28 July 2002

Horse studs are where biology meets the bizarre, says Brough Scott

Stud: Adventures in Breeding

by Kevin Conley

Bloomsbury, £16.99, 209 pp

MONSTROUS SEX Monstrous sex and millionaires’ money is a mix that any study of stallion life can guarantee. But the surprise of “Stud” is that it does not go heavy on “nudge, nudge” anthropomorphic sexual innuendo. It majors on charm.

Kevin Conley is the Bill Bryson of the breeding shed. Quite what gave this un-horsey, Manhattan-based father of two his somewhat unhealthy addiction with equine copulation is something the psychiatrists can ponder. But harnessing this foible to a flypaper memory, a phrase-catching ear, and the most elegant of New Yorker pens, Conley brings us a series of images and phrases that I promise you will never forget.

You will find out the difference between a “twitch”, a “wink”, a “cover”, a “bolster cushion” and an “A. V. ” (if you must ask it stands for “artificial vagina”). You will be taken from the blue bloods of Kentucky’s Blue Grass to lesser animals doing mating duty in much rougher circumstances alongside Mexico’s Rio Grande, to the different world of trotting stallions in Pennsylvania, and finally to the “natural way” with a herd of Shetland ponies in the wild. There will be history as well as biology lessons.

Then there are the people. Take, for example, the lady vet who delivers the question-begging statement that the horse is “the single most fascinating reproductive species outside the Arctic Seal”. There is her colleague who woke up a dozing lecture class with the statement “originally I studied male sexual dysfunction – starting with the rat model”. And there is a reference to a famous basketball player who once complained that the $500 he had been fined for spitting “was more than I could have expectorated”.

Among the horses is a “teasing” stallion called Honcho (a “teaser” is the ultimate in warm-up acts) who is apt to faint on the rare occasions when he is allowed to complete the “real thing”. There’s also the Californian stallion Cee’s Tizzy whom Kevin Conley swears he heard “giggle” after the coupling was over. “He’s the first one,” writes Conley, “who sounds like he recognises the goofy good luck of it all. He’s Hef [Playboy founder Hugh Hefner] only young and without the editorial responsibilities.”

It’s not prurient but it’s definitely obsessive. Conley ships all the way out to Applebite Farms in Northern California only to find that the stallion Distinctive Cat is having one of his rare mare-free days. Undaunted, Kevin enlists the help of someone claiming to be a “telepathic animal communicator” and duly regales us with the magnificently dull details of the “interview” with “The Cat” who, apparently, delivers such profundities as “you have to co-operate with humans. There are artificial aspects to it [the stallion’s life] but on the whole it’s fine”.

Conley describes yearlings in the paddock as “optimism on four legs”. The maiden mare whose intended partner keeps forgetting what he is there for and dismounts is “lost in whatever constitutes thought in a horse”. And there is Cat Thief, the debut stallion whose first experience (with a big ugly accommodating Belgium mare called Jughead) so affects him that “he seems unsteady on his feet and he shakes his head – in wonder, bafflement and a score of other emotions which the behaviourists assure us he is incapable of”.

Most vivid of all is his account of the old stallion Seattle Slew in “dorsal recumbency” – hung upside down while the surgeons saw away at his spine. “On its back under anaesthesia a horse is nearly unrecognisable. The magnificent muscular tension disappears and the legs collapse in such an awkward jumble that they look broken. The vets arrange them quickly as if leaning broom sticks up against a closet wall. The neck falls backward and the vets in their cotton gowns walk up and set it in a brace with an impudently casual confidence. The horse appears frozen in anguish, eerily immobile, like one of the dogs of Pompeii, upended and petrified in the death struggle.”

Except for the endpapers, Stud does not contain a single photo or illustration but, nevertheless, this is a book crammed with pictures: every picture comes from the text. A writer can’t do much better than that.

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