Notes from the Mare Side of the Fence

dancingcamilla_bvcI’m a mare person. My current main riding horse may be a stallion, and he is wonderful and awesome and all the rest of it, but when I’m in default mode, I’m all about the mares.

The standard mythos is of two minds about mares. On the one hand there’s the gentle mare who is suitable for a lady to ride. On the other, there’s the Moody Mare, of whom my all-time favorite example is the Kiowa war mare from Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, whose owner calls her the Hell Bitch.

I believe it, too. We call the mare in the icon Camilla-the-War-Mare. She’s difficult, intermittently dangerous (she has a kick like a mule), and ferociously opinionated. She’s also highly intelligent, extremely sensitive, and wonderful with the babies.  When you look up the word opinionated, that’s Camilla.

I love her. She challenges me constantly, stretches my skills in every possible direction, but then she’ll cut me an amazing quantity of slack, as if to say, “Well, humans are slow, but sometimes we have to make allowances.”

That’s a mare. In her world, she rules.  She controls the breeding process, determines when and how the stallion approaches her–if she doesn’t want him, she can flatten him with a well-placed kick. His job, aside from cooperating when she is ready to make a baby, is to guard the herd and fend off predators.

The ruler of the herd, in most cases, is not the stallion but the alpha mare. She may not necessarily be the oldest, though seniority counts. She may have a favorite or two, who is allowed a degree of liberty that won’t be tolerated in the rest of the band. The best alpha is the secure-dominant, who maintains order quietly, through the slant of an ear or the shift of a shoulder. She will, if challenged, kick ruddy blue hell out of the challenger, but in general she refrains from physical violence.

An alpha mare can be as, shall we say, interesting to deal with as a stallion.  She will insist that you earn her respect, and she will often try to take over, because after all, Mother knows best. Working with a young alpha can be headache-inducing–she is so determined to be the one in charge. Win her over however and she’s totally on your side.

A less dominant mare can be a wonderful partner, as long as you remember that it’s better to ask than to command. The secure-submissive, the mare who sits on the bottom of the herd and is content there, is the classic “gentle mare.” Especially if she’s older and has had a few babies, she’s wonderfully kind and patient, and very tolerant of human awkwardness. Whereas the younger or more opinionated mare will demand that you do everything her way (to the point of reaching around and biting your leg if you get on her nerves), the mother mare will heave a huge sigh and let you be an idiot.

Camilla’s mother is one of those. She’s had a slew of babies, is used being climbed all over and thumped on, and has vast tolerance for the foibles of lesser beings, humans included. She doesn’t challenge within the herd at all; she can’t be bothered. I call ther the Queen of Passive-Aggressive. If she wants that pile of hay, she’ll come and stand out of easy charging distance, and Wait. In italics. With underlining. It doesn’t always work: if the current claimant of the pile is determined to keep it, she’s roundly ignored. But a surprising amount of the time, eventually the horse being whammied shrugs, swishes her tail, and moves elsewhere.

That’s power, when you think about it.

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Notes from the Mare Side of the Fence — 15 Comments

  1. Oh yes. The Young Alpha. And the headaches. Or: JJ sends her regards, and would like you to know that I am Doing It Wrong, mostly ;). Except when I am not.

    Also: Yay Mares! ;).

  2. When I first brought my mare home the first thing she did was straight through the barn door. That little stunt promptly caused my dad, who had to repair the shredded door, to dub her Hell Bitch. The name was later toned down to Nagg. Although she still thinks of barns as things that need to be destroyed she has mellowed a bit with age. The whole trick to dealing with her is to remember that she is doing something because she wants to, not because she has to.

  3. I’ve had extensive interactions with many mares, and have gotten along with only one. The others have dragged me, bodyslammed me, kicked pitchforks out of my hand, given me mareface as a precursor to baring teeth and charging at me, and in general – mares and I, we are best when interacting only occasionally.

    (The one exception was the hands-down most cheerful horse I’ve ever known in my life. We used to call the expression she gave to her riders the “Grace Face,” because you couldn’t not grin like an idiot when on her back.)

    I’ve always wondered about Mare People and Gelding People and the rare Stallion People and whether it says something deeper about personality. I have no good answer! I just know that I am most assuredly a Gelding Person.

  4. I consider myself a gelding person in my head, but my last farm I took care of 4 geldings and 3 mares (and a female donkey, and a male llama) and I felt closer to/got along better with the mares. And they weren’t all one herd, the pasture space wasn’t big enough so the way they were grouped was interesting for dynamics. Surprisingly out of a group of 3 (almost 30 year old QH gelding, 15 year old QH mare, and 20 year old arabian gelding) Buck the ancient gelding was the alpha, even though he was very physically fragile with lung problems. The mare was dominant but always deferred to him, and there was nothing secure about the arabian… he was the epitome of needy-neurotic. 😉

  5. I am, unquestionably, a Mare Person. I can get along okay with geldings but I do best with mares, especially sensitive alpha mares (and I’ve not been around enough stallions to know how I am with them).

