When choosing a horse, many riders shy away from buying a mare. Why? Mares are thought of as being moody, difficult to manage during their heat cycles and hypersensitive toward their environment. But mares can also be dependable, brave and devoted mounts with a little bit of understanding.
In a herd of feral or pastured horses, it is the mare’s job to look after the well being of the group’s social order. One mare will establish dominance, and is referred to as the “alpha mare”. She is often the most alert mare, the one who notices any signs of a predator or changes in the surroundings. She also seems to decide when and where the herd will move. Occasionally her dominance will be challenged by another mare looking to move up the social ranks, but the alpha mare quickly puts the subordinate in place with a show of teeth, a swish of her tail and perhaps a threatening kick.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is the submissive mare. These are the more fragile, sensitive types who may fret when moved to a new barn or become nervous around groups of strange horses, such as at a show. This is because they are insecure and looking for leadership. The riders and handlers of these sorts of mares need to be reassuring yet firm, establishing the human as the mare’s surrogate leader.
Never, though, should a mare be handled roughly. Mares are apt to continue to fight if they are of the alpha type, or likely to hold a grudge and sulk if of the more submissive nature. It requires a patient rider to get the best performance from a mare. And only by building a level of trust, regardless of the mare’s temperament, can a human hope to communicate with a mare.
To alleviate some of a mare’s behavioral characteristics, some show riders turn to hormone suppression treatments. Some products, such as Regumate, must be administered topically on feed. Others are available as implants, placed under the mare’s skin by a veterinarian. Both do prevent a mare from cycling, or coming into heat. But there are drawbacks. First, liquid Regumate must be handled carefully, as it can cause hormonal fluctuations in humans. Second, while on hormone suppression, mares do not ovulate. There is some evidence that after prolonged use of such products, it can be difficult to get a mare in foal. Mares destined for a broodmare career may be affected for a period of time. Finally, not all mares will benefit from treatment. A mare that kicks, bites or grumps at other horses may simply be anti-social. And a high-strung mare may just have a hot temperament. It’s always best to consider training and handling regimens first.
Indeed, mares may require special handling. But often they repay their riders with years of loyalty and blue ribbons.