Appreciating a Mare

Some people love geldings, some people love mares, and some people swear there is more difference between individuals than there is between geldings and mares in general.  Myself, I’m not sure.  I’ve known great geldings, and pain in the butt geldings, and sweet mares and cranky mares.  Of course, working with Liam for so many years, I grew partial not just to geldings, but to horses of his personality and temperament.  He’s sweet and loving, gentle and kind.  He’s got bountiful energy, and is always in the mood for a good gallop.  Dressage was trying on his patience, but being the kind soul that he is, he put up with it, and put up with teaching me as well.  Of course he had his “red head” moments, and he had his “explosive ottb moments”, and he had his “temper tantrums”, but we never chalked these up to his being a gelding.  We blamed it on his gorgeous chestnut coat, or his hot thoroughbred blood.

Now Cava, on the other hand, at first seemed to be everything Liam isn’t.   She’s slower to react, quieter under saddle, young and supple and yet totally chilled.  She’s a little stand-offish, not the puppy dog he is.   She goes about her job, then goes about the rest of her life.  But she goes about her job on her own terms, and seems to manage the rest of her life (and herdmates) the same way.  If something needs to be done, she needs to be consulted.  If we are making a change, her opinion needs to be factored in.  If we are going to accomplish anything, her cooperation must be obtained.  No, make that earned.   She’s a mare.

I think I held it against her for a long time.  Every time she didn’t want to do what I wanted to do, it was a bad mare day. Every time she didn’t understand, or disagreed, it was a mare thing.   At one point or another she embodied every mare stereotype out there.

But then when I think about it, so did Liam. Except when he did the same things, they were thoroughbred stereotypes, or sensitive chestnut stereotypes.  Maybe stereotypes are just as useless for horses as they are for people.  After all, when I think about it, Liam and Cava have a lot more in common than they do different, despite all their differences.

And Cava, over time, has actually become more like Liam.  Maybe Liam is who he is because of the time we’ve had together? He was a very different horse when I found him.  And now Cava, after a year, is developing a personality like his.  Maybe the “mare” or “chestnut” stereotypes actually say more about the owner (or trainer) than about the actual horse?  Or maybe they are just convenient excuses for when things go wrong?

From the beginning I offered Liam, my first and only horse, my unconditional love. In everything, I consulted him.  What saddle pad is the most comfortable? What bit is the best? How do you like to be groomed? What’s your favorite treat? What routine makes you the happiest? How do you like to spend your free time? On and on, I accommodated his every need, and fully appreciated every ride.

When I started with Cava, my life was very different. She wasn’t my only horse, and she wasn’t the only horse I rode every day. I wasn’t nursing her back to health and soundness, I was taking her health and soundness for granted. I wasn’t riding her to learn everything I could, I was riding her to prove what I had learned.  I wasn’t the best partner I could be, and sure enough, she wasn’t a very good partner to me.  We worked, every day, but not together.

Slowly, I got to know her. I am learning to understand her, and I am getting to appreciate her for her. She isn’t Liam, of course, but she is a lot like him. And if I want the same kind of partnership with her, I need to give to her what I had given him.

Now I know. Her favorite saddle pad is the fluffy light blue one.  She likes the curry comb on the under side of her neck, and a stiff brush to scratch her forehead against.  She likes routine work and patterns, rather than a more varied routine.  When she’s done working, she’s done. She doesn’t want to hang out, she wants to go relax.  But after she’s had a chance to relax, she does like to hang out. Especially if it involves more pampering or hand grazing.

Now I consult her when things go wrong.  Recently we’ve had spectacular rides, but randomly I would lose all steering and she would slam the brakes and throw her head up like she wanted to rear.  Finally I asked her why, and found she’d gotten her tongue over the bit.  So I thought to make the noseband one hole tighter, so she could still open her mouth a little and chew, but maybe wouldn’t be able to get her tongue over the bit (and cause herself significant discomfort). She was very unhappy with this idea. So I thought hard about it over night. She doesn’t want her tongue under the bit. Doesn’t want pressure on her tongue. Doesn’t like the thick, double jointed KK bit she’s wearing? Maybe a single jointed bit will give her more room for her tongue, put less pressure on her tongue, and be less inviting to put her tongue over? Even better, what about the hollow mouth snaffle. So light, it’s like there’s nothing there.  The next day, I switched her bit to the thick hollow mouth snaffle, and enjoyed much steadier contact. And today, in that nothing bit, we rode through most of Second Level test 4.

So I am appreciating Cava.  She is sweet, and talented. She is opinionated, but tries hard when her opinion has been respected.  She is gentle and friendly, but needs her space.  She will give me all she has, but demands I give my best as well.  She requires me to be patient, and to listen.  I need to stay balanced, and pay attention to my timing, always communicating clearly.  She is a demanding teacher, but she is willing to be my partner… if I act like her partner. She is a mare.

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6 thoughts on “Appreciating a Mare

  1. What a lovely post! The more I learn about horses, the more I pay attention to mine and ask them the same things you ask them. I think a lot of people are willing to address EITHER the training aspects of a behavior (doesn’t like contact so let’s school the horse on taking contact) OR the comfort aspects of it (doesn’t like contact so let’s see if the horse doesn’t like this bit), but I think it’s really important to do both.

    Cava is beautiful. She looks like a very sweet, kind girl.

  2. Very thoughtful post. I’ve thought for some time that the breed/gender/colour stereotypes were just that – stereotypes. I’ve had two very sweet, kind mares (a grey TB/WB and a bay TB) a sweet kind gelding (chestnut TB), a “typical” mare (seal brown QH), and an opinionated, “marish” gelding (seal brown TB).

    I have repeatedly said, to anyone airing the “red TB mare” stereotype that I have a brown TB gelding who is chestnut mare in every sense of the term.

    People just remember the ones that fit the stereotype. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

  3. I really enjoyed this post. I’ve ridden quite a few red-headed chestnut mares who were actually dark bay geldings (on the outside, at least.) Stereotypes are there when we want them, scoffed at when we do not. They’re convenient excuses and nice to laugh about – as long as we do not take them too seriously!

    The bit question has me thinking a little about a little red gelding with a face problem, too…

  4. Pingback: Appreciating a Mare (via TB at X) « The Un-Retired Racehorse

  5. Yes, the bit issue is a very big thing with many OTTBs. Many, many have extremely soft mouths because in race training contact is focused on changing gaits and ‘holding’ the tougher horses. The ‘D’ bit most are accustomed is thinner in the mouth than most dressage snaffles. We have transitioned lots and use the D bit initially and then switch over to a plain snaffle with a thin mouthpiece without any problem. Also, some ontrack horses have a tongue over the bit problem as a result of undiagnosed breathing issues so it’s always prudent to double check. I don’t know if you are using a regular dressage noseband, but training in a flash noseband can help change the habit.

    I think you have found the reason many people prefer geldings over mares: mares in general demand a more thoughtful partnership. The partnership is what allows all sexes to desire to please.

  6. Pingback: Appreciating a Mare (via TB at X) | Retired Racehorse Blog

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