The November issue of the Horse Journal features two articles by Deb Eldridge, one of our contributing veterinary editors, which I’d like to second, because they’re topics about which I feel strongly. The first is her article on dealing with mares and their behavior during their heat cycles (called “Mares: Love ‘em or Hate ‘em”), and the second is her Veterinary Viewpoint, called “Most Horses Enjoy Work.”
I think these two topics are closely related, because it’s my experience that most mares really enjoy working.
Here at our Phoenix Farm, they call me “the mare whisperer.” My two top competition horses, Alba and Amani (whom I’ve frequently written about in this blog and in the Horse Journal), are each mares. I also have a 3-year-old homebred filly who’s starting under saddle and whom I’ll start competing next year, and we have another 3-year-old homebred filly I’ve started under saddle for our working student who now owns her. This weekend I’m competing a Quarter Horse mare we found in a field in Central California four years ago and sold to a young student who’s devoted to her. It will be the mare’s first start at training level. This morning, after I finish writing this, I have two other mares to work. I’ve also owned and competed three other challenging but wonderful mares in my life.
My experience is that the mares really need to “do a job” and that they become devoted to that job, whether it’s being a broodmare or being a competitive horse. They bring an intensity to their job that a much smaller percentage of male horses do.
But there’s a huge caveat to that—and it’s a reason that many amateurs and even some professionals refuse to deal with mares: With few exceptions, you can’t really tell a mare what to do. You have to direct her and work with her, often accommodating her idiosyncrasies. I call my method being “quietly insistent.” You don’t fight, but you just keep insisting, very often asking her in a different way, until the mare does what you’re asking correctly. And then you have to congratulate her.
I like to say that once a mare believes in you, she’ll jump through fire for you. But you have to earn that trust. As the great German show jumper Ludger Beerbaum says, in his greatest form of compliment of the mares he’s ridden, “She fights for me.”
I’ll give you some examples of my point that mares love having a job, using some of the mares I’ve just mentioned.
Alba has a desire and a gameness like no horse I’ve ever ridden. We work twice a year with German dressage trainer Claus Bergner, and when he comes to Phoenix Farm we put our jumps into two big piles on the quarter line at opposite ends of the ring. Two years ago, Claus had me turn down the quarter line to leg-yield to the rail, and Alba sited in on one pile and went for it. I barely pulled her off, and Claus still marvels that she trusted me so much that she was willing to jump a pile of jumps. And that’s how she goes cross-country—she’s never questioned anything I’ve pointed her towards. The biggest challenge to training Alba has been controlling her enthusiasm to go to the next jump—teaching her to relax and wait.
I call Amani the “warrior princess” because of three times this year she’s fought for me in adverse conditions. The first was at the Ram Tap Horse Trials in April. It had poured rain through Friday morning, and by Saturday afternoon’s show jumping phase the ring was starting to dry out, but unevenly. You’d go from slop to slippery to hard and dry in six or seven strides. But, despite being only 5, she jumped the only clear round in open training to finish third.
Before the Woodside Horse Trials late May, she was having problems with her right eye, and our veterinarian had already unblocked a tear duct. (A month after this event, our vet diagnosed squamous cell carcinoma in the corner of her eye, for which she had surgery in mid-July.) She had become unusually spooky by this point, suggesting that her vision was being compromised, but she still trusted me to jump around faultlessly. And then earlier this month, at Galway Downs, I discovered after show jumping that she had a rub and split on the left side of her mouth, where the bit sits in the corner, explaining why she’d felt touchy about the bit on that side. But again, she jumped beautifully clean.
In her Veterinary Viewpoint column, Deb mentions her endurance mare’s willingness to come in from a large field, and that’s exactly what we’ve seen happen with the two 3-year-olds. They were each tricky to catch in the field where they live as yearlings and 2-year-olds. In fact, Tiny had lived in a halter since she was weaned, and Bella went through stages of having to live in her halter too. Now, though, they come running up to the gate to come to the barn. Their expression, we like to say, is, “Do I have school today?!” And they’ve each been honor-roll students, so far.
My final story is about Gussie, Amani’s dam, who died about 12 hours after Amani was born. Gussie was beautiful but rather flighty, a mare who’d scream endlessly if she was left in the barn or field without her friends. She was what most would dismiss as “a typical Thoroughbred mare.” But in those last two months of her pregnancy she became peaceful and happy. I know this was a mostly hormone, but I think she seemed to know what was coming and what her responsibility was to be, probably because she’s already had two foals.
We suspect that Amani nicked a blood vessel during what appeared to be a routine delivery, because within hours Gussie was suffering severe colic. She collapsed and died in front of the barn as the vet was pulling in the driveway.
It saddens me that Gussie never got to complete her mothering task, but she showed her strength and her commitment to “the job” in her last few hours. I will forever be thankful to her for staying alive to allow Amani to nurse, making our task of bottle-feeding so much easier. I’m sure that her pain was becoming worse and worse, but she took care of her foal until she simply couldn’t. And I will always thank her too for passing that courage on to her daughter.
That’s why I love mares.