What's Sex Got to Do With It?

By Shelly Moore

It's natural for a mare to come into heat when a newcomer arrives in the herd.

You have probably heard of the book, "Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus" by John Gray. But, have you ever thought about how this concept applies to our animals?

What qualities do you value the most in your horse? Is it dependability, predictability, leadership, sensitivity, clear communication, trainability, or something else? Does the sex of your horse have an effect on his or her behavior? It seems as though people who are new to horses or people that have owned or cared for horses for years have formed very strong opinions about the sex that they prefer their equine friends to be. Have you ever thought why you prefer a certain sex to the other?

The opinions expressed about the preferred sex of our equids seems to be related to a variety of things including training, performance, discipline, willingness to learn, social behavior and heart. It is interesting to me after talking with many people that some of the opinions and judgments concerning the differences between the sexes likely is based on legend, myth, folklore, and what the "professionals" think rather than first hand experience or fact. Many of the opinions seem to be handed down from person to person over the years. It appears to me that most of the opinions on the differences between mares, geldings and stallions are formed based on the behavioral tendencies of just a few animals by people in influential positions throughout the horse-world. I believe that this has to do with the socio-economics of horse ownership.

In the days of old, horses were used in our everyday lives for farming, ranching, transportation, and many other forms of work. People were practically required to know a lot more about the horses individually because they were work animals. Horses played a larger part in the way the people lived. You did not want one of your most prized possessions to be sick, dull or lackluster, as it was a picture of how you were doing economically as well as socially. Horses had real jobs in those days and often the job was much longer and harder than a mere couple of hours riding around the paddock. Horse owners knew that they must keep their equine partners healthy if they wanted their horses to last a long time. This likely did not mean feeding the super foods we have available today, but it did mean making sure the horse had regular exercise, the best food economically available, tack that was clean and in good repair that fit the animal, and regular health inspections to insure the continued good health of this valuable service animal.

This mare is showing mild objection to this fellow's advances.

In today's world, according the USDA and Equus Magazine's annual trends addition, most of the horses kept today are for pleasure. Many people in the United States view having horses for pleasure as an expensive hobby or "therapy". Many times people choose to have their horses cared for by someone other than themselves in a boarding or training situation. Often these people do not have the land, money, time or desire to have their horses at their own facility. This can mean that they only see their animals a few hours per week, and are not necessarily educated on what is needed for good animal husbandry, or what their animals need to remain happy, healthy, and productive in their lives.

I recall a conversation I had with champion endurance rider Darla Westlake many years ago. At that time Darla definitely preferred geldings for endurance racing and riding. She felt as though mares were too smart, and would not really put in the effort required to make champion competitive racers. At the time, her gelding, RT Muffin, was at the top of his game and bringing home championships and best condition awards regularly. In a recent conversation with Darla, she reiterated that she feels mares are definitely smarter and have good self-preservation instincts, so mares are hard to override in training or a race. Darla felt that for people new to endurance racing that a quality mare would be a great beginning as the mares will take care of themselves and not allow themselves to be overworked or over-raced, which could help prevent mistakes on the part of the rider. Darla currently has one mare and two geldings that she rides and races, and felt that all of them had strong points that made them good candidates for endurance racing.

.who remains friendly yet persistent.

Arabian breeder Sarah Vail had quite different views on the differences between the sexes. Sarah felt that the mares were sweeter and had a great ability to bond with others while stallions were smarter, playful and more demonstrative with love. Sarah expressed that she felt most behaviors in domestic horses are molded or made by human interaction. The more self-assured the horses are, the less worried the horses seem to be in general and in stressful situations such as showing, breeding, and training. For her purposes she really does not have any use for a gelding, but acknowledged that geldings make wonderful youth horses that can be dependable and fun.

Trish Phelps prefers to ride geldings, as they tend to be more generous than either stallions or mares. Trish summed it up by saying, "I think geldings are willing to focus on me and our ride and that they try harder to please. I think mares are more opinionated, have less focus, and are less willing to trust my judgment under the saddle."

Kevin Gibson says, "Geldings are definitely my preference. I find them more consistent in behavior and hence easier to train and compete with."

The opinions expressed through the many people I talked to about this are varied, but the bottom line remains the same. There are distinct differences between the sexes of equids. To find out more about some of the differences I spoke to Mary Ann Simonds, a well-known equine behaviorist who specializes in mustangs and feral horses. Mary Ann noticed many differences between the sexes while studying wild horses and herd behavior in Wyoming in the early 70's. She documented different behaviors while studying family herd and bachelor band dynamics. Mary Ann identified key roles that each gender of horse seems to exhibit.