    There’s a lot of bias against mares in the show world–mainly based on the perception that mares are unpredictable, cycling can make them problematic, and you can’t thump on them and get results like you can with geldings (studs are a different story, of course). To ride a higher-status mare, you need to exercise tact–but a performance mare is truly superb. There’s a reason why the old-timey Bedouins preferred mares for war mounts. A good mare has heart–but you have to earn the trust that will give you that heart. And that’s the part of the equation that so many people miss. The high-status, high-performing mares operate on trust. Without it, you’re not going to get that higher performance.

    Over on rec.equestrian, we’ve been talking about the tragic story of the great cutting mare Poco Lena. She came close to lifetime earnings of $100,000–back in the late 50s/early 60s, when cutting horses didn’t win big money. A truly fierce and intense cutting mare–and she foundered horribly and tragically when she was abandoned in a horse trailer for four days after her owner died in a plane crash.

    The owners of Doc Bar bought her to try to get some foals out of her, and almost put her down when they saw how crippled she was by the founder. But they were talked into trying to save her, and she apparently let them know she wasn’t ready to give up. It took them some time to get her bred (she’d been on hormones to stop her from cycling during her show career), and she lived on her owners’ front lawn (softest soil on the place). They laid down blankets so she could cross the gravel driveway.

    She raised her two foals on that front lawn, and the bottom rail was pulled off of one of the neighboring fences so her sons could go play with other foals.

    Her foals by Doc Bar were Doc O’Lena and Dry Doc–two names that show up frequently in championship reining and cutting horse pedigrees today. Her descendants dominate those worlds.

    My mare has Poco Lena in her pedigree, top and bottom. I look at the shoulder, the topline, and the butt–and that’s all Poco Lena, even though Lena’s four generations back. A very prepotent mare.

  6. Really, honest to Epona, I am a stallion person. But one of my favorite mare stories is about a herd shuffle. My Cynical Old Broad went out on lease, and while she was out, I took in a young mare from a friend who had always been too young to be anywhere near anything but the bottom of the pecking order.

    Well, my 13yo, 5yo and 4yo could care less, so Nyssah started to revel in Having a Position. Mostly this meant she didn’t have to share her hay pile with the younger mares, so that wasn’t a problem.

    Then Cynical Old Broad came back from her lease. Strolled right in — of course the others remembered her. Nyssah made threats. COB *ignored* her, as in “You are beneath Our notice” ignored her. Poor Nyssah hadn’t a clue what had happened, but tried to escalate. The COB moved one ear and it was all over. Nyssah was now #2 (the rest of the herd still not caring overmuch).

  7. A great mare is pretty much unbeatable. And boy, are you right, Joyce, about trust. Trust is so crucial to all horses, but with the high-end mares, as with the stallions, it’s a dealbreaker.

    One thing it helps to remember, at least for me, is that mares are just as entire as stallions are. They’ve got all their hormones and all their natural instincts. This gives them an edge. It’s a different edge than stallions have, and geldings just don’t have it.

    Maybe that’s what Gelding People pick up, and don’t get along with?

    I love them all. Geldings are awesome, and oh so peaceful at times, especially in the spring. But when I’m most at home, I’m with the Girlz. Bitchy, cranky, opinionated, and inclined to kick though they are. I’m nursing a huge thigh bruise courtesy of 4yo Tia–she was having a Moment a couple of weeks ago, I was going by with the hay cart, she went ready, aim, FIRE! There was a Come-to-Jesus meeting, needless to say, and there’s been a whip in the mix since, the meaning of which she knows perfectly well. She’s been sweeter than pie. I’m not mad at her; she’s going through a phase, and I let my guard down. My fault. We’ve discussed matters and we’re good now.

    And I’m still a Mare Person. I like a spicy horse anyway, and mares have a kind of spice that suits me. Stallions need constant alertness and a deep level of interior quiet and strength. Mares are a little less chancy for the most part: I can relax more around them, and I find them restful to be with, Hell Bitch Moments aside. Those just make them interesting.

    They’re rooted in earth, is the best way I can describe it. There’s plenty of air and fire–look at Camilla getting her freak on up there–but there’s so much depth to what they are. They’re wise. A stallion is all snort and ramp and show. The mare will put on a show if she feels like it, but then she’ll go quiet, and you know she rules the universe.

    The stallion knows it, too. If he’s in charge, it’s because the mares are letting him. It’s amazing how clear they can be about it.

  8. Heh. Gypsy is definitely a war mare. She’s a highly opinionated alpha who spent the first four years of her life running wild across Oregon, and then another year being abused by impatient, demanding humans. Working with her has been an epic journey of blood, sweat, tears…and also moments of the most incredible exhilaration and joy I’ve ever experienced. She remains difficult, stubborn, and occasionally dangerous – but she’s also highly sensitive and the smartest horse I’ve ever had the privilege to know. For all the doubt and insecurity and frustration she’s heaped on me, I would not trade her for the world. Because she’s also teaching me what it really means to be a horsewoman, and for that I owe her the world.

    Geldings are great friends – calm, steady and generally dependable. But when it comes to finding a spirit horse, give me a mare any day.

