I'll never forget my first sight of her, how she lit up that lodgepole pine corral full of mountain horses and mules less statuesque than she was. Sorrel with flaxen mane and tail, 16 hands high, Mona, though heavily in foal, looked both rugged and elegant, completely capable of the life she'd known in the string of the outfitter who was now retiring and selling his equipment and stock.
We bought her. At the time, I owned only a pickup truck with a stock rack. When I drove into the outfitter's ranch, I looked for the customary truck-loading chute. The outfitter just laughed. "Open it up," he said, referring to the sliding gate at the rear of the stock rack. Then he said, "Load, Mona!"
To my amazement, this huge, pregnant mare jumped deftly into the back of the pickup. With that, her worth in my eyes and the favorability of the deal I'd made jumped considerably.
Mona became the matriarch of our growing Tennessee Walking Horse breeding operation, and equally important, a cherished family member. She worked our small herd of cows, and, twice yearly, she was my mount for a lengthy drive of my neighbor's cattle to and from summer pasture. She carried our children on pack trips, packed loads herself when necessary, and took me countless miles through snowy Montana mountains on searches for elk. She never let me down.
More Memorable Mares
Mona wasn't the first mare in my life. During my early 20s, my constant partner for ranch work was a Thoroughbred-Quarter Horse cross named Rosie, given to me by my father-in-law. Rosie could run like the wind and turn on a dime. She was the first horse with whom I felt really "one," who learned my body language so that I never had to think about what signals I gave. A slight tightening of my legs meant "lope," an ounce of rein pressure on her neck, "turn."
Though Rosie was a bit touchy in disposition, I taught her to drag boards and tolerate a wet canvas tied to the saddle strings when I changed irrigation dams. I once threw a rope over a big cottonwood log that had fallen across an irrigation ditch, blocking its flow. I dallied and eased Rosie forward to take up the slack. She stiffened, leaned into the load, and dragged the tree off the ditch.
Earlier still, as a kid, I was privileged to frequently borrow a grade pinto mare owned by a tolerant rancher who'd retired at the edge of town. Bareback sojourns to the hills on the east side of our valley are among my best boyhood memories. When the rancher moved, another boy and I helped him by riding his two mares up the highway shoulder to the next town.
Why the Prejudice?
With this background in a Western horse culture that treasured mares as much as geldings, I'm appalled by the current prejudice against mares. Among the comments I've heard recently are: "My husband won't let me have a mare on the place"; "I just don't think I could cope with a mare"; and, "I understand you can't run mares and geldings together in the same pasture."
The horsemen with whom I grew up would be amazed at such comments. Their work teams often consisted of a mare and a gelding side by side. Their strings of saddle horses were usually mixed, and they never gave a second thought to running both sexes together in the pasture.
America was built with horsepower, and it was just as likely to be the female sort as the male. I'm told those fleet horsemen of the plains, the Bedouins, prefer mares. Theodore Roosevelt had many geldings, but his first Western horse was a mare. And the two horses he shipped to Cuba for the Rough Rider expedition were mares. So where does this relatively recent anti-mare bias come from?
I'm not a psychologist, but I see a couple of causes. One is simple male chauvinism - an inherent preference for things male. Unfortunately, it's practiced by some women as well as by some men. Another cause is simple ignorance, a limited sphere of horse-world experience that has somehow skipped exposure to mares' accomplishments.
A third cause is exaggeration of behavioral changes caused by mares' normal reproductive cycle. A fourth is more coincidental: Among horse-breeding operations, the mares are saved for reproduction, so riding the geldings becomes routine.
Too often, if a gelding misbehaves on the trail, riders attribute the problems to a bad bit, poor training, too many oats, or a host of other possibilities. If a mare misbehaves in similar fashion, some simply dismiss the situation by saying, "Well, she's a mare." That's unfair and shortsighted. The mare's reason for having a "bad day" may be identical to those of the gelding, but her problem goes uninvestigated when explained away in this simplistic fashion.