Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Mare Wars and Crazy Geldings

It's odd how changing one small thing can have a follow-on effect, leading to one thing which leads to another thing . . .

This morning was cloudy, cool and windy, with some rain showers on and off.  We're expecting thunderstorms, and perhaps severe weather, later this afternoon and the air has that somewhat oppressive feeling we often get before spring storms.

Joe and Scout's owner has been wanting to have them in adjacent stalls.  In order to do this, last afternoon at bring-in we switched Joe's and Noble's stalls.  Neither of them thought this was a good thing - they were attached to their old stalls and said we were not putting them in the correct places - and they were a little fretful and nervous.  Mind you, their stalls are on the same side of the barn and separated by only one other horse, so even the view is the same!

In the evening, I went over to bring Lily into her stall, since storms were expected last night.  Lily is our alpha mare.  She's also coming into heat right now.  Noble's new stall is next to Lily's.  Noble thinks he's a stud muffin, and apparently the mares agree.  You get the idea.  There was much touching of noses over the top of the partition between the stalls (they both had to stretch their heads way up to do this), much squealing and tail-swishing by Lily.  She's much more sensitive at this time with the other horses about her personal space.  Lily's in the stage of heat where she's interested in the geldings, but only for the purpose of killing them.

When Lily's in this stage of heat, she exhibits some behaviors that are almost stud-like.  She is very interested in the other mares, nickering, squealing and whinnying.  She arches her neck, snorts and prances, while swishing her tail.  We actually had her tested for an ovarian tumor several years ago, since these behaviors in mares are sometimes the result of that - but there was nothing - she's just Lily.  Lily is a dominant horse even when she's not in heat, so the stronger behaviors when she's in heat are just Lily, but more so.

When I brought Lily out this morning, she was doing her act in the barn aisle.  She led out OK - no fussing.  After all the mares were out, I let them through into their pasture.  All was well, then Lily made a threat gesture at Dawn, turning her butt to Dawn and threatening to kick.

A little history is in order.  Lily and Dawn came at the same time to the barn in the summer of 2002, about 6 months after we got them.  They had previously been at a barn with limited, separate turnout.  Due to the overcrowding at the barn at that time, Lily and Dawn shared a paddock and run-in shed for a number of months.  Lily is a warmblood/Quarter Horse cross, stands about 16 hands, has huge feet and hindquarters, and probably weighs at least 1200 pounds.  She's massive.  Dawn is a Thoroughbred, is about 15.1 hands and it would be pushing it to say that she weights 1000 pounds.  Both Lily and Dawn are strong personalities.  For the first couple of months, they would regularly get into kicking fights - Dawn always got the worst of it, but didn't give up.  Lily just keeps kicking and backing up - it's a pretty effective technique.  Finally Dawn got pretty cut up one time and decided to concede.  Things have been pretty peaceful since then - Lily's the undisputed alpha - all she has to do is look at a horse and it moves away - and Dawn gets to boss everybody else around.

In my experience of the mare world, mares fight hard, usually by kicking (sometimes by "display" kicking where impact is unlikely), but once it's over, it's over.  They usually don't keep at it, and don't do the play fighting that geldings do.  The only times we've had much fighting is when horses come into or leave the herd, and it's usually over very quickly.

I don't know whether it was the weather, Lily's reaction to Noble showing up in the stall next to her, causing her to be even more touchy that she would have been, or what.  But Dawn decided that Lily was being unnecessarily pushy and that she'd had enough, and when Lily threatened her, she swung her butt to meet Lily and they went at it.  Both horses had plenty of room to move away, but they each kicked furiously for a few seconds - probably 10 kicks each, some of which connected.  As they were kicking, they were both bellowing.  Both Lily and Dawn were backing into each other as they were kicking.  There was no clear winner.  After they separated, and grazed for a few minutes, Dawn would march up to Lily with her ears pinned, turn her butt to Lily, back up and they'd go at it again.  This happened 4 or 5 times, with Dawn being the aggressor each time.

After they settled down, I walked out to inspect the combatants.  I knew a number of the kicks had connected from the sounds of impacts, and at one point Dawn had clearly been "dinged" in a leg since she was briefly slightly off.  None of our horses have back shoes (this is a requirement at our barn to reduce injuries), but a kick can still cause a serious injury.  Both horses were walking OK, so I didn't think anything too serious had happened.  Both horses had muddy marks where hoofs had connected, and Dawn had one scrape on the inside of her thigh and one small cut on the front of her right hind cannon bone (probably the ding) that wasn't even bleeding very much.  Nothing was bad enough for me to bring them in and dress wounds.  I expect they'll both have hematomas where kicks connected, and will be sore, but considering the fireworks, that's not too bad.  I may do some cold hosing this evening.

