On the 8th of August, you might remember that I had a meeting with my colleagues in the area who are in the unwanted horse/rescue/rehab/retraining and adoption business (Concentric Circles,  August 11). The first hour we shared and delineated our struggles: Funding woes, injured horses, lack of education both of when to retire horses and how to retrain them, and a strong bias against mares. It’s the latter I want to talk about today-MARES. Why the bias?  True or false? If true, can it be fixed?  If false, what can we do to dispel it?  What’s been my experience with mares?

Oh, that’s a lot of ground to cover! The gist, I suppose, is yes, I have run into that bias. Mares are much harder to adopt out than geldings as a rule. (Stallions are not allowed at the MMSC.) The general perception is that mares are more difficult to train than geldings because they are moodier (they go into heat every 17-18 days),  more sensitive, and more territorial. 

That can be true.  But some mares are very even keel, patient, and kind. Some geldings, moreover, can be egotistical rogues or fickle divas. The reality is that each horse has its own “horse-ona” (as opposed to persona) which is why training is so ceaselessly fascinating. The variations of  equine temperaments and behaviors are infinite. That said, I would agree, that very generally speaking, mares can be challenging to train as they can be quicker studies than geldings, tend to get their feelings hurt faster, and are slower to forgive. They also can be extremely defensive about their territory. Like mothers of all species, they are hard wired to be titans when it comes to protecting their young.

I was once in a psychologist’s waiting room, and I peeked over the counter and spied a cartoon, entitled Human Brain Hard Wiring tacked to the wall above the officer manager’s desk.  On the left was a picture of a simple on/off light switch the caption underneath which read “his.” On the right was a drawing of the control panel of a jet airliner. That caption read “hers.”

The brain hard wiring in horses is similar. It would need a third illustration however, one for geldings, the castrated males. It, too, would be a light switch. But it would come with a dimmer. Stallions can be a like handling an unruly laser beam. You have to know what you are doing when you are around a stallion. How to train it. How to deal with its libido. How to keep the peace, at all costs. Mares can be like dealing with fire. So given the fact that horses weigh a lot, are super strong, and their defensive mechanisms are flight then fight all of which make them dangerous to mere measly humans, it is not surprising that geldings, whose spectrum of reproductive behaviors has been dimmed, are more attractive candidates for adoption. 
So, you might wonder if I ever take in mares into the MMSC program? You bet! While they may be slower to move, it has been my experience that a good mare is priceless. It’s sort of like that verse in Proverbs 31:

A good wife (read “mare”) is hard to find and worth far more than diamonds.
Her husband (read “human”) trusts her without reserves and never has reason to regret it.

 Hope, my first horse
My first horse was a mare. For as long as I can remember, I had wanted a horse. Starting at a very young age, I asked for one every Christmas and birthday and had to hide my disappointment in the well intentioned gifts of horse calendars and horse books I received instead. My parents who were intellectuals (i.e. resided in ivory towers and not in stables or barns) and writers (i.e. meaning a family financial diet of feast or famine), had neither the understanding nor the discretionary income to realize their daughter’s aspiration. When I graduated from college, I went to work in New York City, where I languished until I got up the gumption to follow my dream and find a way to live with horses. I ended up in Kentucky, and within the first year, was given my first horse, a 15.1 two year old Thoroughbred filly. She was green broke. Her one saving grace was that she was a bay, not a chestnut. As the physical incarnation of my unwavering belief in having a horse of my own one day, I named her “Hope.”

Hope made me see stars—figuratively at first, literally, a little later.  She was my beacon that called me morning and night to feed her, care for her, ride her. She was my “Dulcinea,” that inspired me to improve my riding and to quest for money by freelance writing about horses in addition to my day job on the breeding farm so that I could buy her things, pay for lessons, clinics, and horse shows.  She was my inspiration, my responsibility, my confidante, my handkerchief, my B.F.F.  

My B.F.F.
She also put me in the hospital. Nobody witnessed the first bad accident. It was speculated that while riding out alone, we hit a slick patch of ground. She fell and kicked me in the head whilst scrambling to get up. I don’t remember this as I was severely concussed. Thank goodness I had had a forboding dream the prior night, and so for the first time ever when riding her, I donned a helmet before heading out on that ride. That portent saved my life.

Hope was handy, quick, and athletic. She was also sensitive, temperamental, and down right witchy every 18 days when she started to develop a follicle and came into heat. She discovered all kinds of  incredible maneuvers to unseat me, the most creative of which was  crouching low and darting out from underneath me, her head suddenly replaced before me by her rump, leaving me, in karate stance on the ground, horseless.

She came up with new ideas on a seemingly daily basis to communicate to me who was in charge of our little herd of two. She pranced, she jigged, she bucked, she baulked, she paced and cross cantered, pinned her ears and clamped her tail. My friends dubbed her “HOPE-less.” And throughout it all, I loved her and learned…a lot. 

Hope gave me an uncanny sense of balance as a rider. She taught me to break requests into pieces and to ask for and to work towards one positive outcome at a time. Make the right way easy and the wrong way hard, she said. She taught me that it is more important to listen than to talk, that force and bullying result in resistance and resentment, that being in the NOW is the only state of being that means anything. It’s in the present that we can make changes, find our joy, and make our cherished memories.

Happy memories
Despite the many, many mistakes I made with Hope, she put up with me, assuming the role of teacher, disciplinarian, coach, advocate, and devoted friend. I think only a mare can multitask like that. 

These days, when I look for horses for the MMSC, I look for soundness first, then, saneness, and then sex. Last I look for “pretty.”  Mares are slower to find homes but they do go in time. Nobody wants an ugly horse male or female.

This summer, we have been working with two mares Tidings (top) and You Jest (below). Tidings is a cute, compactly built  15. 2 hand four year old. Like Hope was, Tidings is agile and quick, temperamental and opinionated. She gets cysts on her ovaries when she’s in heat and she makes the world know all about them. She has a healthy sense of self, is balanced on her feet, can turn on a dime, swap leads, speed up and slow down in a nano second. If she were a person, my guess is that she would excel on the New York Stock Exchange floor. As a horse, however, I think polo is the right field for her.

Suzanne Farell
You Jest came from the North American Racing Academy where she acted for the last few years as a teacher to aspiring jockeys. Her life, while not as demanding as if she were actually racing, was not all that different. She galloped on the track, breezing every few days, breaking from the gate. Riders perched high over her back but crouched low behind the neck, making a cross with the reins and taking a firm hold on the bit. “Jess” is tall and rangy. Her longed legged strides are metronome even, and mesmerizingly smooth. She is always genial and keen to please. She will offer her best even when she doesn’t understand or is in pain. You never know when she is in heat. Jess is a combination of the peerlessly lovely ballerina of yesteryear Suzanne Farrell (right) blended with the compassionate Florence Nightingale. Jess could be competitive in a new job, but where she always will excel, no matter what she does, is being somebody’s best friend. 

So mares or geldings? Which is preferable? Who knows. It’s like salt or pepper, night or day, Yin or Yang. We are blessed with both. And it always works out when we bring a horse into our lives for all the right reasons—to learn, to grow in both our horsemanship and in our humanity—the perfect horse will appear for us, whatever sex it may be.

Cheery bye, 
The great race mare Zenyatta