Question: I ride a 12-year-old Lipizzan mare who used to be a broodmare. She had seven foals. She prefers not to bend, especially to the right, and is very reluctant to trot. I’m wondering if broodmares do not make good dressage horses. The vet thinks the pregnancies might have damaged some ligaments. What is your experience with broodmares as dressage horses?
Answer: There is nothing inherent in having been a broodmare that should preclude a successful dressage career. In fact, it is quite common in Europe for young mares to be bred at 3 and then start a performance career after foaling. A number of internationally successful competition horses have had foals. That said, carrying a foal does take a toll, and the more foals a mare has carried, the more likely it is that she will have some effects from the extra weight.
As a 12-year-old who has had seven foals, your mare seems to have been a good producer. How much a large number of foals will affect a mare physically appears to be highly individualized, with some mares showing a degradation of the topline muscles over the back and others being relatively unaffected.
Whether the mare was ridden in between foals can also be a factor, as this would help build up her muscling along her back and core, putting her in better condition to carry the weight of her next foal. Conditioning will improve the muscling of the back, but if there is severe degradation of those muscles, the mare may have difficulty lifting and rounding her back for more advanced work.
Broodmares transitioning to a dressage riding career need to be put back into work gradually so that they can develop the strength in their muscles and ligaments needed to be a riding horse without injuring themselves. A gradual conditioning program, beginning with lots of walking, followed by a gradual progression to more work, would be an appropriate way to go.
FEI competitor Lorraine Stubbs wrote a helpful column on preparing the former broodmare for dressage work under saddle (“Ask the Experts,” April 2001) and suggested a three- to six-month time frame to condition a broodmare for the competition ring. When returning a horse to work under saddle, expect some stiffness and reluctance to bend that improve with time and work.
Conditioning and correct work can totally transform a horse’s topline and broodmares are no exception.
I can’t see your mare and I’m not a veterinarian, so if your vet thinks that she has had some ligament damage, it certainly is a possibility. Without knowing specifically what your vet is referring to and the location of the damage, I can’t comment on what effects this ligament damage might have on her future as a riding horse. Further diagnostic work or consultation with a specialist might determine whether recovery is possible.
However, if there is no injury, several things come to mind. That she resists bending to one direction and is reluctant to trot seem to indicate a back issue. Since degradation of the muscles of the back is sometimes seen in older broodmares who have had many foals, this can complicate saddle fit. If her back has dropped, the saddle may be bridging parts of her back and causing pressure points. This could explain her lack of desire to go forward and the bending issues. Also, the difficulty bending in one direction can be indicative of a chiropractic problem. In any case, I would have her looked at by an equine chiropractor and have the fit of the saddle evaluated to see if that can be eliminated as a cause of the problem.
Lastly, there are some older broodmares who take issue with the sudden change in their lifestyle, especially if they were very dominant in their pasture herd. The unwillingness to go forward may be her way of saying that this activity was not in her employment contract. But again, I would check out all the other possibilities before assuming it’s an attitude problem. Time and a knowledgeable trainer will help solve that type of problem as the mare adjusts to her new reality.
Since real life is rarely simplistic, you may find that you actually have a combination of issues that are affecting your mare. Hopefully, with time and patience, she will overcome her issues and become the riding horse you desire.
Kyle Karnosh is a breeder of Oldenburgs, Hanoverians and Dutch and Swedish Warmbloods.