Anthropomorphic Thoughts About Spaying Mares.

WMThoughtHe said we don’t need to import sport horses; we have great horses right here; we’re under-using great mares. More people should consider spaying mares and competing them. I read this in an article a year ago, written by a respected equestrian, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

It’s pretty undeniable, even with the health risks involved, that the spay and neuter programs for dogs and cats have had a huge impact on the number of unwanted pets.  In horse rescue, we see quite a few hoarding farms with indiscriminate breeding happening, resulting in horses several years old who aren’t even halter broke. It’s indefensible.

For most colts, it isn’t much of a question. A lot of us prefer geldings for riding. Stallion lives aren’t all that easy from a management standpoint and ethical horse people have extremely high standards for keeping a stallion intact. And hopefully by now, we understand that there is an overpopulation problem with horses as well. Beyond that, a gelding can be more level emotionally and a more dependable partner for all kinds of riding.

Don’t get me wrong; I’ve also known some spectacular mares who are focused, kind partners. I know riders who will always prefer mares for their strength and intelligence. And many mares go through a summer of heat cycles without their owners even being particularly aware. They share pastures with geldings and are all around great horses. Good for them.

I’ve also known mares that earn the title of alpha through aggression. Mares that become unpredictable, if not un-rideable, during heat cycles. They flatten their ears threatening all comers–and then there’s something about the late fall heat cycle that is particularly strong. I have two mares in my barn right now who have been cranky, spoiling for a fight, and rattling the barn Zen for weeks. Their general attitude is dark and quarrelsome; their nicker sounds like a growl.

Remember the name of Captain Woodrow Call’s horse in Larry McMurtry’s novel, Lonesome Dove?  Case in point.

Other mares need turnout alone or are eventually asked to leave barns due to behavior issues, for the safety of others. They get retired early or end up as broodmares. These mares are the ones we make jokes about; the ones immortalized as slogans on t-shirts: “You don’t scare me, I ride a mare.”

Many experienced horse people, vets included, think that we seriously under-diagnose ovarian cysts in mares. The behavior problems mares show are not a natural part of being a mare but rather a request for help. Beyond that, the connection between this “mare discomfort” and ulcers or colic is well-documented.

The ovaries are located just under the fourth or fifth lumbar vertebrae, you know, just barely behind the saddle. Yet we name call stereotypical labels like moody, temperamental, cantankerous. And worst of all–“TYPICAL MARE.” Why aren’t we taking this more seriously?

Generally, we only spay mares who are older and have medical cause, but I’ve met a few people who have spayed younger mares and swear by it. Is this a good option for mares who aren’t going to be bred? Can a mare become a “smart gelding?” Many say yes.

Years ago, one of my mares struggled with her heat cycles more and more as she aged. I used prescription medications, herbal concoctions, and any other option I heard about. My vet had no better advice at the time. She was in her twenties by the time someone suggested ovarian cysts, but that diagnosis came with the information that the surgery was very expensive and by then, my mare wasn’t a good candidate. Now I have a young mare who seems to be on the same painful path.

My recent research showed that some surgery methods are complicated and require the mare to be laid down, frequently resulting in a vet bill over $2000. But I also learned about two different techniques done while the horse is standing. The procedures are only a bit more complicated than gelding, and costs run in the $800. range.

Back in the day, it was my high school photo next to the definition of PMS in the dictionary. My back ached and if I wasn’t crying uncontrollably, I was yelling. Birth control was a godsend; it was like an anti-depressant. The med I took then is also used in horses now.

The problem with anthropomorphism (attribution of human characteristics or behavior to non-humans) is we dumb it down too much. It isn’t about putting a sailor suit on your dog and setting a place at the table. Being mechanically scientific doesn’t work either. Realistically, the main way us humans have to discern the world around us is through our frame of perception–in other words, anthropomorphism. The trick is to find compassion without an over-abundance of sentimentality. In this case, women innately relate to mare discomfort better. We understand it and should have more compassion for these mares living in purgatory and throwing in the occasional buck. We should speak up for mares.

In the male-dominated vet world, there are always those slightly blue jokes about neutering dogs and gelding colts. I am not immune; I usually bring a bottle of champagne to celebrate the event.

There is no mare equivalent. I wonder if there were more female vets, would mare reproductive discomfort go un-treated less often? Would ovarian cysts would be more quickly diagnosed, if for no more reason than personal understanding? Then maybe procedures for spaying would evolve to be easier and safer, and soon, more mares would get to live more comfortable lives. Less name calling from us, more peaceful autumn days for them.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

27 thoughts on “Anthropomorphic Thoughts About Spaying Mares.