. and he's winning her over.

In the mare category, mares are considered the "social facilitators" of the herd. The mares in the wild are often directly responsible for the herd's survival, making decisions about movement patterns, breeding, and foraging. The mares in the wild exhibit strong social roles and long-term social relationships within the herd. The relationships in a horse's life often start with his or her mother. A wild mare's relationship building continues throughout her life with the herd. Many strong relationships with other mares her age tend to occur between the ages of 2-4 years, and the friendship bonds she makes at this age may last her entire life. Between the ages of 4-7 years, herd position is starting to become established. The position in the herd is often established through different behaviors, such as dominance, nurturing, and leadership. Once positions within the chosen herd are well established it appears that most mares become more relaxed and comfortable with their herd status and relationships. A mare's herd status appears to continue until the mare stops reproducing, which can be as early as the late teens/ early twenties, or as late as 30.

For domestic bred mares, many of the relationships they would normally build over their lifetime are cut short or severely curtailed because of human involvement. We often wean the foals at four to six months of age, which in many cases severely stresses both the mare and the foal. We sometimes move our horses from barn to barn in search of the perfect set-up, which may not allow ample time for our horses to form new friendship bonds with their barn mates. In these cases we may need to provide substitute relationships for our horses; mares in particular seem to desire the extra security offered by these substitutes.

From the human point of view one of the most common relationship substitutes for our horses is the horse-human relationship. This might not be as fulfilling to the horse as we might like to think, especially if we are only seeing our horse a few hours per day on certain days each week. This type of relationship often requires a huge time commitment by the human that may not always be possible to fulfill. If this is the case you might also consider getting your horse a stable mate such as a goat or a cat, if no other horses are available.

This behavior indicates that they trust and are comfortable with each other.

For stallions and geldings things tend to be a little different. Most stallions form and live in bachelor bands for their entire lives. It appears the stallions start leaving the family groups to form bachelor bands at about two years of age. These bachelor bands can be made up of just a few stallions to as many as ten stallions. The bachelor bands can be made up of siblings or new horses from other herds. Few stallions ever get accepted back into a mare band, as few stallions seem to have the presence, leadership ability, equine etiquette, and desire to help run a herd.

Most geldings and stallions tend to take direction from humans fairly well with little to no questioning, but the smarter the horses, the more likely they will want to understand why they are being asked to do things.

Stallions can show some hormonally induced behavioral changes that are very similar to mares. Mood swings can be common during breeding season. Stiffness under saddle or an unidentifiable minor hind-end lameness issue, head tossing, appetite changes, and inability to concentrate, can be signs of possible hormonal problems in stallions. These problems tend to happen more during breeding season than any other time according to the many people with whom I spoke.

Because domestic horses are rarely allowed to breed the way horses would normally choose to breed, they are denied many of the important courtship rituals they would experience in a herd situation. In a herd situation, the mare is not forced into ovulation; she presents herself when she knows she is ready. Because breeding is a normal activity in a herd situation, the stallion doesn't usually become rude and overly aggressive due to high levels of testosterone and not enough exercise. In the wild, horses are moving most of the time, and they get to work off the buildup of hormones each and every day of their lives. Often in the breeding shed the stallions get only one or two hours of turnout per day, usually in solitary confinement as they are too valuable to risk being with other horses. If the stallion is lucky he will also experience an hour or so of actual use of his mind and body through ridden or interactive work each day. Often times this is not possible during the breeding season, due mainly to human time constraints.

A horse cannot have too many friends.

When considering our horse keeping habits and attitudes, people can easily overlook the importance of herd position and temperament in domestic situations. Many times temperament only comes up when there is destruction of personal property or someone gets hurt, and suddenly the horse responsible is labeled as having a bad temperament, or as the alpha horse that needs to be taught a lesson.

Mary Ann coined the phrase "horseanality" and went on to categorize the main temperaments found in horses.

Dominant or Alpha: This type of horse exhibits characteristics of high curiosity, high awareness, high sensitivity, and high intelligence. These horses are usually good communicators that can become easily disturbed if situations change without their knowledge. This type of horse will often seek to form herds, and control or lead the other horses. These mares are often described as opinionated, stubborn or difficult. For the most part these mares do not give in or submit easily, but will compromise and collaborate with humans of equal or greater intelligence. While they can make exceptional performance horses, they have the highest chance for causing problems for humans. This type of horse is usually an individual learner that will work well in one-on- one situation, but is not recommended for a beginner.