  9. My first horse was a spitfire alpha pony who easily dominated horses twice her size…and humans…and pretty much everything else. Especially children, although she took great care of us.

    Oddly, it was the advent of geldings that ended her reign, the cougar-slaying Standarbred and the neurotic Quarter Horse! I don’t know how many times she kicked that Quarter Horse, and he barely blinked. She finally gave up and bossed the mares.

    Right now I’m working with an untrained, rescued stallion. His previous owners didn’t like how he was coming along, and so they splashed chemicals in his eyes, leaving him 95% blind. Sweetest, gentlest stallion I’ve ever come across.

    Mares are wonderful, but every now and then the stallions really are a special prize.

  10. Oh, that poor stallion! How horrible. I’m glad he has a loving home now.

    The stallions will get their innings, don’t worry. 🙂

  11. Judy, that may be why I like my mustang gelding. 🙂 He’s got all of those natural instincts layered on top of the goofy gelding personality – no unpredictable hormones here! He’s as sweet as the day is long but also never lets me forget he’s a) in charge and b) smarter than I am. It’s a good trade-off for me, I think; I don’t deal well with dead-broke horses but as I said, mares and I, we just don’t mix for more than a ride or two!

  12. I surprises me from time to time to realize how uninformed people are about who rules. I am fairly certain that in every species the female rules. The male flashes and struts, but only to attract the female who might decide he can be a good provider and protector to her young.

    I have been watching a pair of ospreys in Scotland (I lurve my cams). After she selects him (and then they mate for life) and has her chicks, he gets to bring her food, sit on the nest while she relaxes, and then when the kids finally take to the air, she leaves for her winter grounds. He gets to finish raising the chicks and take them to Africa for the winter. Heh heh.

    They meet up again the next year.

  13. Like many of you, I’m a mare person too. I’ve had one gelding and seven mares (all Arabians). I currently have two girls, Cedars Kasane (whom I’ve had since last November) and Isis Bint Sirdar (whom I’ve had from the day she was born (as well as her dam, sire, and grand dam)). Kasane just turned three and is a wanna-be alpha who will do anything I ask, but never if I tell her to do something.

    Isis is a 16 year old alpha Arabian, who has mastered The Glare, The Ear, and trotting-backwards-while-bucking towards those who do not listen. She is one of those MENSA horses that has the escape artistry of Houdini. And a floaty, reachy trot that earned an 8 in gaits on her first dressage test.

    Mares are fighters when they need to be. My old mare Prize (who I won in a raffle 🙂 would be the type of horse that says “You get that one Mom!” and is right there with me. Isis is the type of mare who says “You get that one and I’ll get this one!”

    Every two years or so, Isis gets into something spectacular: 2004 and 2005 laminitis (little to no rotation luckily) with tendon sprains, 2005 diagnosed with insulin resistance, colic surgery in August 2006, and now, June 2009, she was diagnosed with EPM, a neurological disease caused by paramecium in the central nervous system.

    Any one of these situations had the potential to be fatal. I never knew how much of a fighter she was until in the hospital for colic surgery. I have a picture of her looking at me the day after her surgery. She was in such pain, but it was like a plea to not give up on her.

    I never have, but some times you have to have faith. With the onset of EPM last month, for a space of 24 hours she didn’t recognize anyone and was effectively blind and deaf. She went to the hospital, and gradually recovered on her own, completely amazing the vets.

    She earned the nickname of the Miracle Mare because just when the vets were losing faith, she would prove them wrong.

    She has come out of every situation she’s been in with a spectacular full recovery. And not just recover, but gone back to her (very beginning) show career.

    Thank you for these wonderful stories and articles, and letting me share my story of the Miracle Mare. (Epona has greatly blessed this girl.)

  14. And Miss Mocha decided to give me an example of a War Mare’s Horsey Joke today.

    We had a fairly grueling English lesson today (I ride both hunt seat and Western with her; the Western is primarily reining with a bit of Western Riding and Trail thrown in, no big shows yet but it’s fun to play with). She had been a sweetheart last week, bang on hitting her leads, striking off correctly, responsive while working on simple and interrupted changes (we’re working up to flying changes), very obedient. In Western tack (note, tack is usually not an issue of compliance–she’s also been a Queen Butt in Western).

    Today, she was resisting the left lead. We spent quite a bit of time, then finally got it solid. We’d also done a couple of reining spins.

    At the end, I halted her and prepared to dismount. She flicked her ears back, lowered her head, and shifted her weight in preparation for a spin to the right. I rode her forward a little bit, stopped, then asked for the spin, in both directions–and it was a fast, hard spin, almost up to Western saddle speed, to clarify that she understood the aid.

    Then I rode her forward again, stopped, and very clearly kept myself from any possible inadvertent spin cues. Ears back, head lowering, weight shifting…I stopped her, and waited for her to settle.

    Last thing I want is to try to ride a spin hanging on to the side of the horse–especially in a hunt seat saddle! Note to self–need to watch out for this trick again! She does love to do her spins….