I watched them for a while to see if they were done.  They were grazing peacefully, not too far apart, and Dawn would occasionally cock an ear at Lily.  I don't know if this is round 2 of the Lily/Dawn mare wars - Lily is probably over 20 and Dawn may be challenging her for alpha - or it may have been due to the circumstances.  We'll have to see.

The geldings were very up this morning.  Fritz, who can also be a bit studdy, spend a lot of time at the fence line watching the mares in the distance - he's knows there are mares in heat - and then he and Scout spent some time racing around and around the pasture, doing figure 8s and bucking.

A little too much excitement, in my opinion.  We always look the horses over when they come in from turnout to catch any cuts, bites or scrapes, but today all the horses will get a extra careful going over.  Despite the obvious risks of group turn-out, I'm a strong believer that it is best for the horses - that's how they've evolved to live - and leads to more relaxed, happy horses.  Introductions of new horses have to be handled carefully, and sometimes a horse has to be removed for its own safety - Blackjack, our elderly gelding, had to come out of the geldings' dry lot for a time last winter since he was being harassed by Scout and was too feeble to get away.   We've also had one case of a gelding who had been gelded late and also had never been socialized with other horses, who could not be safely be turned out with the others - he became dangerously aggressive.


  1. Great post Kate . . . we do the same thing for turnout - about an acre drylot for geldings and another one for the mares, a third one for any extremely misbehaving horse that needs some 'timeout.' We'll rotate the groups through our pastures when grass growth allows for it. The mamas & babies are turned out in their own herd, away from the other girls for the first few months and then there's the stallion, who is allowed turnout with preggers and if none, at least a good size paddock that runs parallel to the girls - when none are in season. Sometimes that's to protect him, too; as you note with Lily, it can be the girl who gets herself in a twitter and becomes a challenge as much as the stallion.
    We know there is a risk of group turnout, but like you, we believe that outside of noticeably dangerous horses that do require extra vigilance, it's in the best interest of the horse and the overall welfare of the herd, but I will caveat by saying we own them all and therefore decide for them all.
    When the occasional 'scuffle' occurs, we won't intervene as a first response, but hold our breath and check the war wounds when the bellowing and grandstanding has abated. There is the time or two when the perpetrator gets whipped up into a such a frenzy that it's time to open up a can of human whupass to settle things down but most always that has happened when the human has made a change, like perhaps swapping out stalls (grin), and human needs may have stretched horse's comfort zone(s).

  2. I dislike pasture trauma, and hate to see horses get into these kinds of kicking matches. Yikes!! We are fortunate that our little herd has soundly established pecking orders...confusing to me at times, but they know what they're doing. :)
    Thanks so much for the comment about the bits. I did check out the link to RockinS. And also the newer prototype raised snaffle. Very interesting. I will check out Rashid's website as well. Thanks very much!

  3. We used to have the gelding and mares separated, but since we only have Dusty who is definitely the alpha mare and our old gal Sweetie we just turned them all out together. Mainly because Dusty and Sweetie hate each other and ignore the others presence. It couldn't be fun for them to have to endure each others company.
    We have no problems even when she is in heat no one bothers her, she's like one of the boys. I'm not saying this is good or safe for all herds but it works for ours. Sweetie is not harassed and basically stays to herself, but close enough to be a part of the herd.

    I think Lily and Dawn may carry this fight on until there is a clear winner. Also,I know it's the way of the horse world but I hate to see an older horse getting picked on, it's just not fair after all they've done and seen, I feel they deserve a little respect from the younger horses. Guess it's a good thing I'm not in a herd situation.

  4. I agree, mares tend to establish things and then be done with it whereas the geldings will do a lot of playfighting. I will say that Buffy and Harmony have a day every few months where they are just on each other's nerves or something as they are joined at the hip most of the time. I'll see them both back up and kick but then it ends as fast as it started.

    Although horses can and do hurt themselves in turnout they certainly hurt themselves turned out alone and on limited turn out as well. I have several retirees here who never went out with other horses and still managed to hurt themselves. Sometimes I do wonder if it is true that horses are born looking for a way to hurt themselves . . .

  5. Allowing horses to be horses is never risk free! But v sensible to have a "no back shoes" rule. Captain got a badly fractured radius due to a field kick.

    I do love to watch my boys playing though! Especially "bullfighting" - my young Lusitano using big Bruce Almighty as the bull!


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