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Where are all the mares?

Dear Jessica:

I know you are usually right about specific practical matters. Possibly this is a little too general for what you consider your readers' interest to be. Nevertheless, here is a sort of general question...

By way of background: I am the father of a C-2 Pony Clubber. Her mother and I know next to nothing about horses, being financially and morally supportive, but "clueless" types. Recently I have taken on some horse care duties, but haven't ridden a horse since about 1955.

I have spent a lot of time around barns and shows for several years, though. Long enough to notice that there are very few mares out there, just as there are very few stallions. Now I know geldings were stallions, so I can count the number of horses I've seen that were born male.

But where have all the horses born female gone?!? There are NOT a lot of "altered" females out there, approximately balancing the number of

geldings... What is the ratio of male/female equine births? I find it hard to believe it would be so disparate as to explain the absence of mares to the degree I have observed it.

For example, at the barn where we currently board and train, basically an eventing/Pony Club sort of place, there is 1 mare, 15 geldings, and 1 stallion (the stallion belonging to the barn owner, and held as an investment).

Would you please enlighten me? Though there is a book knowledge component to PC, I haven't seen anything in the husbandry sections or elsewhere to explain this.

My daughter and I read you weekly, and we've been encouraging our Pony Club and other horse acquaintances to do so, too. Keep up the good work! And "Thanks."

Hi Richard! That's actually a great question. ;-) The easy answer is "The mares are all in my pasture eating grass." Actually I do own several mares...

You're not looking at a birthrate disparity. You're looking at a preference based on several things, starting with economics!

Mares cost more. Stallions cost more, and are utterly impractical for Pony Clubbers. Geldings are affordable. Geldings are also generally quieter, more forgiving, less sensitive, and vastly more suitable mounts for children and adults who are learning to ride. Geldings will often put up with human behaviour that would have any self-respecting mare kicking and biting in protest.

Many riders buy geldings because they feel comfortable with geldings; many riders buy them because they can afford them. Imagine, if you will, that you and your daughter go shopping for a horse: a nice horse of any breed, sound, sane, well-trained, and suitable for Pony Club is going to cost you some money. Now imagine looking at TWO such horses, one a gelding and one a mare, side by side, apparently equal in training and appearance and heart, effectively identical except for that little gender difference. Now imagine looking at the price tags. Whatever the gelding costs, add half again, or perhaps double his price, to get the mare's price. Why? Because she's a mare. She is, at least in theory, able to pass on her good qualities to a foal. The gelding, equally wonderful in every other way, is a "dead end" in breeding terms.

What if you are a sensible, intelligent Pony Club Dad, and have absolutely NO intention of breeding a foal from the mare? That's fine -- but her price is still going to be higher. Someone else might want to breed her, and what that means, in effect, is that the mare has a second-career option that the gelding simply doesn't have. If you buy the gelding and he bows a tendon badly, you may have a horse that can never be jumped again, or a horse that can't be ridden at all. Any career-ending injury will create a Crippled Horse. But if you buy the mare and SHE bows a tendon badly, you have a Crippled Horse -- and a Potential Broodmare.

It's silly, I agree. Many mares won't be bred -- and many mares that ARE bred, shouldn't be. But there it is: the possibility of reproduction adds to their value. A spayed mare (and there are a few) is, like a gelding, a reproductive "dead end", and she is valued accordingly.

Mares DO get bred, though, and most mares are put in foal for the first time between the ages of, say, five and ten. Many mares aren't brought back into ridden work in their teens -- if they are good broodmares and produce nice foals, they may have found that new career. Geldings, on the other hand, keep on going -- the nice Pony Club horse that is such a great find when he is five or six years old will probably be kept in work as a Pony Club horse, getting passed from child to child until he is in his twenties.

And now, back to rider preferences!

Many riders prefer geldings because they fear that a mare will be "mareish", coming into season at the worst possible moment, and flouncing around with her ears back and her attitude in dire need of adjustment -- probably during Dressage Rally! It's not actually a problem with most mares, but riders do worry. And some instructors and trainers prefer geldings, because sensitivity is NOT an asset in a schoolhorse that deals with beginner riders.

Some barn owners prefer geldings, and some -- really! -- won't allow mares in the barn, either because they "just don't like mares", or because they have a limited amount of turnout area, and can't cater to two separate groups for turnout.

So there it is: mares cost more, are less likely to be sold (breeders like to keep good mares), and may be retired to the broodmare pasture either because of injury or because their bloodlines are in demand -- or because their owner just wants a foal. A really wonderful performance mare at the top international level may continue to compete whilst surrogate mares carry her transplanted embryos to term, but that's costly and rare, and most mares belonging to ordinary folk simply leave the competition arena when it's time to move into the breeding barn. Mares ought to be bred for the first time before they get into their teens, or it may not be possible for them to carry foals to term later -- and this means that their competition careers are likely to be shorter than those of their gelding counterparts.

Some barn owners prefer mares, by the way, and your daughter may someday find herself at a barn where most of the riding horses ARE mares. It's not terribly likely, but it could happen. In the meantime, I hope this helps explain the apparent disparity! ;-)


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