  1. Interesting. I’ glad to hear your mares are going through the same thing as mine right now. She wants nothing to do with me at the moment, and she’s normally sweet and loving. Several times this week I’ve gone to the barn to see her happily eating grass with her friend and just left her to be a horse.

  2. Paula Romanow

    Thank you, Anna. My last horse was a gelding, but prior to that, all I owned and rode were mares. I very often thought that people needed to take more account of the challenges that go with owning a menstrual cycle :). we given human females a lot of slack about it, why wouldn’t we give it to other species? People quite simply do not pay enough attention to pain issues in animals. Just because they’re better at hiding the effects of pain doesn’t mean that they don’t feel it.

  3. As a dog breeder I would question breeding mares who are too cranky to work with. I know horses can be kept in barn and field but temperament is still important especially in an ear when we have fewer and fewer truly knowledgeable horse people
    It would be wonderful, for the sake of the mares as well as their people, to be able to spay mares. One would think it would be easier to control population in horses but it doesn’t seem that way does it? It’s sad our animals suffer for the short sighted greed of some people

  4. Years ago, I knew of a grade mare that went from sweet and kind to the devil during her cycle.
    Eventually the owner brought her to the local veterinary school. After an ultra sound and some blood work she was diagnosed with ovarian cysts. The owner spent a considerable amount of money to have her spayed. But what she got back was a perfect riding companion and show ring competitor, and then retired pasture puff.

    While I had been one of the lucky mare owners that never noticed if my girls were in their cycles, short of nearly soaking any gelding that walked by. I had always kept that option, although expensive in the back of my mind. Should I own another mare in my lifetime.
    And maybe I can talk my daughter into going into equine veterinary science. 🙂

    1. Thanks, Martha. It’s good to hear of mares who get this condition helped. Being a vet might be the hardest job out there… but we need good ones. And if you got free vet work later, who knows, it might save you money to send her. 🙂

  5. Good post. I have a mixed herd and rarely notice the mare heat cycles. But in the past year, I’ve had one older mare who has occasionally shown signs of colic – last autumn, and again early this spring. They are transitory – by the time I make the decision to go up to the house and find the banamine and bring it back to the barn, they are usually over. I am fairly certain they are cycle related and have had her on a mare supplement the last couple of months to see if we can get through this autumn without a recurrence. Time will tell.

  6. Amanda

    After years of having two geldings, I’m now the proud foster mom of a mare. She makes it very clear that when she’s having a cycle (so far only one big one at the beginning of the summer and a fall one now) her back HURTS. I put a hold on riding and we go for walks instead – it helps me during my cycle, so I hope it works for her, too. I really don’t know much about equine cycles. I’ve seen that some mares are severely affected and others aren’t, but to your point Anna, it’s always been cast aside as “typical mare” behaviour. I wonder now if I should look into the spaying option for her comfort. Is there anything else that can ease that time for her?

    As always, your posts are incredibly thought-provoking. Thank you!

    1. Your mare doesn’t sound too bad… I like an herbal product called Mare Magic. It might be plenty for her. Vets usually prescribe Regumate or Depo provera. But mares aren’t naturally hysterical any more than we are.

  7. Maggie Frazier

    Any mare who is so miserable several times a year deserves to have something done – I agree with you.
    I only knew of one spayed mare in the time I was around horses – but honestly, looking at it from the view of one who remembers – NOT FONDLY – all those years after “becoming a woman” (wasnt that the line we all got fed?) I can only sympathize with any creature that feels the way I did for all those years. And frankly, I got off easy! My daughter – after she had her first child – said it really wasnt much worse than her period! (Boy, did I feel guilty after that)
    I hadnt heard much about spayed mares in years – until the BLM started “researching” different ways to prevent reproduction in wild mares! But this is the BLM! Not the most intelligent or creative of minds. Dont get me wrong – there certainly are reasons for having it done – BUT not zeroing out the wild herds!

    1. Agreed. I don’t want it used against Mustangs, but the BLM would probably buy a bullet before surgery. I know they have drugs they use, don’t they? I need to check that out, I didn’t think of them when I was writing this. Thanks, Maggie.

      1. Maggie Frazier

        Check it out, Anna – there is a lot of info out there if anyone is interested. Cloud Foundation is one of the best and they tell it like it is. Yes, there are drugs – PZP for one, but the BLM hasnt really made much use of them – they do roundups & feedlots instead!

