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Breakfast With Mama - part 37
By Kathy Johnson, Executive Director, MHP
Solstice: The Mask of Mama
Ah, the longest day of the year, when the sun came up the earliest and set the latest. Horses' hormones were controlled by the amount of light they got. In the man-made competitive games of horses, racing and showing, all horses had a January 1st birthday. Breeders hoped for an earlier heat cycle to breed a mare as soon as possible in the spring, to bring her 11 month gestation period as close to January first as possible. A foal born closer to January 1st would be older and therefore bigger and stronger than his competition of that year. So, early in the spring, breeders set up heat lamps in the mares' stalls and left the lights on long, hoping to induce early estrus, to breed the mares early.
In the natural order of things, it made sense that on the summer solstice, with the longest light, Mama's hormones raged. She attacked another mare, Ponyo, with unequivocal intent, lashing out with the same force she had attacked Fearless when the first warmth of spring broke. I learned another lesson in how mustangs and mares think and why they act.
I may have jumped to a wrong conclusion when Mama attacked Fearless. I thought Mama was running off the weaker members of her herd. But when her behavior resurfaced, when Mama spent day after day quietly going out with the geldings, then viciously tried to take down another mare, I looked back. Mama's initial run in with the foals actually happened when they were no longer foals. They were yearlings, young mares facing their first heat cycles, young mares coming of breeding age.
And that's what put the Mama in Mama. Mama was used to being bred every spring and having foals. She no longer had Sasha at her side. She had moved to an unnatural environment where she had to feel the scarcity of stallions. And a scarcity of stallions meant an over-abundance of mares. Every mare was competition.
Which brought me to mares and women. It seemed that many people who owned and rode mares were women. Not all of course, but a majority. I knew male trainers who would not let a mare in their barns. Women seemed to have a natural affinity for mares and were perhaps more tolerant of their seasonal and hormonal behaviors.
Every woman who spoke to me of their mares invariably said, "My mare is the alpha mare." Horse herds had a pecking order. In wild herds, it was the alpha mare who led the herd to grazing grounds and water holes. Her job was to take care of the herd. The stallion's job was to fight off intruders, whether predator or other stallions. And so, the alpha mare tended to be the wisest and most experienced mare.
After hearing hundreds of women tell me that their mare was the alpha mare, I began to have doubts. How could every mare be the alpha mare? It didn't seem possible. I thought perhaps the women were projecting, placing their own desire for power and control on their horses. Or perhaps they were personifying, seeing normal mare behavior and giving their horses human traits they wanted their horses to have.
But after living with a herd of 30 horses for about four years and watching their ins and outs day after day, I came to another conclusion about mares. Every mare of breeding age WANTED to be the alpha mare. Some were overt, biting, kicking, and picking fights, and some were more covert, becoming friends with the alpha mare or starting sub-groups, groupies of bachelorette mares.
The true alpha was often what Mark Rashid calls the "passive leader." The mare at the top knew she was top and rarely had to fight for her place. She flicked an ear, and everyone moved. The top mare often had an entourage, older, calmer mares who would take her place and watch out for the herd if she wanted to take a nap or a grazing break. The ones who fought the hardest, who seemed most dominate, or alpha to humans, who stirred up the most trouble were often the most insecure mares. They were fighting to become alpha because they were not yet there.
In the wild, every herd had a balance of masculine and feminine. A healthy herd, as a whole, was fairly androgynous. To avoid inbreeding, stallions ran their sons out of the herd when the colts reached breeding age. These colts sometimes created bachelor bands where they hung out for a few years. Or, the more mature colts began forming their own bands by stealing mares from other stallions.
And teenaged fillies often eloped with these colts to avoid inbreeding with their fathers. No doubt, the other mares also gave them a pretty good shove out of the herd when their new foals came along in the spring. And so, new herds formed, herds in an appropriate balance of male and female.
When we brought horses out of the wild and into domesticity, we immediately skewed the gender balance. We gelded almost all of the stallions. The majority of domestic horses grew up in a matriarchal society, the broodmare band. They were raised by mares until humans pulled them out of the foal herd, and began training. Most never saw their fathers.
