The Thing About Mares

A Przewalski mare and foal in Scotland

When Larry McMurtry wrote Lonesome Dove, he gave Woodrow Call’s gray mare a blunt name that was rudely respectful, in a close-as-kin way. Being a sort of gray mare myself, the name stuck in my memory. Some folks hate mares so much they refuse to have them on the place. Others praise them to the heavens and would never ride anything else. Some folks believe if you meet a man who only rides mares, you should marry him.

Whatever you think, your horse wouldn’t be here without mares, so they deserve some understanding.

The first thing to remember about mares is that they are intact. We tend to think of mare and geldings grouped together and then stallions as another thing. In truth, mares and stallions are more similar than either are to geldings. Mares have hormones -and when has that not complicated everything? Lots of mares slide into heat cycles unnoticed while others are almost un-rideable. All horses are unique individuals but mares, twice as much.

Mares sometimes have a reputation for being a bit particular.

Could that mare be in pain? We tend to leap to thinking their behaviors are training issues or bad temperament, but horses get cranky when things hurt, and body language is the only way they have to let us know. If your horse’s behavior changes, pain must be the first guess. Horses don’t just turn wicked.

Did you know that horses have a higher incidence of ovarian tumors than any other domestic animal? Ovaries are positioned in the upper flank area, down from the sacroiliac (SI) joint, and are impacted by riding. Tumors are generally under-diagnosed but when talking to my vet about that, I asked whether mares had an equine equivalent of PMS and he said absolutely not. I notice when I pass this information along to women, the response runs from head shaking to chins dropped with mouths gaping wide. I think vets would say we have an anecdotal opinion.

More anecdotal information: People seem to agree that heat cycles are lasting longer, some even year round. Many mares struggle with long, harsh heat cycles, especially as they age. One of my mares had six-week-long cycles and was so uncomfortable that she spent the day banging her hips against the barn or fence posts. I kept her on Regumate, although she was an elder with a tendency to colic. I seem to have anthropomorphic and anecdotal thoughts about living on birth control, I notice. The option of spaying mares is a relatively easy surgery these days, something to consider in some cases.

Is there some “Degree in Anecdotal Science” that is bestowed on life-long students of the horse? No? Okay, feel free to disregard this last part. It’s just my opinion.

Some mares behave differently because of issues with training. Or more precisely, go nuts with trainers who use domination techniques. Mares seem to have a decent amount of confidence in themselves, along with a well-defined sense of what good human behavior should look like. If mares were going to quote a human, they might remind you that Eleanor Roosevelt, who walked in a practical stride and was called horse-faced, said: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

That’s how the training fight begins. Blind obedience isn’t even on a mare’s list of possibles. You can pick a fight with a mare if you like, and perhaps she won’t win, but she will never quit fighting. Sixty-five percent of rescue horses are mares.

At the same time, mares are not always fans of public displays of affection. She’ll do what you ask, for hours without quitting, but she doesn’t need to brag about it. No undue familiarity, please. She takes herself seriously, a concept frequently lost on geldings.

Let’s say the mare isn’t struggling with reproductive problems. Or having some kind of PTSD from poor training. Or chronic gastric issues from managing unruly herd dynamics, both human and equine. Or recurring lameness because she’s too tough to limp around about it. She will still have mood swings because hormones exist. The stoic ones will keep it to themselves and the more communicative mares will let the whole world know.

I don’t think mares are smarter than geldings, but they might be a bit sharper. It’s a generalization, not a hard-fast rule but in my experience, mares seem to be more involved in the big picture. Maybe it’s the mom gene, but they are frequently less playful than geldings. They seem more interested in herd relationships. Some of it is sweet companionship and some is Boss Mare work. Many provide quiet safety to the herd; they are the invisible leader.

It’s usually a sway-backed elder mare who wonders why humans think that the horse with the most anxiety is the alpha horse. That’s crazy, and she’s right, of course. Mares are always right. Besides, herd dynamics have more nuance than humans think, the mare would add.

Some mares can be a little Type A; controlling and opinionated. It’s a big job ruling the herd. Lives depend on it. Literally, as prey animals, mares know that a mistake means death. You can call her pessimistic or remind her that horses are domesticated, but instinct runs deep. Hugs don’t make it go away and carrots don’t soften her resolve. She must be forever on guard.