    1. Maggie Frazier

      Well, PZP is being used by several sanctuaries – I think the Cloud Foundation uses it – sparingly! If its used for too long – mares can become sterile & have other health problems. The BLM says they have tried it & its unsuccessful – but thats not quite true. Now realize here – I’m NOT a fan of the BLM – in my opinion – what they are going for is NO wild horses or burros on OUR public lands – just cattle, sheep & the good old mining industry. Plus, the BLM wants to spay mares IN THE FIELD – wild horses that is. They already attempted this on mares in the Sheldon Wildlife Refuge – some died, from what I have read – Not important anymore – there are no wild horses in the Sheldon wildlife refuge anymore – they were rounded up & most went to slaughter.
      Sorry for “pontificating”! Very strong feelings here on both sides of this issue. Its obvious where I sit on this.

      1. Maggie Frazier

        Actually, the Sheldon horses were removed by USFWS – they didnt fall under the purvue of the Wild Free Roaming Wild Horse & Burro Act.

      2. Sad ending for sure. Not proud of my species. (Also don’t know that long term meds are a better solution for a distressed mare.)

  8. Agree with you that such “typical mares” shouldn’t be called “typical” at all and should be attended to. I’m totally open to the fact that some mares may simply be violently hormonal, but not so many that it’s considered normal. We have four mares. In addition to those, I ride about seven more every week for my clients. Not one of them has behaviour issues under saddle related to their heat cycles. All of them can be kept in a pasture with geldings. With many of them I don’t even know when they’re on heat; the others I see mostly by their behaviour in the pasture.
    In fact, I don’t remember ever – in my limited ten years or so of experience – riding a mare that had behavioural problems related to her heat cycle. Of course, I can usually pick up something isn’t quite right emotionally – maybe just the slightest edginess, a bit of moodiness. But no bucking or napping or being insane or picking fights every four weeks.
    It’s not normal. Mares are not being typical when they’re yelling in pain.

  9. foresthorse2014

    if you suspect ovarian problems, can they diagnose that with Ultrasound or X rays? great article. I got bitten by a cranky mare today –not mine… I should have seen it coming but did not!

    1. I think an ultrasound, and there’s a blood test. I think some vets can palpate. Sometimes the symptoms are obvious and sometimes they show up during surgery. It sounds to me like the diagnosis isn’t always clear, but I judge that on what people have told me, not a study of any sort. As for that cranky mare, my guess is that she had good reason…and it wasn’t personal.

  10. I boarded a large QH mare on my farm for 5 years that had been spayed. This was 15 years ago, so I’m not sure of the process but I do know her ovaries were removed. It made no difference in her behavior. None. That said, the owner was a new horse owner and didn’t understand normal horse behavior. The mare was complicated to say the least and I was glad to see her leave.

    My experience with mares had not been positive until I reluctantly leased a half Arabian mare, 15 years ago. She is now 25 and the one of the best horses I’ve ever had, so I’ve opened my heart to mares again.

    Many veterinarians are perplexed by the owners asking to spay their mares. Most of them think, rightfully so, that the owner is probably the problem and it’s best to just leave the mare alone. 🙂

    1. Well, this is the complicated part exactly. No amount of spaying will make up for a mismatched pair. Complicated horses are still complicated after they are spayed. But if there is so much hormonal stress that the mare feels anxious and in pain constantly, for physical reasons, then even the best rider can’t do a thing to help that…On the other hand, if the vet says, as most trainers say, that the rider is the problem, the medical issue never gets addressed. OY! Thank you so much for this comment…you’ve been on all sides of it.

  11. ILona English

    With newer techniques of Laparoscopic surgery removing ovaries from mares will be much easier and safer. We had a colt with a retained testicle last year and with this procedure he was home 2 days later and stall rest for 2 days and then fine to go out in a small paddock. So much safer than the alternative method of regular surgery. Also with respect to using hormones on mares such Regumate – I won’t go there. The risk to humans and the mare not acceptable to my breeding program. I also had a mare I sent several states away to be bred. I told the breeder NO Regumate but I do believe they did put her on it as she was an older mare. She came back to me at 6 months pregnant. The resulting foal – a filly – was gorgeous and a great mover but she
    acted more like a colt. We checked her ovaries they were fine but as time went one she actually became dangerous. We had to euthanize her at 2 and while I can’t prove it – I do believe the use of Regumate during pregnancy can have an effect on a female embryo. Wish someone would do some research on this.

    1. First, thank you. I agree with easier and safer methods will be a real help. Like you, I’m very uncomfortable with long term drug use, and from handling Regumate, I felt it had to be more dangerous than we’re told. Sorry to hear about this filly, and more study is really needed. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts here.

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