By Betsy Kelleher
I’ve been thinking about mares a lot these days. Lady has become more of a challenge than ever. Ever since we got her six years ago, I’ve looked for help to deal with her demanding personality and I’ve struggled to overcome her fears. It helped to read the many fascinating stories I collected for my second book, MARES! (ya gotta love em), which came out in 2008. I found a new appreciation for the special qualities of mares, and I saw Lady from a different perspective. But we still have some issues to work through.
I didn’t show Lady this year because her gait didn’t feel right. I thought her feet were bothering her, so I have used ointments and supplements to fight both thrush and dryness. I rode her for lessons in May and June, using a Spookless CD that really improved my level of confidence, but she didn’t have her usual energy. I got a blood test in July and found she was even more anemic than last fall.
Previous columns shared last year’s struggles. Her diarrhea and colic led to the blood test that first revealed her anemia. Then I happened to discover a large quantity of limestone in her poop and realized that the limestone ledge by the paddock door had not simply washed away after all! In spite of iron supplement and Fiberpsyll, she still isn’t right! I’m assuming she’s not eating the limestone anymore because it’s gone, and because she is eating from the large round bale now instead of off the ground (and now she’s rounder than ever!). I’ve recently learned (from internet information) that a blood test often registers low when a horse has been at rest for a long time. Her next blood test will be taken within 12 hours after exercise! If she really is anemic, I want to fix that first before we can work on gait or conditioning! She’s been tested for worms (negative) and blood in the stool (also negative). There are two causes of anemia left, and they aren’t as easy to determine.
The physical problems are only part of our current situation, however. Lady and I haven’t been getting along as well as we did. And it’s probably my fault.
After bringing Rocky home from a horse show in September, I took advantage of the availability of the trailer to practice loading Lady. Usually hesitant and stubborn, she went right in. I praised her and felt a spurt of self-satisfaction because I had been working with her toward this goal (And did I think our loading problems were solved because she walked in so easily?). When I asked her to back out, she came in a hurry. I loaded her again, not as easily as the first time, and tried to back her out more slowly. Didn’t work. Sorry to admit I popped her one. I realized then that I was tired and stressed after the show and this was not a good time to work with Lady’s loading problems.
Then I happened to read an article by Lynn Baber, about relationships that go sour when one loses confidence in the other. So here’s why I am sharing my situation with Lady. This was a perfect example of why we need to be good leaders for our mares (well, for any horse!). We need to earn their trust and keep it. We need to be patient and train with the proper attitude. When we do something that hurts the relationship (like popping your mare on the rump out of frustration for her coming out of the trailer too fast), we need to recognize our feelings. Usually, it’s because we want a certain behavior but aren’t sure how to get it. Let’s call it ignorant impatience. Instead, we need to consider how our actions influence the horse’s desire to cooperate and learn to use more effective training methods.
Lady is sensitive. She is a lady. No pun intended, but mares are like women. Female. When Lady and I had our unloading situation, we were both being emotional females. I thought Lady and I had a good bond and I assumed a good bond would yield good cooperation. But part of that equation involves good training and knowing who is in charge. Is Lady cooperative because she belongs to me—or because she feels I belong to her? Think about the difference for a moment and consider your own situation. If you see your mare (or other horse) as a friend, that may lead to frustration when they don’t do as you expect. And if a horse doesn’t respect your leadership, they will take charge.
I realize that I expected too much of Lady. She is smart and acts confident, and I thought we had this great relationship. But she is only a horse! And mares have that female hormone as well as their individual personality. She needs a patient leader who understands all that and knows how to take charge in a way she will accept. I’ve also learned that some alpha horses are not as confident as they seem.
So what does a mare really need? Well, what does a WOMAN need? I believe a female wants to feel safe, cherished, respected and cared for (husbands, let’s include your wives here). She wants to trust you and feel secure.
As owners, we sometimes do things that break that trust, and often without realizing it. I knew when I popped Lady for coming back out of that trailer too fast that I wasn’t showing patience and understanding. I was venting my frustration. And she has showed her displeasure since.
When your mind contains fragments of negative emotions, they will find a way of expression when you find yourself in conflict with your horse. I’ve heard riders tell how they use some personal ritual to leave their problems outside the barn door. Good idea. Your horse will sense what is inside of you and will usually react accordingly. Lady is like that. She is my mirror. She is my barometer. What I see in her is often what she feels coming from me.
I’m not saying to let your mare get by with bad behavior just because she’s female. I’m saying be careful not to damage her trust. A mare needs good training to support her emotional nature! And as the trainer (whether you realize it or not), your own emotional nature needs self control to deal with hers.
On the other hand, if you have won the heart of a mare and she truly respects your leadership, she will give her all and more to please you, to work for you and to be close to you. She will be loyal and loving—but she will have days when she doesn’t feel like doing what you want, and you may need to be more understanding and less demanding. That’s the time to do something together that brings joy to you both. Like extra grooming or a massage, or just being together while she eats grass, or having a quiet ride in a safe place. Take the pressure off for a couple days and give her extra attention. Husbands, you can apply this principle to your wives, you know. Understanding goes a long way!
Many times, our problems go back to a lack of good training. If you have a problem with a mare (or any horse), have you asked God for help? Have you asked Him to show you the problem and what to do about it? Don’t expect a miraculous answer every time (not saying He couldn’t do that), but often you will read an article in a magazine or see something on the internet that leads you to the solution. Like I did, when I happened to read the article by Lynn Baber linked to an email. It was my answer at the right time. There is a Scripture that tells us, “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him.” That’s James 1:5, but read verse 6 as well. With any promise of God, there is often an admonition connected to it. “But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind.”
Faith is our anchor, holding us fast to the foundation of the Gospel, even when we are blown about by various issues that could worry and frustrate us. Instead of worrying about all my problems with Lady, I need to stand firmly in charge and not let her moods (or mine) ruin our relationship. I need to be her confident, steadfast leader, just as I trust God to be mine.
In this coming Thanksgiving season, let us hold fast to our faith in God who knows the answers to our questions and is willing to help us. May we find that spirit of true thanksgiving for all that we have and for all that God is to us. Thanksgiving and praise uplifts our souls in spite of the winds of change or an uncertain future. We have an anchor in an unchanging God! If we belong to Him, we can count on His mercy and grace, now and always.
(Originally published in the November 2010 issue of the Illinois Horse Network)