Middle Horse: This type of horse often lets another horse lead, and will follow and get along with most of the other horses. They may form strong attachments to other horses, but once they are bonded with their person they can be fine by themselves. They tend to be more of a group learner. Although they have a high curiosity and awareness they tend to tell the leader what is happening rather than deal with it themselves. The middle horse tends to have the best temperament for domestication. This type of horse can be a great fit for the majority of horse owners.

The Follower: This type of horse usually relies upon the horse in front of them to tell them what to do. They tend to be shy and possibly a little slower mentally, or they simply do not care to waste their energy thinking if someone will do it for them. They can become worried, stressed, or panic to the point of self-injury if their friends or the horse above them in the herd leaves them. They tend to be group learners who do not do well by themselves. They often rely on herd support, even if members of the herd pick on them regularly. The followers can be challenging for the inexperienced horse owner.

The Misfit: This type of horse doesn't fit into any of the "normal horse" temperament types. Many times they have learned behaviors that are not suited for living in the wild or in a herd situation. They may exhibit learned behaviors that mimic or imitate humans or other animals. This type of horse tends to be highly dysfunctional.

In the end regardless of the sex of your horse you still want to have a well-adjusted and behaviorally functional animal. Mary Ann Simonds has come up with the four "golden rules" of horse behavior. In horse culture, mares are the primary teachers of these rules.

•  "My Space, Your Space"

•  "Stand Still or Move"

•  "Always Pay Attention to the Leader Unless You are the Leader"

•  "Never Move Into the Space of a More Dominant Animal Without Permission"

Some basic principles to be aware of for building a harmonious relationship with your horse friends revolve around courtesy and respect as well as clear communication. These principles can be applied to everyday life.

First Principle: Always let your horse know what you are doing .

Horses like to know what is going on around them and they appreciate the effort that you make to try and communicate it to them. They may not understand word for word what you are conveying but the "energetic sense" will not be lost to them. When we form words our brain often forms pictures of these words, which often leads to subtle body changes.

Second Principle: Never argue with your horse; instead, endeavor to compromise or collaborate. You may need to have "assertive" mare-like energy to establish respect and communication. But, there is rarely a need to "challenge" or start an argument.

Geldings and stallions seem to take directions from humans fairly well without too much questioning. Mares are the ones who seem to need their questions answered before trying anything new. In general the smarter the horse the more questions we will have to answer as to why we need them to do a certain thing. The smarter the horse the more creative the caretaker needs to be to find a compromise or way to collaborate with the horse.

Third Principle: Give your horse a reason to want to be with you.

Food is usually not the main reason your horse chooses to be with you, but if you guessed leadership, you are on the right track. Since horses are very social beings, humans need to offer something interesting to attract the horse over his buddies. Many horses, especially the smart ones, will often "test" or "try" you to see if you are indeed a qualified leader. In these cases you need to be able to think and communicate more like a horse than a human to convince the horse that you are a qualified leader. When you say something is "OK", the smart horses are going to want clarification on exactly "what" is "OK" before it is accepted as being truly "OK" and not a cause for concern.

If your horse doesn't have equine partners to practice these rules with on a daily basis, it is possible for you to teach your horse the basics of these communication rules.

Mary Ann offers clinics in behavioral modification for humans in an equine world. She will teach you to see the obvious and subtle signs of communication between horses and their humans. Mary Ann often has a full clinic schedule with many offerings such as clinics in Mare Training and Behavior, and Geldings and Stallions Training and Behavior.

For more information about these clinics contact Mystic Horse at 1-866-616-0450 or email: mystichorse@comcast.net. Please visit the website at www.mystichorse.com.

About the author:

Shelly Moore, a freelance author and owner of Full Circle Farm in Creswell , Oregon , is a TTEAM/TTouch practitioner who teaches Holistic Horse Care classes. For over 10 years, she has been making and using flower essences, as well as using alternative and natural horse care principles and products including herbs, TTouch, TTEAM, Equine Touch, and other bodywork. She is available for telephone consultations, clinics, classes, and private healing sessions at 541-895-3196 and ttshelly@yahoo.com, or visit www.wisdomhorse.com.