How to get on the good side of a mare? Manage to not get in her way. Respect her independence and give her room. Acknowledge her intelligence by listening. Prove you’re not one of the crazy humans by calming your emotions; by being quiet and persistent, qualities she appreciates. Be consistent and give her all the time she needs to trust you.

Controlling the universe is an exhausting job. Every mare works hard but the task is never done. On the bright side, your mare could use an hour off. If you’re worthy, if she can feel safe with you, she could rest and allow you to lead. She’ll be generous and compliant, willing to give you her very best in exchange. As long as you respect her autonomy, she won’t need to defend it.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm

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Working with riders of any discipline and horses of any breed, Anna believes dressage training principals build a relaxed & forward foundation that crosses over all riding disciplines in the same way that the understanding Calming Signals benefits all equine communication.

Anna Blake

88 thoughts on “The Thing About Mares”

    • Well stated as always! I miss my mare. She died last year. She was retired. In my opinion, half drafts should not be eventing horses. Tight developed arthritis in her joints and never complained. I was at the point of switching exclusively to dressage. However she must have hit her 10,000 jump limit.
      She was the sweetest creature. She would talk to me. I was in a very large eventing barn and distinctly remember her nay because it drowned out all the noise of the big barn with 30 stalls. She was upset that I was watching something in the arena and could hear my voice.
      I spoiled her with carrots and she loved it. Costco loved it, I was known as the carrot guy at the local store.
      Her personality was as big as her feet. She was a half Clydesdale x half TB. Imported from New Zealand and I was her third owner. I truly believe she was pushed to hard to Prelim. I found out her trainer in NZ was male. He must have been abusive at some point.
      I know in my own ignorance and learning to ride on her that the more I made stupid mistakes/choices she had her her level of tolerance.
      She looked like a cob standing 15.2 hands. Full of heart. I love mares.

  1. Thank you for this, it is beautifully written and resonates so much with me. I have just brought my 16 year old grey mare out of retirement (again) to try (again) to find some peace between us. Things are going well, I can feel the shift that was needed in myself! Great article, always love reading your posts. X

  2. All my “keepers” were mares. If you have a mare, you may never run out of horses. Sure, I learned on a 25 yo gelding who’d been a champion hack and was the “schoolmaster”, but the next and all after him were mares. I don’t “dig” geldings, not that they are trouble, maybe I sense their lack. I bred and rode a couple, but they got moved on. Most went as young colts.
    Never, ever in a saddle mare have I detected oestrus or behavioural issues. Is this a huge thing to say, after a whole lifetime on about 5 very special mares? Maybe such things arise if a mare has issues with the rider/owner and needs an excuse to play up. If mares are sensitive, then maybe it takes sensitivity to relate with them. Nature provides a mare not to step on or bump her foal, to watch what she is doing, to take care. To love and respect. Can we be a part of that? I think so.
    The fact is, mares CARE. There is an awareness in them not found in geldings. I’ve had a 3 saddle stallions, grand in a different way, superb, but do they care?
    Anna, 3 cheers for the mares, without them we would have no horses. I would never breed a foal unless both its parents were good proven saddle horses, because I have coined a term of my own……”genetic memory”. The foals remember, and someone has to ride their mothers.
    I had no idea so many rescues were mares. Standing up for themselves, no doubt!
    Thank you Anna, my soul soars to know it is not alone. For me a very special post.

  3. I couldn’t love this more. I have 5 daughters and 4 sisters, so chose a gelding as my primary horse because I wanted to do JUST ONE THING in my life without having a discussion about it. My second horse is a welsh cob mare with a ton of attitude and SO much try. I’ve come to love her like a sister, but I show it with respect, not affection, cause she isn’t having any of that. It ruins her street cred. But I’ve also seen her be a total love with at risk youth- she seems to know that it’s her job in that moment to be smothered with hugs and she’s all in. God I love mares.

    • Thank you for writing this. This is a FABULOUS article !!! SOOOO TRUE !!!! I have 2 geldings now but in the past, I had 6 mares, all at the same time, (4 were Arabs) and I was hesitant to take on a gelding as my mares were so easy. But easy, ONLY if you kept that dialogue open and listened. I swear/know, that the PercheronX gelding I have now, is the reincarnation of my Arab mare, Elfin. I have never seen such a highly sensitive, intelligent gelding as my Gryffy. Like my mare, Elfin, when there were stressful situations, only I can help Gryffy though it. And never with force.

