In the equine world, especially wild horse herds, the stallion and the "boss mare" have distinct roles in the herd's survival. In this article, we will focus on the boss mare.
Do you have a mare that seems to boss all the other horses in the pasture? Does she pin her ear back and keep the others from getting to the feed, unless you keep her separated? Perhaps she seems pushy and mean to new horses you add to the herd.
Often, we want to say she is just a cranky mare acting “marish.” Or, “She must be cycling.” Mares who are cycling can indeed be irritable. However, a consistently bossy mare is, in reality, enacting a natural role that boss mares have had for centuries.
What is a boss mare?
The stallion is often thought of as the father of the herd. He ensures next year’s crop of new foals, protects the herd from outside threats, and provides the discipline to the herd itself.
So if the stallion is the herd's father, then the boss mare should be considered the mother of the herd. They are just as important as the stallion. Boss mares are nurturing and provide substance and protection for their family.
The Boss mare is usually an older mare. She is not necessarily the biggest one, either. She does have extreme confidence, and the herd respects her wisdom. A herd will sleep better and be less restless as long as the boss mare is with them or at least in sight.
The term “boss mare” is often interchanged with the term “lead mare.” In the wild, when a herd of wild horses moves from place to place, the lead mare is in the front of the herd leading them to the next spot. According to one study, researchers thinks this role is held by more than one mare at a time.
Whether the role is held by one mare or a few, the results are the same. Just like a mother cooks for her family, it is the lead mare’s responsibility to find the pastures with the best forage and thirst-quenching water supply. By carrying this responsibility, and being in the lead, she is also the first to eat and drink. Arriving first can also be considered a "survival of the fittest" tactic.
All mothers want to keep their families safe. Another role of the lead mare is to lead the herd away at the first hint of danger. While she and the herd are running away, the stallion is either fighting off the danger or nipping at stragglers in the rear to encourage them to keep up.
When a new horse is introduced to the herd, it has to find its place in the hierarchy. The boss mare will be the one to put the newcomer in its place. This can start with ears pinned and lead to biting, kicking, and it can sometimes even lead to what seems like an all-out war.
How do you handle a boss mare?
1. Earn her respect
Some trainers will say you need to be the boss mare of your herd. Others don’t like this term because it can imply being too harsh. We have to remember that the boss mare got her position in the herd because the others respect and trust her. Working with a boss mare can be a handful of aggravation until you earn her respect.
You can start the process at feeding time. Put your horse in a stall or confined area to feed her some grain. If you don’t regularly feed grain, use just a small amount. A small coffee can will be enough.
Before you put the grain in her feed pan, gently push her head aside and make her hold it there quietly, for the count of 10. Then pour the grain into the pan. She needs to stand quietly, and not try to push you around, for the count. If she won’t stand quietly, take the grain and walk away. Wait a few minutes and try again.
You will want to do this for every feeding until she patiently waits for you to pour the grain. You are essentially saying in horse talk, “You eat when I tell you to.”
Next, work on ground control exercises with your horse. The most important thing to remember is you are working on getting her respect and trust. Every new person who works with the boss mare in my herd has to earn her trust. She is very stubborn about it. But once they receive it, she is happy to work for them.
2. Feeding time
The boss mare will always hog the feed. It will probably be necessary to feed her in a separate area. This doesn’t have to be far away. One technique is to feed the boss mare inside a walk-in shelter and then put the feed for the rest of the horses outside the shelter.
3. Introducing a new horse to the herd
Horses need to be introduced to each other slowly. Preferably across a sturdy fence. Horse owners will often put a new horse in a small corral or round pen and allow the other horses to come and greet it at their own pace for a few days. The fence on the pen needs to be sturdy and not wire. Using wire will be a quick way to wind up with a vet bill.
The lead mare will usually, but not always, be the first one to investigate this intruder to the herd. After they have had time to get acquainted across the fence, turn the new horse out with the boss mare. Stay close by to observe their behavior. As much as you may want to interfere, it is best to let them argue it out themselves.
Once the lead mare accepts the newcomer, the rest of the herd will follow suit. Don’t get me wrong: There will be some quarrels until the newcomer finds exactly where they fit in.
Boss mares have an important role in the survival of the herd. Mother nature has given them confidence and strength. If we try to understand them, we can find ways to earn their respect and enjoy a fulfilling relationship with them.
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About the Author
Wendy Sumner grew up on a quarter horse ranch in Wyoming. She helped raise and train horses to be shown in the American Quarter Horse Association. At college, she received her Equine Science degree and pursued her love of everything equine. She has spent the last 35 years raising and training horses and teaching lessons. We are excited that she has agreed to join our team as a researcher and writer.