I’m the sort of horse-person who hears about a castration and pops a cork for a toast all around. I celebrate the gelding, both the verb and the noun. I’ve known some great stallions, but it can be a hard lifestyle in this country. My home barn is filled with a majority of geldings, mine and those belonging to clients. Who better to write a counter-argument for my recent essay explaining and praising mares? It was so well-received that I felt I was cheating on geldings. I must respond as a matter of honor …theirs.
My personal horses have been both mares and geldings. It was always about the individual horse, almost as if they blocked the road and wouldn’t let me pass, but never chosen on basis of sex. If you are new to my writing, you may not have heard me drone on about my Grandfather Horse. In hindsight, I’m most haunted by sweet geldings who have walked on.
When my Grandfather Horse, Spirit, was young we boarded at a ranch that did a limited amount of breeding. We rode early every morning and come spring, it was impossible to not overhear the stallion and mare being handled next door, as we schooled our canter transitions. I remember feeling relieved to not be in that business, relieved to know that this life, it was going to be him and me. We’d be single together with no babies desired from either of us. He carried me through some rough times back then. I was a mess and I doubt a mare would have tolerated me as kindly.
The first thing to know about geldings is that they have had their testicles removed by surgery, leaving them sterile or neutered. Good news for a domestic horse in this over-populated world. Geldings are also said to make steadier riding horses because they don’t have mood swings (heat cycles like mares) and can be more predictable. They might generally be a bit more tolerant of our shortcomings and some of us need that.
Does that mean a gelding is somehow less? The last two few Olympic gold medals came home on the back of a gelding. Geldings have as much success in the show world as they do hanging out with horse-crazy girls in the paddock. They are the good guys.
Geldings can seem like the strong silent type, perfect to co-star with the Lone Ranger. (Silver was a gelding.) Stoic to a fault, the perfect match for Gary Cooper and all the old cowboys who might have been a bit put-off by strong-willed mares or women.
Geldings are the epitome of a workhorse, focused and committed to the task at hand, even hiding pain in favor of partnering with humans. I’ve known geldings with huge hearts who offer more than they are asked, with a lifelong willingness to push on and improve, jumping from one riding discipline to another as their rider asks. Geldings are the sort as happy to work long hours as they are happy to sit on the sofa and watch movies on a rainy day. You could introduce them to your mother, and they’d give her the royal pony-ride treatment. They show us patience and take care of us; a gelding will fill in for us when we get it wrong. Donkeys see that as a serious character flaw.
The long-ears are right, that is the downside of geldings. They are easier to intimidate, easier to dominate and shut down. We call it desensitizing, but we flood them with noise and trap them in a cage of learned helplessness because they choose a flight or freeze response, but almost never to fight. Being stoic comes with a price and many are damaged beyond their limits by being taken advantage of by unscrupulous trainers and owners. We call them push-button or think they’re stupid. Shame on us, we exploit their good and willing natures because it’s easier than living up to their example.
Some geldings appear docile as teddy bears, but it’s an underestimation. They deserve more respect. They won’t get it from mares, famous for toying with the gelding’s schoolboy infatuations, but we need to understand that a stoic horse is not less sensitive, less intelligent, or less vital in any way. We must adjust up the volume of their language, their calming signals. Geldings say more with a neck stretch than a mare says galloping circles with her tail flagged. It’s our job to be better listeners. When geldings whisper, we need to acknowledge them and respond to the small signals as the large and true statements that are intended. It’s all about trusting that they will be heard.
There is a difference between a simple mind and a single mind, one with less distraction that can focus with calm clarity. We would do better to take a cue and still our own busy chatter. Expect less, and be happy with what we have, rewarding all the tiny successes until we are swept away in a tsunami of perfection.
If mares teach us to respect them, then perhaps geldings help us respect ourselves.
For me, geldings are personal, a matter of the heart. Quirky, smart, and wildly challenging, they have danced with me on my good days and stood by me on the bad. I am the product of geldings. On my own, I can be mare-ish, opinionated and headstrong. I can jump to conclusions and hold a grudge. Geldings gifted me with confidence from accomplishing hard challenges, character by witnessing their strength, and a sense of acceptance that I didn’t find elsewhere. Kindness and empathy can be learned in the shadow of geldings, who give us a sense of humanity in our inhuman world. With a grateful nod, I owe a debt to all geldings, and especially my Grandfather Horse, who taught me the greatest strength is vulnerability. From my memoir, Stable Relation:
“Sometimes I see a father playing with his child, tossing her in the air and catching her, holding her tight to his chest. Then my heartbeat feels tight in my own chest and I think of Spirit. He did that toss and catch with me.”
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.