The Mind of the Young Mare

bendytia_200Mares don’t get the best rap these days. Stallions get to be all macho and sex-crazed and noble and rearing against the sky and all that, and geldings (who are from heaven) are what everybody rides. Or is supposed to ride. But mares–they’re moody and mareish when they’re not boring or docile or barefoot and pregnant.

It’s hip to hate winter and love zombies and sneer at mares.
Geldings are the only fit riding horses. If you have to have a mare, well, all right, but are you sure you’re not just a little bit crazy?

So of course I’m a mare person. I’ve always loved and owned mares, though in my leasing days, I always ended up with geldings, those being what riding horses in the US generally are. My first horse was a mare, and the second horse I bought, likewise. And the third. In fact I never have bought anything else, though I’ve bred my fair share of boys, and kept a couple. Mares are my thing.

They do have their monthly week or so of driving the stallion nutty, but I can certainly relate to that. And since he is also my riding horse, I can attest that that’s the one week a month when they feel the way he feels all the time. It’s nothing to get perturbed about; if they’re a little inattentive ranging toward openly cranky, I plan (and respond) accordingly. Even geldings have their moods, after all, and with mares, if you know their cycle, you can predict how they’ll behave.

Every horse of whatever gender is an individual, and they’ll all have their quirks and foibles and their endearing little oddities. Because they’re horses, they’re wired for certain things–and in fact, as I was procrastinating diligently yesterday on writing this blog, this article came through, with some truly excellent points about how and why horses think the way they do. They will also tend toward certain traits and behaviors depending on their heredity–breed as well as individual family lines. And then, to get back to the original point of the paragraph, they’ll manifest all this in their own individual ways.

My herd at the moment is in transition, of a sort. My go-to riding horses are getting up there in years–one is 27 this year, which in horse terms is quite an advanced age. The “kids” in the middle are no longer kids; stallion will be 17 next month. (And how did that happen? He was just born a little while ago!)

Meanwhile, the youngest of the crew, both mares, and sisters from the same mother, albeit with different fathers, have been waiting with increasing impatience for me to have time to notice that hey, we’re here. One had been for sale, but last year as I looked at the demographics of the herd and the quality of the horse, I realized she really was meant to stay.

She had been a very difficult training challenge. Extremely, extremely slow to mature, for starters; at ages four and five when she would normally have been starting under saddle, she had little or no strength in the back, and simply wasn’t suitable to sit on. By the time she gained her swan’s plumage and her lovely strong back muscles around age six, I had a hiatus of trainers and confidence, and she was eight before I formally got her started–and she was Not With The Program. Dislocated my shoulder once, and that was only one of many injuries both lesser and greater that she dealt me every time I worked with her.

She comes from a breed whose mares have a reputation for being challenging, but she wrote a whole new chapter in how to make a trainer despair of ever getting through to the horse. Hypersensitive and hyperreactive meant kicking, biting, rearing, bolting, pulling handler off her feet, leaving teeth marks in handler’s hand or arm, barely missing handler’s head with flying kick…

And I was going to sit on that?

But thanks to an excellent and remarkably patient and perceptive trainer and instructor, I was able to do exactly that, and slowly, glacially slowly, start riding this whirlwind of a horse. There were many interruptions. She got so far as to have someone come and look at her with intent to buy–but she was simply too much horse with too little training.

Then I took that look at the herd and reckoned up who would still be present and ridable in ten years, and there she was. Somehow she had stopped being dangerous. The reactivity was significantly reduced. She hadn’t bitten anybody in months. And it dawned on me that when I rode her, she wasn’t crazy at all. She was lovely, balanced, very green still of course, but on the two whole occasions when she did, mildly, spook, she had taken me with her. (That’s a test, big time. If the horse goes splooie, does she get rid of you first and then head for safety, or does she make sure you’re secure on her back before she takes off?)

There was a clear sense that she had made her own mind about things. She wanted to be ridden, and she wanted me to ride her. She was trying quite hard to cooperate, and she was deliberately ramping down her instinctive reactions in order to keep me safe while I was riding her.

I still have to condition myself to accept this. It’s rather recent, and I have all those old injuries in the back of my mind when I’m around her. But I know, intellectually, that this mare has had an epiphany of sorts, and has decided, as mares will, that she wants to be my partner in riding and training.

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That’s the thing about mares. Geldings you can tell, stallions you have to ask and you’d better be fair about it, but with mares, it’s a constant negotiation–and you learn really quickly to accept the fact that she’s the one who decides.

While I’ve been coming to terms with this young mare, her snotty kid sister has been making her own way in the world. As the youngest, she’s always been the last on the list, but she hasn’t let that stop her. Not even slightly.

We call her the Self-Training Horse. Even as a two-year-old, years before she would normally start training, she started following along with the older horses as they worked.

oztia02_bvcThat’s her highness on the right, helping one of her elders train a rider.

This is a very self-willed horse. If she doesn’t like what you’re doing, she will kick (overwhelming first choice) or bite to get her point across. In that she shares some traits with her older sister, but she’s much less reactive and far more reflective about it. She very strongly wants to work, and if she doesn’t get some form of it every day or every other day, the mood turns cranky very fast.

She’s losing patience these days. It’s time, she says. Let’s go, let’s go. Let’s start this riding thing.

She is cranky to the max if I just handle her. The handling has to be training in some way. Has to have a purpose. Has to aim toward bridle, saddle, rider in saddle.

That of course is entirely counter to equine instinct and evolution, but in a horse bred for centuries to be ridden and trained in the high school, it makes perfect sense. This what she’s designed for. And, from everything she does, it’s clear she knows it.

My instructor says she’s going to be “interesting” to start under saddle. Not meaning in a bad way at all. Just that she’s so motivated and so eager that our challenge will probably be to restrain her–to keep her from overfacing herself or advancing too fast or trying to do it all before she’s ready.

I love that. I often get a headache working with her, but that’s normal; these ladies push and push hard, and give no quarter. I’d better ask right and I’d better get it right, or they let me know it.

The reward is that when I do get it right, I have a strongly motivated and intensely focused partner who will do everything in her power to keep me safe on her back. She’ll never be easy or simple to work with, but she’ll keep my mind engaged and force my body to balance and coordinate itself in ways that are very good for it–and for her, since it will keep her sound until she, in her turn, is rising 27 and full of wisdom and indulgence for the slow and stupid but much loved human.

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The Mind of the Young Mare — 14 Comments

  1. An “epiphany” eh? I can’t imagine why that mare, with her name, would have one of those :).

  2. Boy horses seem to rely on a brain with trainer wheels until they are 3-5 years old, and then they start to get down to business. Some of them turn into self-trainers, too.

  3. Yes yes yes. I loved reading this. Thank you, from the owner of two of those crazy mares.

  4. I’m not a horse person, but if you want to see a mare treated as a fantasy hero’s noble steed, check out S.M. Stirling’s trilogy that begins with The Sunset Lands. Though Rudi meets his mare in an earlier book, Epona is a very special horse indeed. Spoiler alert – she dies nobly in battle at an age when she was just about ready to be put out to pasture after the war was over.

    A very fine horse indeed.