He said we don’t need to import sport horses; we have great horses right here; we’re under-using great mares. More people should consider spaying mares and competing them. I read this in an article a year ago, written by a respected equestrian, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

It’s pretty undeniable, even with the health risks involved, that the spay and neuter programs for dogs and cats have had a huge impact on the number of unwanted pets.  In horse rescue, we see quite a few hoarding farms with indiscriminate breeding happening, resulting in horses several years old who aren’t even halter broke. It’s indefensible.

For most colts, it isn’t much of a question. A lot of us prefer geldings for riding. Stallion lives aren’t all that easy from a management standpoint and ethical horse people have extremely high standards for keeping a stallion intact. And hopefully by now, we understand that there is an overpopulation problem with horses as well. Beyond that, a gelding can be more level emotionally and a more dependable partner for all kinds of riding.

Don’t get me wrong; I’ve also known some spectacular mares who are focused, kind partners. I know riders who will always prefer mares for their strength and intelligence. And many mares go through a summer of heat cycles without their owners even being particularly aware. They share pastures with geldings and are all around great horses. Good for them.

I’ve also known mares that earn the title of alpha through aggression. Mares that become unpredictable, if not un-rideable, during heat cycles. They flatten their ears threatening all comers–and then there’s something about the late fall heat cycle that is particularly strong. I have two mares in my barn right now who have been cranky, spoiling for a fight, and rattling the barn Zen for weeks. Their general attitude is dark and quarrelsome; their nicker sounds like a growl.

Remember the name of Captain Woodrow Call’s horse in Larry McMurtry’s novel, Lonesome Dove?  Case in point.

Other mares need turnout alone or are eventually asked to leave barns due to behavior issues, for the safety of others. They get retired early or end up as broodmares. These mares are the ones we make jokes about; the ones immortalized as slogans on t-shirts: “You don’t scare me, I ride a mare.”

Many experienced horse people, vets included, think that we seriously under-diagnose ovarian cysts in mares. The behavior problems mares show are not a natural part of being a mare but rather a request for help. Beyond that, the connection between this “mare discomfort” and ulcers or colic is well-documented.

The ovaries are located just under the fourth or fifth lumbar vertebrae, you know, just barely behind the saddle. Yet we name call stereotypical labels like moody, temperamental, cantankerous. And worst of all–“TYPICAL MARE.” Why aren’t we taking this more seriously?

Generally, we only spay mares who are older and have medical cause, but I’ve met a few people who have spayed younger mares and swear by it. Is this a good option for mares who aren’t going to be bred? Can a mare become a “smart gelding?” Many say yes.

Years ago, one of my mares struggled with her heat cycles more and more as she aged. I used prescription medications, herbal concoctions, and any other option I heard about. My vet had no better advice at the time. She was in her twenties by the time someone suggested ovarian cysts, but that diagnosis came with the information that the surgery was very expensive and by then, my mare wasn’t a good candidate. Now I have a young mare who seems to be on the same painful path.

My recent research showed that some surgery methods are complicated and require the mare to be laid down, frequently resulting in a vet bill over $2000. But I also learned about two different techniques done while the horse is standing. The procedures are only a bit more complicated than gelding, and costs run in the $800. range.

Back in the day, it was my high school photo next to the definition of PMS in the dictionary. My back ached and if I wasn’t crying uncontrollably, I was yelling. Birth control was a godsend; it was like an anti-depressant. The med I took then is also used in horses now.

The problem with anthropomorphism (attribution of human characteristics or behavior to non-humans) is we dumb it down too much. It isn’t about putting a sailor suit on your dog and setting a place at the table. Being mechanically scientific doesn’t work either. Realistically, the main way us humans have to discern the world around us is through our frame of perception–in other words, anthropomorphism. The trick is to find compassion without an over-abundance of sentimentality. In this case, women innately relate to mare discomfort better. We understand it and should have more compassion for these mares living in purgatory and throwing in the occasional buck. We should speak up for mares.

In the male-dominated vet world, there are always those slightly blue jokes about neutering dogs and gelding colts. I am not immune; I usually bring a bottle of champagne to celebrate the event.

There is no mare equivalent. I wonder if there were more female vets, would mare reproductive discomfort go un-treated less often? Would ovarian cysts would be more quickly diagnosed, if for no more reason than personal understanding? Then maybe procedures for spaying would evolve to be easier and safer, and soon, more mares would get to live more comfortable lives. Less name calling from us, more peaceful autumn days for them.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.