In my younger (OK, MUCH younger) days, I didn’t like mares. They seemed unpredictable and difficult compared to geldings, or even stallions. I was wrong.
In the feral society of horses, mares have tremendous responsibilities. The stallion is the lookout, will move them in times of imminent danger and directly take on predators but the day to day social management falls on the mares. The band moves whenever and wherever the alpha mare directs them. She also maintains order. All the mares below her fall into a defined social framework and do their part in policing the band.
The high level of responsibility that mares have carries over into their behavior in domestication. Mares are very sensitive to, and upset by, chaos and turmoil of any kind. They do not respond well to yelling, confrontations, disruptions or physical force. Their goal is peaceful coexistence with well being for themselves, their foals and their band mates.
A common complaint is that mares do not perform as well or consistently when in season. My first advice is – get over it! Understand that this is as basic a drive for survival as are hunger and thirst. When ovulating, announce it and breed.
You can work around this issue with management changes. Don’t expect her peak effort, although many mares with a good work ethic will suspend any estrus behavior under saddle or in harness. Do keep her distracted by exercises including many changes of direction, cavaletti, etc. or go for a relaxed cross-country walk. Picking your battles carefully is most likely to get some behavioral modification. If she vocalizes occasionally, ignore this. A little urine squirting when in the aisle is really not a big deal either. If this is too much for you to deal with, get a gelding.
Regumate (synthetic progesterone) administration has been the go-to solution for eliminating estrus behavior. It doesn’t stop cycling but because estrus is triggered by drops in progesterone it does block the outward manifestations. Drawbacks are that some mares become dull, irritable and listless (if you have ever been pregnant, you can identify) and progesterone can worsen insulin resistance.
There are herbal alternatives for mares that are impossible to work with when in season. Vitex agnus-castus aka Chasteberry supports normal hormonal function, as do combinations including raspberry leaf, magnesium and Dong Quai.
A mare treated calmly and fairly will be a willing partner but if you can really earn her trust and be admitted to her world you’re in for a special experience. One of my favorite horses of all time is a mare that came to us as the stereotypical “bitchy mare”. She was actually dangerous, would try to kick or bite anyone within range.
Her former trainer revealed he never entered her stall without a whip and had used strong arm tactics to deal with her – unsuccessfully. Observing her the first few days one thing was abundantly clear. She was miserable. After some firm but gentle definition of boundaries it was possible to give her a good examination. She had multiple physical problems – feet, joints, back, muscle. All work was suspended and she was given time to heal.
With respectful handling and her pain receding she was a new horse. She would yell in welcome and often “talk” when being groomed or treated.
Because she tended to overdo it when on turnout, we got her a goat as a companion. She became so attached she would stay by the goat and buck in place rather than tear around. Another time a litter of puppies broke into her stall and she was found standing like a statue with puppies jumping on all four legs. When on the home farm, I could leave her stall open for her to graze as she pleased because she didn’t have anywhere else she wanted to be. She was also the fastest racehorse we ever had.
There are many other stories, and anyone who has loved and been loved by a mare has a collection of their own. I just want to say that anyone avoiding mares thinking they are too difficult is really missing out!
Eleanor Kellon, VMD