Western 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.
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.
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.