They say a good mare will go through fire for you. And this I know is true.
It’s funny because my first horse-shopping adventure began when I was 15 and confidently proclaimed “I will never own a mare.” Keeping with the truly ironic nature of life with horses, I eventually became the owner of not one, but two mares, and now I know that my life wouldn’t be complete without them.
There’s something different about the way a good mare connects with her rider. It’s special. Like an unspoken agreement. Once a mare chooses you as her person, it’s like she has an instinct to protect you, to fight for you. It’s almost as if she takes ownership of you.
I believe the good mares have a deep sense of intuition. They can read your mind. They know what you’re thinking even before you do. The good mares I know breathe fire in the face of challenge and then somehow, miraculously, know to quiet themselves when a timid child is plopped on their back for a pony ride. They are clever, cunning and calculated, which can be your greatest enemy or your saving grace. The good mares I know do not tolerate egotistical riding. They do not tolerate force. They demand tact, finesse and emotional control. But once you have won a mare’s heart, you have won all of her. In exchange for your best—and nothing less—she will give you everything.
A Horse Who Knows Her Job
My first horse, Kat, opened my eyes to the incredible nature of mares. Growing up in the horse world, I heard riders bashing mares for their unpredictable temperaments, their mood swings and their heat cycles. I got it in my head that I needed to avoid them at all costs. I refused to even sit on a mare for a year and a half of horse shopping. In hindsight, I’m sure my trainer wanted to strangle me. Then, out of sheer desperation, I decided to give Kat a try.
I was a kid just learning the ropes of eventing and we found Kat through the friend-of-a-friend grapevine. When I saw her standing in the crossties, I was unimpressed. She had a cute face but was otherwise unremarkable. When I got on to flat her around the ring, I struggled. She was not blessed with beautiful conformation and I think it was difficult for her to carry herself correctly. Combined with my inexperience, I can’t imagine any of it was nice to watch.
I told my trainer I wanted to get off. “Just jump a few little things with her and then you can get off,” she told me, motioning toward a small cross rail. So, we jumped the small jumps. And then the larger ones. And then we got on a roll and just kept going. As the jumps got bigger, so did my smile. I was grinning from ear to ear as Kat and I bounced around the ring having the time of our lives. I felt fearless and bold—something that is unfamiliar to my anxious nature.
We headed out to the cross-country course and my trainer pointed to a pile of logs out in the distance and said “Go jump that.” Kat and I took off confidently in the direction of the logs. As we got closer, the jump seemed to grow. By the time I realized how totally massive this jump was, I was only a few strides out. Kat had locked onto it and we were committed.
Suddenly, my uncertainty was interrupted by the strangest sense of peace. Kat’s rhythmic gallop had set us up perfectly, and I could feel her rebalancing, calculating the perfect take-off point. I literally did nothing but hold on. It felt like time froze and we were airborne forever. I landed on the other side of the fence to my trainer and our friends jumping up and down, hollering and cheering. “Congrats, kid. You just jumped your first Training Level fence,” my trainer said.
And that’s pretty much the story of how Kat came into my life. She’s been here ever since and we’ve had a good arrangement. She tells me to sit down, shut up, stay out of the way and she’ll handle it. Kat is certainly a quirky horse and things haven’t always been smooth sailing. But that horse has known her job for as long as I’ve had her and kept me safe through my eventing years, despite all of my questionable jumping decisions. And trust me—there were a lot of them.
Some of my favorite Kat stories are about moments where she’s shown understanding of a situation beyond what is reasonable for a horse. For example, Kat has never been affectionate or snuggly—she has always been my business partner. She actually avoids human contact whenever possible. So, you could have knocked me over with a feather when, on one occasion, she stood quietly, gently nuzzling a 5-year-old little boy who insisted on brushing her for 20 minutes.
On another occasion, I somehow convinced my non-equestrian mom to ride Kat. This easily could have been bad decision on my part, since I know Kat can be quite forward and excitable. She actually stood as still as a statue as my mom scrambled up onto her. Once she was on, I could hardly get Kat to even take a step forward. She walked at a snail’s pace around the ring. It seemed like she paused after every step to reassess my mom’s balance before moving forward. My mom got off after a couple of laps around the ring. Then I hopped on the comatose Kat—who immediately went back to breathing fire and zipping around the ring. Horses are incredible, aren’t they?
Ten years later, I headed out horse shopping again. This time I was looking for a dressage horse but I knew I needed to be more open-minded than I was the last go-around. I ended up trying some really nice horses that anyone would be lucky to have, but none of them felt quite right.
During a trip to Canada to try horses, I came across two good candidates at a barn outside of Toronto. The first was a 15-year-old Rubinstein mare and the second was a younger Ferro gelding. The second I swung my leg over the mare, I felt like I was home. She wasn’t a push-button ride, but she was comfortable and forgiving and obviously had an education. Apart from being a little older than I wanted, she checked every single box.
The gelding was nice. There wasn’t anything to dislike about him, but I just knew that he wasn’t it. There wasn’t any chemistry. After about 15 minutes, I hopped off and handed him back to the owner. “He’s nice,” I said. “Thank you. But I really like your mare!” The owner looked back at me, nodded, and with complete understanding said “You like the mares!”
That was the moment I realized there really are “mare people” in this world, and I was one of them. All that time, I had just thought Kat was an anomaly—the mare who was the exception to mares. But then it hit me like a ton of bricks. The first horse who stole my heart as a little girl was a dark bay mare. I never rode her, but I admired her from afar and I thought she was magnificent. Then I went to pony camp and fell in love with another horse. Guess what? A bay mare. All of my favorite school horses were mares, too. I’ll never know how it took me 20 years to identify this pattern, but, hey, sometimes we don’t always see the forest for the trees.
Needless to say, the Rubinstein mare arrived at my barn a few weeks later. She has been everything I had hoped for and more. Fenna, as we call her, is the calm to my crazy, especially at horse shows. She is a show girl and as long as I can stay out of her way, she’s got it under control.
There’s a theme here, in case you didn’t notice.
Just My Type
The last story I will leave you with in my ode to mares comes from a clinic I did with Grand Prix rider and clinician Bill Warren just a few weeks ago. After Fenna sustained an ill-timed injury out in the field, my trainer, Vanessa, generously let me borrow her horse, Dina, for my lesson with Bill.
Dina is a spicy mare, so she’s just my type. She’s well-trained and she’s got a “go” button, so it’s a matter of channeling her energy correctly while keeping her soft. While she’s very safe, she can be looky. “Bomb proof” is not the word to describe this mare. I’ve had some great lessons on her at home, but I wasn’t sure how her anxious nature would do off-property, especially since we didn’t know each other that well.
Dina hopped off the trailer as cool as a cucumber and then headed into the ring without batting an eye. I was the first ride of the day at the clinic and there happened to be a landscaping team manicuring the grounds around the arena. Lawn mowers and weedwhackers were continuously flying around the outside of the ring and I assumed it would send her into orbit. Frankly, it was startling even for a human. Much to my surprise, Dina put on her professional pants and was an absolute saint. It was like she said “OK, Lindsay. I can tell you’re worked up over these lawn mowers. It’s going to be fine.” This mare had my back.
I get that mares aren’t everyones’ thing. We all have our preferences. Most of us have a “type.” Some people are attracted to gray horses. Others like the big movers. Or the steady eddies. Some riders love the young horses or the Off-the-Track Thoroughbreds.
As for me, I love the mares. Sitting on the back of a good mare pretty much feels like the top of the world to me.