Standard operating procedures at most large horse facilities was to separate mares and geldings. It kept the in-fighting down, prevented injuries and kept the horses safer. The majority of male/female interactions took place over a fence, if at all.
But, when the relational balance of a herd shifted, when a herd was predominantly female or male, rather than androgynous, surely the individual balance of a horse shifted too. Since stallions were gelded, the male herds had less interest in breeding, although competition for the mares still existed. But the mares, bearing the full brunt of their hormones, with no breeding stallions around to solve that problem, had to feel powerful urges that they could not meet. No wonder Mama became aggressive, protective and downright demonic that spring.
Similar things happened in human society when our men lost their place, when they were out of work, when they left, when they went to war or prison. The women, the grandmothers, the mothers, the aunts and sisters were left raising the children. The society became more matriarchal. They fought for jobs and for places in schools and higher grades and they ran companies and they competed. So, at the same time that the group became more matriarchal, with more women leading, the women themselves seemed to take on more masculine traits, in order to protect their families, to ward off outsiders and to supply food. They could no longer just take care of the children.
I saw some of this in Mama. If there were not enough males to go around, and if all of them were geldings who were segregated from the mares, then she had to take a more dominate role, a more masculine role, including biting, kicking, fighting and driving away those she saw as intruders or competition.
Those familiar with neo-pagan feminism might have read of the archetypes of the virgin, mother-warrior and wise crone, the triple goddess. Sometimes I thought the stereotypes applied to mares as well as women.
When I was in my 20s and 30s and early 40s, I was as relentless as Mama. As mother, I raised my strong, tall sons. I fought for them to get the best education possible. We moved our entire household to get them into better schools. And yes, in that period of time, with my estrogen at its highest, many traits came forth that were part of my feminine nature. I competed, driving more beautiful women away with better war paint, better products, and jealous rages. I kept top physical condition in an effort to remain young and desirable. And my emotional side often over-rode my rational side.
But when times were tough, and I had to take on a role beyond mother and housekeeper, when I needed to take on more of the male power roles, then things got really out of balance. I brought home the bacon when my husband was unemployed. I do not know who put the hyphen in mother-warrior, but that's what I was. I was a tireless worker and fierce competitor, trying to get ahead in my job. I became a cut throat business person. My competitive spirit was fierce, both in the riding arena and in business. My rational, logical side stomped over emotion as I fought my way into higher paying positions and bashed my head against the glass ceiling. But, like Mama, I felt out of balance. I felt out of balance in myself and with those around me. Sometimes I didn't even recognize myself.
And then, thankfully, enter menopause. My estrogen depleted. My wrinkles deepened. My pigments paled. My hair turned grey and every grey hair told a story. My brown eyes turned green. And as my hormones faded, I was left without the manic urges that drove me. I was quieter and less reactive. I found an easy balance between my emotional and rational sides, my masculine and feminine sides, my manic and depressive sides. Somehow, these opposing forces no longer took sides, but seemed to merge into one, one fairly holistic, easygoing dialectic. It was good to be crone.
My hormones ebbed and with them so much of the jealousy, the competition, the rage, and the anger faded. It was as if I had looked at the world through an estrogen mask, the mask of melasma, for years. Suddenly, mask removed, the whole world changed. I smelled again the scents of childhood, took delight in a Popsicle or a corny joke, forgave silly slights, and found myself wandering happily anew spiritually.
I saw Mama wearing the same mask, and through her soulful eyes, I could look behind it. Mama's sweet side, her gentle whickers, her neighs to greet me, all showed the real Mama. Perhaps in time, as her memories of motherhood faded further into the past, as she perhaps found a new job in which to compete, she might leave her hormonal hell behind, return to a more balanced self, and find a greater peace with her herd mates.
Chapter Index - Don't Miss The Other Episodes
Breakfast With Mama copyright 2011, 2012, Kathy Johnson
Photos copyright 2011, 2012, Tony Johnson
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