as long as the stallion in question could run fast and could sire other fast runners.
In the wild stallions don’t fight all the time. Fighting occurs only when one stallion tries to steal one or more mares from another. Posturing and intimidation occurs more often when another stallion approaches. Usually the intruder backs off without a fight.
In the tame I’ve run into more than a few knuckleheads who think that if their stud isn’t constantly fussing and fighting the stallion isn’t properly displaying his virility. These folks and their horses are among the reasons most boarding facilities don’t allow stallions.
United Service Magazine No. 326, Jan., 1856
ON GELDINGS, AS BETTER ADAPTED FOR THE PURPOSES OF CAVALRY THAN ENTIRE HORSES.
The Art of Horsemanship
Translated by M. H. Morgan, Ph.D
J. A. Allen London – New York
The Royal Horse of Europe
J. A. Allen London – New York
A General System of Horsemanship
William Cavendish, Duke of Newcastle
Facsimile reproduction of the edition of 1743
Trafalgar Square Publishing, North Pomfret, Vermont 05053
This book was written in the first half of the 17th century but not published until 1658.
The Warhorse 1250–1600
Sutton Publishing Limited
The Horse in the Middle Ages
Sutton Publishing Limited
Knights and Warhorses
The Boydell Press, Woodbridge
ISBN 0 85115 739 4 (paperback)
ISBN 0 85115 568 5 (Hardback)