Going to War? Ride a Mare

Camilla-the-War-MareWestern cavalry warfare has a distinct male bias. No ancient Greek cavalryman or medieval knight would be caught dead on a mare, and more modern cavalry tended to favor the non-hormonal nature of the gelding. Mares have been derided as weak, inferior, emotional, overly hormonal…pretty much anything a human woman was accused of, mares have suffered from as well.

And yet.

Travel east into the Arabian desert or west into the North American Plains, and you find quite a different attitude. Among the Bedouin, mares were and still are most highly prized as war horses. Stallions, they say, are too noisy to take on raids. They call to mares, they challenge each other, they talk (relatively) constantly. Whereas a mare for the most part, unless separated from her herd or (especially) her baby, has much less to say with her voice. She’s communicating constantly with her body language and movement, but the vocalizations as a rule consist of fluttering her nostrils at someone or something she wants or likes, and squealing if highly annoyed.

This is useful for a cavalry that relies on speed and silence. Mares’ relative lack of muscle mass isn’t an issue, either, if they’re not carrying several hundred pounds of armored knight–though frankly, when you get into that territory, a well-built, sturdy mare is just as capable of carrying that weight as a stallion. She won’t build muscle quite as fast, but she certainly has the carrying power. For that matter she’s not that much less muscular than a stallion; what weakens a mare is lack of work or conditioning, and the stretching and loosening of muscles and ligaments that accompanies gestation and foaling. A valuable mare who can have one foal a year can’t be spared to be cannon fodder–versus the stallion who can sire dozens or even hundreds.

At any rate, for a light, fast raiding party, a mare is very much the thing. Especially a smart, bitchy one who will fight for what belongs to her.

What, you thought only stallions defend the herd? That is their primary function apart from making baby horses, but the herd stallion can’t be everywhere. A mother with a newborn is a ferocious creature, fast, relentless, and if necessary deadly. As baby grows up she’ll calm down, and some mares will be pretty laissez-faire up to the point when they drive last year’s baby off so they can concentrate on this year’s. But other mares, the war mares, keep that edge in everything they do.

War mares are born rather than made. They’re not necessarily alpha mares. An insecure beta can be even more dangerous than a secure alpha. You can spot one as a baby: she’s the one pushing mom around with her ears back, sassing off the other mares, and bossing her fellow foals around. If you go to handle her, she’s apt to test her heels on you, and she may not be Miss Sweetie Pie about having to do what she’s told.

As she grows up, she continues to be the tough one. She’ll need extra attention to persuade her to be civilized, and she won’t see why she has to, anyway.  She’s pushy, bossy, and can be cranky. Her idea of fun is to herd lesser horses all over the place just because she can. She might even, if she’s in a particularly evil mood, chase down a rabbit and catch it, and shake it right out of its skin.

True story.

But–and there is one big saving BUT here–a mare like this will, if she respects you, be your strongest and most loyal ally, and she’ll be fierce in your defense. My bunny-killer is the shoer’s favorite, in part because when we have babies to work on, she comes up and helps. She’ll put her shoulder against baby’s so he won’t fall down, and nip baby if he gets uppity. She’s good at fending off pushy herdmates; if something appears to be a threat to them or me, she may whirl and go after it.

That’s a war mare. She’s the kind of horse you want for cutting cattle, too, incidentally, and for managing a big herd of whatever animal your story needs–horses, cows, smeerps. Want a horse that will fight with you in an ambush or a battle? War mare. Don’t want anyone getting near you in a crowd? She’s your candidate. Touch her front end, she bites or strikes. Touch her rear, she kicks the offender over the moon.

Not that a stallion won’t do this, too, but if you’re writing a macho culture that stereotypes mares as gentle nothings fit for weak little girls to ride, a good, fierce war mare can blow that stereotype out of the water. She may be fiercer than a stallion while she’s at it, and kick harder. She’s a secret weapon.