  4. Love this!! And I love my mare!! I also have a stallion and I love him! I don’t understand geldings. I guess I like opinions in both my animals and my humans! Lol

  5. The option of spaying mares is a relatively easy surgery these days, something to consider in some cases. Having “known” only one spayed mare many years ago – dont have any personal experience. And yeah – can believe mares just like many of us have “issues” to put it mildly with hormones!
    But (always a but, right?) since the wild horses now have the threat of spaying mares – apparently just so the BLM can “see what happens” with herd dynamics? Something they really havent been interested in before! They were prevented by public outcry twice now, but that hasnt stopped them. They have held a small group of mares (100 or so) in Burns Oregon & this time with no affiliation with a university, are going to do it again. There still is a period of time for comments to the BLM – I believe till June 4th. This threat continues even though there supposedly is an “agreement” between BLM, cattlemen, couple animal welfare groups, and, for some reason, a wild horse advocacy. The agreement sounds (from reading it) pretty much to lean towards livestock & towards eradicating wild horses!
    I apologize for going on & on – but have to grab an opportunity when I can!!
    Thank you to all those grey and not so grey mares out there!! I hope one or two would research this & possibly at the least send a comment to the BLM. BUT read about it first – dont just take my word OR the livestock lobby & the BLM. Contrary to their opinion, there are no thousands & thousands of wild horses running rampant on public land!!

  6. So helpful in allowing me to see the bigger picture, especially what’s going on with my mare. I feel so much better being curious and interested instead of anxious and intimidated! I’ve had some anecdotal experience that tells me she responds very differently to someone who is clear and not ambivalent (duh!). Your suggestions feel like they will be really helpful in my continuing journey with her. Oh, and speaking of hormones, this mare had always been at the bottom of the pecking order, in both her current and previous herds, until she had her first foal two years ago and promptly took over as the boss!

  7. My mare and I finish each other’s sentences….this post was captivating to me. It was like having someone put down on paper what has gone on in your head and heart every time you have had to staunchly defend your best friend but lacked the words to explain. 🙂 For the umpteenth time, thank you so much Anna. Brilliant.

  8. Anna, I love the way you captured the essence of mares. I’d like to add one more – “a mare doesn’t offer her heart easily, but when she does give you her heart, you’ve got it for life.”
    That’s probably the the same concept behind your phrasing on EARNED.
    As a teen I rode geldings. My sister bonded with our mare pony and then went on to get another mare.
    I developed my understanding of, and fondness for, mares later. Now I have three horses – all mares – all rescues. Only one with hormone related struggles.
    I love my mares.

  9. I have a stoic mare. A rescue. She was the hardest yet most rewarding nut to crack. I’ve learned more from her than any gelding. I trust whatever she says or doesn’t say. I wouldn’t trade her for the world! Thank you Anna and my mare thanks you too!

  10. From your article, “I asked whether mares had an equine equivalent of PMS and he said absolutely not.” …

    😉 “HE” said … anecdotal presumptions cut both ways. I have mares and geldings, and among the mares their reactions to hormones are different, but they absolutely react and in ways that are pretty consistent with a PMS analog. Of course, I’m not sure how you’d craft a study to check that … or where you’d get funding.

    And one of my mares is a range bred & raised mustang. She’s all the mare you describe – and more so. Looking forward to being at your clinic in Portsmouth NH tomorrow, 1 June 2019!

  11. My wild mare came to me broken and in pain. (Not broke. Broken.) which she really let me know on our first ride. Did all the “natural horsemanship” stuff. She’d do it but got more and more sullen. Then I found the Intrizen work. Being a body worker and functional movement instructor it made sense to me. Giving her 100% autonomy about whether she wanted to participate was one of the hardest things I ever did. Because for six months she said eff you and walked away. Today I have the happiest, most willing mare and amazing partnership. She was a lead mare in the wild (yes I knew her before she was gathered) and she is most definitely a lead mare again. Last night I brought home three goats. She made damn sure they were alright and stayed with them all night. And came to the fence for butt scratches. But don’t hug her.

