The scene we are going to look at in this post is from Game of Thrones Season 1 when Ser Loras Tyrell challenges Ser Gregor Clegane "The Mountain" to a joust. In this scene, Ser Loras rides a white mare and Ser Gregor rides a black stallion (click here to watch). You will notice the black stallion starts nickering and becomes agitated when the white mare gets close to him. As Lord Petyr Baelish "Littlefinger" then explains later to Ned and Sansa Stark, the white mare is in heat, giving off a scent signaling she is ready to mate and causes the the black stallion to become distracted, which ultimately makes Ser Gregor lose the match.
The sex of the horse was an important factor to consider for soldiers and noblemen when choosing a war horse. Considering the two choices - a stallion (male) or a mare (female)- there were benefits and vices to each sex. Stallions develop thicker muscles than mares, which helps them to carry heavier loads and run faster. They also tend to have more energy. The main drawback in stallions is their proneness to become aggressive. In the wild, stallions fight each other over mating rights to the mares. Domesticated stallions still have these strong instincts to fight and reproduce, which generally makes it difficult for their human masters to control them when other horses are nearby, especially mares in heat. There are exceptions to this general statement as many well trained stallions in high level competitions today do not always, if at all, exhibit aggressive and uncontrollable behavior.
Mares tend to be more docile than stallions, but they also can have troublesome behaviors, especially when they are in heat in the spring and summer months. They can be inclined to nip and buck at other horses, and be overall grumpy. Some mares become very sensitive and unfocused, and have a difficult time minding their riders.
So, which sex did army soldiers tend to use? From records, stallions were the most popular choice, partially because the mares were reserved to reproduce and replenish the cavalry. However, there was still the problem of how to manage a group of testosterone-filled stallions and keep them from injuring each other while out on campaign.
There were some simple solutions to manage the stallions naughty behaviors, such as taking the very aggressive stallions away from the group and keeping mares away from the stallions. Wild stallions, who do not have a herd of mares, will live in “bachelor groups” and are able to cooperate with one another without any problems, so it can be assumed cavalry stallions could tolerate each as long as there were no mares to compete over. Muzzles were also used on some stallions who had the inclination to bite, but this was only a temporary solution until the stallions were trained out of that behavior.
A proactive method to prevent aggressive behavior from developing in male horses was to castrate them, turning them into geldings. Castration has been a practice in many ancient cultures for centuries. If a colt was castrated early, he could avoid developing aggressive behaviors and become very docile. He would not attempt to flirt or bolt at the mares and would not feel the need to fight other males.
Today, most horse owners castrate their male horses unless they plan to breed them. When castrated, horses usually are sedated and given an anesthetic before their testes are removed by a veterinarian. But how did people castrate stallions before the time of modern animal medicine and not get hurt by the horse who did not care to have his testicles removed? Well, there are a couple methods that have been found in old records. One method found in ancient Roman records was to use “gelding irons.” We can only guess what the irons looked like or how they immobilized the horse, but my guess is they would be used in the same way people use rope to temporarily impair a horse. Today in the US, some farmers will tie-up a colt’s legs, knock him over, and have others sit on him while someone cuts the testes with no anesthetic. Since horses are considered livestock like cows and sheep in the US, horses are not required to have a trained veterinarian castrate them, while in Great Britain, it is required by law that horses have a licensed veterinarian with medicine to perform the procedure.
Another method was to tie the testes so they would atrophy and fall off. This method had less risk of infection since there was no open wound, but would still be uncomfortable for the horse. Whatever the method used to castrate a stallion before modern drugs, it was never an easy task for the horsemen or a comfortable one for the horses.
Today, most people will opt to castrate their stallions to make them more manageable. Modern medicine limits the risk of infection, but back in earlier times, it would have been tough to risk having a well-bred stallion be castrated and be open to the great possibility of infection. Many people who do handle stallions today are usually very experienced horse handlers, and take extra precautions when handling them in the vicinity of mares. I personally thought it was very clever what Ser Loras did in this scene to give him an advantage. Maybe Ser Gregor should think about riding a mare next time.
Special thanks to Ruby and Hannah for their insights in working with stallions.
Ruby Butchers is the author of EquiPepper.com focusing on changing negative attitudes towards Thoroughbreds, in particular ex-race horses.
Hannah Ibbotson is the author of Jack's Kissing Spine Story that tells her journey with her horse Jack, and his recovery from kissing spine.
I am Amy. I love movies, TV, and horses. I grew up with horses and taught kids how to ride during my summer breaks from school. Now I am a country girl living in a city hoping to someday move back into a rural area and own a horse again.