It’s well known that mares have a reputation for being difficult. In horse people language the term we use is “mare-ish.” Being the independent woman type with high moral standards, and owning two mares (one of which being chestnut), I feel pretty strongly that our equine lady friends are unfairly stigmatized.
The topic sprung up when I was considering selling my older mare, Giselle. I was really surprised by some of the questions that were put to me. Does she squeal? Is she moody? Is she “mare-ish”? She’s a mare, so of course she’s can be “mare-ish.” What else is she to be?
But when a potential buyer attempted to belittle my superstar by suggesting she was less valuable simply because “she was a mare” I knew there was something definitely wrong – and it wasn’t Miss G.
(The author acknowledges the potential for bias in her argument because she loooves her mares, but will try to remain mindful of it throughout this piece and put forward a well rounded argument!)
What really stood out to me while dealing with potential buyers were the questions that were not asked. There wasn’t as much interest in ground or stable manners, that she was is a dream to clip, shoe, box etc and never mind her competition record. To me, these would be the things that were most relevant before going to see and actually try a horse. Not if she ever turned her ears back to another horse, had she ever squealed or had she ever spooked. She’s a horse, isn’t that all part of what they do?
I accept that mares are prone to the aforementioned behaviors a little more so than geldings and at their extremes, are highly undesirable and unpleasant experiences. However, I don’t hold it against them. Probably because I unfortunately have my own “mare-stare,” the phenomenon known as resting bitch face. I can’t help it, genetics did it to me. But also because I’ve met more than one gelding in my life who displayed the behaviors that mares are so regularly vilified for.
I can’t help but think that perhaps this negative image of mares bores its origins in history; Patriarchal societies where women where to be seen, not heard; too emotional or sensitive to do little more than raise children and be keepers of the home. Those who challenged their stereotype were labelled impertinent, headstrong, difficult or awkward. You know, the type of women who secured voting rights, for instance. Males were accepted as stronger, more intelligent, easier going and more suited to leadership because they wouldn’t be affected by “emotions.”
That paragraph is leaning towards another topic, but let’s be fair, despite living in a progressive society we still see the undertones of gender stereotyping, even in our attitudes towards mares and geldings.
Mares are from Venus
As part of this post, I took to Instagram and Facebook, running a poll for either Team Mare or Team Gelding. It was for a bit of fun and to get some feedback from others on the topic. No surprises that both polls came back with geldings being the preferred gender, but what interested me most were the reasons for people’s choices.
Team gelding stated that geldings are easier to ride, less hormonal (which is a fact), more affectionate and are generally more willing. Some words chosen to describe mares included “difficult,” “headstrong” and “complicated.”
Team mare, despite being lower in numbers, definitely put forward more of an argument for their choice. They described mares as “smarter”, that “they’ll try harder for you” and that despite having to work a little harder, they make better partnerships overall. The resounding sentiment was that mares are not as bad as they are made out to be. And I agree.
Everyone has a preference and their reasons for them. Some people have no preference and believe it makes no difference. I’m one of those people. I think it has more to do with temperament, type and approaches to training. However, I do feel that mares should be given more credit. Why? Because, like everything we do with our horses, everything we ask of mares goes completely against instinct.
Think about it – who runs the equine world? At the core of equine social dynamics is a dominant mare, who is responsible for the safety and survival of the herd. She senses danger and moves the herd away, sources food and water and keeps the peace by clearly establishing a pecking order.
What do stallions do? They ensure the survival of the herd through reproduction and prove their overall buffness by fending off other stallions. Other than that, if the mare is not in the mood for romance she makes it very clear and he has no choice but to hang around and do as the mare says.
So what do geldings do? Well, at some point in the poor gelding’s life someone decided that he wasn’t good-looking, talented or flashy enough to get reproduction rights so he loses his main instinctive purpose in life. So now, he just does as he’s told. He basically loses his arrogance and becomes a general all round sound guy.
So why are mares perceived as being so difficult to work with in comparison to geldings? Mares are more sensitive because instinctively, they expect to fend off testosterone filled stallions from climbing on their backs. Then we come along and saddle up and put our leg on expecting a reaction and sometimes it’s not the one we want!
My belief is that as a rider, she must be 100% convinced that you are the dominant one in this relationship – and I don’t mean by force. I mean that you must communicate to her that you know what to do and that she can trust you to make the best decisions for both of you. Otherwise, if she doesn’t trust or believe you her flight or fight instincts are going to take over and you’re in for an interesting ride.
Geldings, on the other hand, are pre-programmed to follow direction. They’re not going to question your decisions like a mare would. They need a leader and maybe they’re more forgiving as they’re used to being further down in the pecking order?
I know there are always exceptions to the rule. I’m sure you can all think of a lovely mare who always looked after you, or a crabby gelding that would nap at every corner. I know one person who describes her gelding as more of a mare than her mare. But the most important thing here is to understand why they differ and why you might have a preference.
Tell a Gelding and Ask a mare
Those of us with mares know that they are not shy in sharing their opinions or telling us when we’re doing something wrong. To finish this piece I’d like to tell you about a conversation I had with a lovely girl from Switzerland.
She told me of her gelding who is perfect in every way. She described him as “just a lovely nice guy, always friendly and eager to please.” However, she went on to say despite adoring him and not wanting to part with him, she felt she didn’t have that “special connection.” She described a mare that left her in tears the first time she rode her, and swore she’d never go near her again. But after riding her a second time, she wanted to buy her and never leave her – despite all her annoying behaviors.
I can relate to her story. Before I bought Miss G I tried a beautiful Irish Sport Horse gelding. He was gorgeous and rode even more beautifully, doing everything I asked of him. He was a dream horse – but I felt nothing. It was just too “nice”. When I tried Giselle for the first time I instantly fell in love. There was a buzz coming from her that I just can’t explain. I knew she was for me.
Having spoken to my Swiss friend we put it down to personal satisfaction. I feel that overall, mares really make you work for that connection and when you get it, the sense of satisfaction and achievement makes all the bad days and brick walls worth it.
My good friend used to describe geldings as “clingy knickers,” while another gets a complete look of horror at the idea of riding or owning a mare. I can safely say I’ve been dumped by both over the years and have had both good and bad days with my gelding and my mare. I understand why some people prefer geldings to mares, but to me gender plays no role in my taste in horses, just an understanding for why they behave the way they do and an appreciation for the different lessons they teach me.
Perhaps my descriptions throughout this piece will only serve to reinforce the stereotypical views of our equine partners, but I hope not. There is no right or wrong choice and your reasons for preference are completely valid! But lets cut the mares a bit of slack. They shouldn’t be written off, looked down upon or vilified for simply behaving as nature intended.
They’re just horses, mare or gelding, and what ever your preference is we’re just lucky to have them.
(PS. Can you tell who is the mare and who is the gelding in the cover photo?!)