  12. Love this! My first horse was a very opinionated mare. She taught three girls to ride and show and then ended up with me, a 50-something clueless newbie. Fortunately, I had a trainer who loved and respected mares, which kept me safe and allowed me to find my way both with this mare and horses in general. She ended up with me at a discounted price because she had developed a reputation for being difficult. My way “in” with her turned out to be keeping her company while she was drying after being rinsed off. She HATED being alone. That brought me to the exalted status of “Better Than Nothing.” I was thrilled! And she liked being brushed, which suited me just fine. She was territorial about her stall but eventually stopped trying to intimidate me when trying to enter. I never went in there unless I had “business” there – otherwise it was her space and I respected it. She was tired of stalls, drills, patterns so after three years of receiving so very much from her, I bred her and retired her. A happier pasture horse and mother never existed! She was a blast to ride and taught me so much, but what I treasure even more is the memory of her personality, larger than life and often hilarious. She left me with hundreds of “Promise” stories that never get old. She was the horse that pissed off the trainers because sometimes she just would not easily go along with the simplest things, yet they loved and respected her because they knew what she was worth – everything!

  13. All the yes! I love horses that want partners, and mares expect better from us inherently. I’ve had mares who were written off, discounted for being opinionated, sullen, moody and hormonal. Called stupid and unwilling. But if you hold the door open between you, if you give them a platform to use their voice, acknowledge their wisdom, their need to consider something, they do eventually walk through it. And then, you can walk side by side as girlfriends, backing each other up rather than pushing each other down. My mares have never quit me. They have given their all, even when I didn’t deserve it. All for respect given. I tell my students regularly that if a mare loves you, she will carry you through hell and return you safe home. If she doesn’t, you’d be better off walking in on your own.

  14. This is one of my favorite soapbox topics within several of my all time favorite topic to discuss–Horses, aka The Beauties. I learned a few new things I hadn’t known from your article–65% of rescue horses are mares – 🙁 And that spaying is considered relatively easy on them. I assumed it was a major surgery, which I am loathe to put horses through generally speaking.

    I appreciate you pointing out the very real dynamic of the mares being “intact” –a word not often used in the States.
    This is like so many things, both a potential virtue and a potential vice. One of the virtues I have noticed is that wonderful, extra sensitivity that intact horses have which I appreciate as a student of classical dressage. When one is aiming to develop a quiet seat and the quietest of aides, an intact horse is your best teacher. The truth doesn’t always match the vision in our head, but I’ve chosen to pursue truth over fantasy with regard to myself. So show me the mirror even if it causes me to cringe. Mares, stallions and some sensitive geldings can’t help themselves–they will show/tell you the truth.

    One personal theory on the subject regarding why so many women don’t like mares, is that they are quite similar to us –they cycle monthly and are thus more moody–like us. This can provide wonderful growing opportunities imho (in my humble opinion) for us women. But usually we would rather not face that er….. at times, ugly side of ourselves, and the mares kinda force us to. If we can find compassion for our mares in this respect, perhaps we can find more acceptance of our own limitations and/or need to get a grip when challenged with hormonal moodiness.

    As a mother of sons, I noticed how much pressure is put on boys, rightfully so, to control their hormonal male sexual tendencies, but no such similar restraint was expected of the girls (thinking jr. high and high school ages). They were allowed to create at times ridiculous and even outrageous drama at school with little to no accountability. I have no doubt their hormonal tendencies contributed to this, but it was typically laughed off with an eye roll, as “drama.” Ahem–we females need to learn self control with our hormonal tendencies every bit as much as the guys.

    Lately, I have been very much missing having a mare around. A true herd just isn’t complete without mares and that means more than one. If only I could afford a herd of horses. Generally, due to finances among other things, I don’t let the sex of the horse be a determining factor when looking for a new beauty (which I always seem to be doing, without actually buying any–yep I’m addicted). With my two boys now 20 and 21 I am really hoping that our next addition will be a mare, which will mean that I have to get another mare, as it only seems fair since mares are so especially relational and prefer another mare for their bestie. Maybe that will be me.

  15. If you’re worthy, if she can feel safe with you, she could rest and allow you to lead.

    This is my struggle with my mare when we ride alone on the trail, or when other horses leave the arena and we are left alone. I would do anything to win her trust, that I can keep her safe. Working on it everyday!!!

