In polygynous mating systems, males compete intensely for mates and may mate several females during a single reproductive season. Accordingly, factors influencing the ability of males to control a larger number of females during the breeding season can provide information on the processes underlying sexual selection. In ungulates, age, body mass and social rank are considered good predictors of the reproductive success of males, but how male age structure and sex ratio in the population influence mating group (MG) dynamics has received little empirical testing. Between 1996 and 2005, we manipulated male age- and sex structure and monitored MG dynamics in a reindeer (Rangifer tarandus) population. We investigated the influence of male characteristics, percentage of males and male age structure on MG size and stability. We found that males with higher social rank (that were also older and heavier) controlled larger MGs (therefore had greater mating opportunities) and had more stable MGs (corresponding to a higher ability to maintain and control females) than males of lower social rank. Moreover, MG size and MG stability decreased as the percentage of males in the population increased, most likely resulting from greater male–male competition and increased female movements. Male age structure did not influence MG stability. Given the positive relationship between mating success and MG size (and likely MG stability), frequent female movements and intense competition among males to control females seem to be the principal components of reindeer MGs dynamic.