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Going to War? Ride a Mare — 8 Comments

  1. Thanks, Deb. 🙂 My stallion is a big dog-chaser, hates them, but his sister is the one who skinned the rabbit. She’s a true War Mare, really really tough, and has been a challenge to train. He’s been notably easier. Testosterone makes him do certain predictable things; those aside, he’s a sweetheart. With her, every single thing has to be negotiated. He’ll submit under persuasion. She? Not so much.

    But once you do win her over, she’s the best ally you could possibly have. It’s a lot of trouble, but in the end it’s worth it.

  2. Yes. Mocha is not as much of a War Mare as my first mare, Sparkle (otherwise known as the Sparkle Bitch, Queen Bitch of the Universe…you get the general idea). Mocha is more quiet about it but she’s got it in her. Her mama was the unquestionable War Mare, aggressive defender of her foals, squealer, screamer, unmistakably the Queen of the barn.

    Sparkle stomped snakes, chased cats, dogs and kids, and defended me against a psycho Shetland gelding. She bullied anyone in her pasture who carried themselves the wrong way, but if you knew what you were doing, you were okay around her. I could easily see her attacking a rabbit. When I was on her back, I feared nothing–except getting dumped by her, when I was younger. The perfect mount for a teen girl.

  3. Joyce, I had one of those as a teenager, too. Red dun range QH off the boxcar from Oklahoma. I got offered blank checks for her by QH breeders (studbook was still open; she had no papers). She was 15.2, huge for the time, and her idea of fun was to stand on her hindlegs with me on her back and walk across the road. She ruled me with an iron hoof, put up with my adolescent human stupidity and taught me so very much.

    Kind of weirdly, I always leased or was given geldings to ride. Every time I’ve put down money for a horse, it’s been for a mare. I’m a mare and filly person, even though my main riding squeeze is a stallion (homebred, bought his mom). I love my Girlz and laugh when they get cranky. As they do. Oh lord do they.

  4. For a large-scale cavallery operation, riding geldings makes sense: you get 50/50 foals, but you’ll need a fair amount of mares to continue the breeding programme. Geldings (or inferior stallions, if you’re macho about it) are surplus to requirements.

    I’ve grown up with both, and there really isn’t much between mares and geldings in the stroppyness and mood swing departments – mares get a bad rep by people who don’t know them.

  5. Judith, that sounds like the perfect horse for a teenager! Excellent for keeping us in our places–tough-minded but reliable mounts.

    My first equine love was a Shetland gelding, but the schoolie mounts I bonded with the best (with one exception and he was superb–exquisitely sensitive Arab gelding) were all mares.

    My trainer has a Morab mare in retirement who’s around 36 years old. Strong-minded girl who at times clearly misses her schoolie days.

  6. Wow, how interesting! I didn’t know any of this about mares! Not that I’m knowledgeable about horses, but this is just fascinating. So glad you posted this!

  7. My instructor always tells us to tell the geldings what to do (and then flatter them a lot when they do it) and to ask politely (but firmly if need be) of the mares. I find I get along well with both, and I actually like the stubborn and somewhat cranky ones of both genders best.

    Though, the mare I am riding now since my beloved gelding was put down a few weeks ago (he was definitely of the stubborn kind and he would try to avoid work until you showed him the error of his ways, and then he’d switch gears and be marvellous), sometimes has to be told firmly what NOT to do. Like kick other horses during a lesson. She’s about 14 hands of Swedish draft horse, all black and with a mane and tail like a Friesian, and she sounds like she’s a bit of a War Mare.

    She has been used to herd cows (not common here, heh) and she used to be kept with a bunch of beef cattle, which she bossed around mercilessly. Now she tries to boss around all the horses at the riding school and she’s very quick to start backing up to anyone who gets to close during a lesson. She also throws in a few bucks here and there whenever you ask her to do something that is at the edge of her ability, though then she does it anyway. She just has to register a complaint.