  16. Hit the nail on the head. There’s a LOT of estrogen at my place. The one gelding ( now placed at a therapy facility) tried to run the show – nope, we won’t go there. Much more peace around here now.

  17. A most wonderful reading on mares. As I re-read it I realized you could almost replace “mare” with “mom” in every instance of behavior and “the caring of”.

    Thanks!

  18. I totally adore my mare ❤️
    She’s not the boldest, bravest horse around, but she’s one of the sweetest, kindest, well mannered little horses you could ever meet and although she may find some things a little scary at first, she’s always willing to give things a go and tries her heart out for me.
    Can’t ask for more than that ❤️

  19. Brilliant, I love my mares, I have had a gelding and he was special, especially to the mares in his herd but the mares are the best!

      • I have read that in the wild it is the mares that control the herd, not the stallions, and that’s okay by me.
        We have only geldings here. Not on purpose. It’s just the way it turned out. As I read all these comments, it occurred to me my gelding Appy was very much like the mares featured here, so I can share at least a bit of the opinions regarding the special nature these beings bring to our respective barns. HOWEVER! my remaining geldings have lots to bring to the table. I am grateful every day for that.

        • I would never sell geldings short, I think mares can be misunderstood more often but… My Grandfather Horse (obviously) was a gelding after all and I am feeling a bit like you… don’t sell geldings short. Thanks, Lynell

      • I’ve always felt sorry for the geldings! Yet just lately met a whole raft of people who absolutely refuse to own mares. Certain places in the world a man would never be seen dead on a mare or a gelding, man’s gotta ride a stallion or he’s not a man.

        • To me, a lot is initially determined by hormones, both for humans and horses. The men who will only ride stallions are testosterone-driven (we won’t mention their deep insecurity!); geldings are less complicated than mares because they’re not hormone-driven; females of both species are more “relational” because of their underlying biological priorities as caregivers. Like the gal with sisters and daughters said, it could be downright peaceful to have a gelding to hang out with :-). Let’s just say they’re all awesome, and just like with humans, some you click with better than others.

  20. I love my mares, I have all of the above mentioned ones, the herd boss, the one that wants the world to know she’s in heat, the silent heat one, but my favorite one, and the one I ride and show is the most willing and trusting one! We get a long great, she will do anything I ask of her, she is 6 now, but has been that way since she was trained at 2 1/2. We compete in obstacle challenges and she is awesome! Wouldn’t trade my mare(s) for all the geldings in the world!! Great read – I’m glad someone is standing up for the girls!

  21. I love this article, thank you.
    I love my mares, have always loved everything about them. Their cranky faces, their ‘look, admire, but don’t hug’ self-confidence. As a breeder, many of my mares have been my homebreds, and some of them I have bought back after they were sold years before. I had the dam of my stallion, his two sisters, and many of his daughters. Mothers, daughters, sisters, nieces, cousins … all so beautiful, so imperious, so kind and so precious. At one point my husband referred to our farm as ‘Estrogen Acres’ – which made me laugh. So true.

  22. I have only owned mares. I connect with even the crankiest ones. Geldings remind me of teenage boys – silly, seem to look for trouble and sometimes absent minded. I know there are good geldings and my current mare makes me think about going over to the other side (when she’s in heat…lol) but still love the mares.

  23. I love mares especially the opinionated ones. I have usually preferred my mares to my geldings as they have had more “personality”. I currently have a QH mare who is opinionated and does not want you fawning over her. After a good workout she is very mellow and loving. She likes being groomed and having her itchy spots scratched, but she will let you know when enough of a good thing is enough. She is very smart and becomes very connected to me, reading my energy and intent. Her ground work can look like she is reading my mind responding to a gesture. She is a truly wonderful partner who appreciates her quiet time. She rules the two geldings with a look, head toss, or the raising of a hoof. Mares do appreciate your respect and attention on their terms. You can’t be overly emotional as that makes you look like you need her to lead and protect you from your own devices. If you are like that you become another burden to her.
    I have had mares who had PMS and yearly from April-June they needed to be on Regumate. Several student’s mares had a 3 mo period of being grumpy, suffering brain fog or being just this side of dangerous.

    I loved this article, so glad you picked mares , hope it enlightens others

  24. When I was a teenager, I needed to know this, as a mare I rode was a constant trial to me. I almost gave up riding altogether. But we found a home for her that was non competition, and easy going. Perfect for both. Decades later a mare was given to me, and we shared an amazing 25 years. She was an incredible teacher, and I’m still reflecting on those lessons. Maybe before I die I may be ready to share time with a Longear, for my final lessons.

  25. So glad I had a few moments to read and contemplate this lovely piece. Really gives me a new appreciation for my mare.

  26. Magic moment yesterday, since this mare blog started, so I’ll comment again. I took a 4 yo girl to meet our 2 1/2 yo filly, over the garden fence. She’s pushing 15 h already. Filly, “What is THAT?” Gets huge, ears up, bug eyed, backing off. Never seen a small person. Kid wants to meet her, I’m just watching. Filly sneaks up cautiously, sniffs child, behaved so gently, all through her hair, never nibbled or tried to bite and we’ve had a lot of that but I’d got her out of it with “muzzle cuddling”.
    Little hand reached through the fence to pat the shoulder, filly’s reached over, nuzzling the kid’s face and neck. So calm and I got photos. I don’t think a colt or gelding would have shown such incredibly gentle interest.
    Kid says, “She’s quiet!”
    Same filly that fought with an un-thinking farrier.

    • Susan, the whole thing was interesting, and now I feel like perhaps borrowing the kid to continue! We had a tribe fixing a boundary fence, from an incident the previous night (I’d heard and witnessed from afar) where one of their cars did a lot of damage, the whole family (humbled) had come to help fix fence, took all morning, kid got bored and pesky (picture 4yo kid messing in coil of wire) so I’d taken her away for a decent walk, “Let’s go see the horse”. Overgrown baby girl horse meets precocious wee girl child. Magic happens. And I’d only had the camera for “crime scene photos”, since deleted, in case no-one owned up!

  27. I grew up with mares and at 61 years old, I still have a mare. She’s an Arabian rescue that was used for horse tripping when she was deemed too dangerous to be a dancing horse. I am the first person to earn her complete trust. Being in a body that doesn’t like to cooperate anymore I sometimes stumble and fall but my girl will get between me and all others until I’m on my feet again. She’s permanently lame from her past abuse but we go for walks on the trails and down the road. I will always have mares.

  28. Louise I totally think you should borrow the kid and continue (with suitable release of liability of course!). I find kids so much more enjoyable than adult humans, and you could be helping a future horsewoman get her start. Not to mention how fascinating it is to watch horses adjust their responses to different people.

  29. I love my mare to the moon and back. She goes out of her way to keep me safe when I have done some dumb things in judgement on the trail. She is the best horse I have ever owned. I love my geldings, but she is my foundation.

  30. Thank you.
    To say I am partial to mares would be an understatement. As I got older, I didn’t love geldings less, I just understood mares more. I have learned the art of negotiation by having mares. And I am handed buckets full of Self Realization on a regular basis kindly offered up from each one of my mares. I could write a tome on what I have learned about myself through my mares, and how important it is to appreciate that humans aren’t the only ones who have emotional baggage.
    I have 3 very different mares. I have the stoic alpha, I have the sensitive and kind watcher, and I have the extremely complicated and complex dynamic mare who has created her place in the herd by contemplative and sometimes resentful assessment.
    I’ll stop there, as I can feel the gushing about to begin… But I want to Thank You for posting this. I think more often than not mares are misunderstood, and perhaps the saying is true, “you don’t pick the mare, the mare picks you.”

  31. I am in the category of preferring mares. I’ve always had them and felt like I understood them better than geldings. I also appreciated their independent streaks, they weren’t always seeking the answers from me. It was a mutual “we are in this together” kind of dynamic. “Girlfriend, I got your back.” Two years ago I got my first gelding. My husband supported me to get a horse I could ride but insisted on a gelding. He was tired of being surrounded by females. Guess who he appreciates more than anything on our farm…our mare. He thinks our gelding is a “punk.” Obviously he isn’t a horse person but there is something to be said about the dynamic with our gelding. After 2plus years things have settled and we are all good, but who do I still go to when I need some chill time…my mare.

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