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Principal Body System: Reproductive

Definition: The mechanism by which the thread of life is sustained. Organs (ovaries) that produce reproductive cells and other organs that transport and store reproductive cells.

Function: Reproduces the organism.

In natural horse-world, mare-ness is completely normal, but for us human caretakers, half a ton of domesticated girl with hormonal attitude can be, shall we say, interesting.

Mares are seasonally polyestrus creatures. This means they undergo hormonal cycles during certain seasons of the year (spring, summer and autumn), but not usually during the winter months, which some say is nature's way of preventing the arrival of a foal during bad weather. Most mares will have 21-day equine estrous cycles, which is the duration of time between each ovulation.

A mare will remain in estrous, or in season, for 3 to 5 days each time, as part of the overall equine estrous cycle. Known as the follicular phase of the estrous cycle, this is the period where the mare is fertile for breeding, which ultimately is what nature is intending.

A quick reminder here of the Circadian Rhythm - this is the 24-hr life cycle in the physiological process of all living beings, determining sleeping/feeding patterns, brainwave activity, hormone production, cell regeneration and other biological activities. Horses live in these very rhythms of nature, which means their physical, emotional and mental health respond to the changes between the seasons, and change according to the cycles of light and dark, sunlight and temperature.

Mares know exactly when Spring arrives – as the days get longer, their sex hormones respond (the estrous cycle), and one of the big behavioural messages their hormones start telling them to do is to find a mate. Typical seasonal behaviour throughout the breeding season to be translated as unpredictable, everything from moody and distracted to plain mean and aggressive!

However, an interesting point. Consider our wild mares – they live in the company of a permanent herd with a stallion, they come into season in early spring, they mate, they’re then in-foal for 11 months, they foal, they nurse, then before you know it Spring come back round and it's time to seek out the best stallion to produce the best babies.

This is how it's meant to be, and for our wild mares their year from Spring to Spring usually involves only one season - the rest of the time they're busy doing what nature intended for them, and the physiological state that causes typical menstrual symptoms simply doesn't occur.

Our domestic non-broodmare pets, however, are neither in the company of stallions in Spring, nor are in foal for the entirety of the summer, autumn and winter. So, factor in a continuous rolling 21-day estrous cycle throughout the spring/summer, which in nature they're not really meant to experience, plus all the day-to-day changes in a domestic regime (workouts/exercise, performance/competition, stabling, restricted turnout, feed and management changes, horse companions moving on), and it’s no wonder that hormones are disrupted.

Nature expects only one or two fertile seasons, followed by pregnancy, birth, and nursing. The more seasons our mares have without a pregnancy, the more chance there is that they will have seasonal behaviour that us humans consider challenging.

For most of our domestic mares, they also have either very limited, or no access to any male horses. In any domestic herd, a horse will take on the role of boss, and in our mixed domestic herds, either a gelding or mare will take on the role. It doesn’t necessarily mean bullying the herd; it’s more about keeping the herd safe, dealing with intruders, moving the herd, standing guard while others sleep and so on. The mares will soon recognise that the geldings in their herds aren’t behaving like stallions, and leave them alone after a while.

However, come spring, and the sex-drive hormones are apparently so strong in mares that she will actively search for a stallion - rather than being a wallflower she’ll check out every new gelding she meets, and very often that gelding will be able to bring her into season unexpectedly. It's also a myth that unexpected matings are caused by stallions gatecrashing after midnight - statistics show that mares kept in same-gender herds escape more often in search of a stallion, compared to their mixed-herd peers, rather than escaped stallions finding mares.

So, how do we keep our mares happy?

We don't want to change the natural process; we just want our non-breeding mare to be more comfortable during her seasons, and thus more manageable for us. I don’t think there’s any doubt that keeping her in a more natural way in a mixed herd will enormously benefit her biorhythms. Keep the herd constant so she remains settled, and this will have a really positive effect on her seasonal responses.

However, we can only work within the environment that we have, and there is a bounty of natural herbs to support our mares through their uncomfortable times and take the edge off.

  • The filly A young filly just coming into season for the first time can benefit greatly from herbs. Her cycle can sometimes be a bit hit-and-miss to start with, but this is usually nothing to worry about – just minor hormone imbalances, and they can be helped with the mildest of gentle herbs. If your girl is still experiencing imbalances past the age of 5, then you can move her onto a more effective blend. It might be worth a vet check though, just to rule out anything that might actually be causing the imbalances.
  • The PMS mare Now we’re at age 5 onwards, through to around 15. Her cycles are now fairly regular but can have a large assortment of issues ranging from mild to severe cramping, lethargy and depression, aggressiveness, attitude problems, lack of concentration, and more. It's not all bad news though - keep her supported on a regular and continuous basis, and you'll see a happier mare. Sometimes feeding the mare a good liver/kidney detox blend every few months can also help alleviate hormone imbalances.
  • The menopausal mare Now our girl has reached her senior years, her hormonal needs are changing and her supplementation will need changing, just as it does for us. Also helpful to the older mare is a good immunity blend, specifically tonic herbs.

The pregnant mare

Preparing a mare for breeding should begin long before she is introduced to the stallion. Mares should be kept in good physical shape, receiving optimum nutrition, ample exercise and turnout, and regular hoof and dental care. After the mare has been covered by the stallion, herbs should be stopped immediately until an ultrasound has been performed. If the mare is not in foal, the blend may be resumed again, but always stop any herbal preparations once the mare has been covered. Supplements of any kind should always be fed with caution to the pregnant mare.

Once a mare is in foal, there are only a few select herbs that are recommended, and then only during the last 75 days of pregnancy. Any herb that may stimulate the uterus should be avoided during the pregnancy, such as black cohosh, blue cohosh, motherswort, and yarrow. Steer clear from garlic during the last 30 days as it may taint the milk.

Raspberry leaf is the ultimate pregnancy herb. It tones the uterine muscles and is very high in vitamins and minerals. It will also help with increased milk production. Feeding raspberry leaf during the last 45 days of a pregnancy is thought to help the mare during delivery, with success noted for mares with chronic delivery type problems (eg, prolonged delivery, retained placenta, little or no milk production, excessive bleeding during delivery).

* IMPORTANT - As as precaution, the following is a list of herbs that should never be fed to mares during gestation:

~ agnus castus vitex berries, angelica, ashwagandha, barberry, black cohosh, blue cohosh, blessed thistle, Bloodroot (VERY DANGEROUS), buchu, catnip, coltsfoot, devil's claw, dong quai root, elecampane root, false unicorn root, garlic, ginger, goldenseal, horehound, juniper berries, liquorice, lobelia, lycii berries, maidenhair (ginkgo), motherwort, mugwort, osha root, parsley, pennyroyal, prickly ash bark, queen of the meadows, red clover, rue, sage, sassafras root, shepherds purse, tansy, uva ursi, wormwood, yarrow

After the foal is born, raspberry leaf is recommended to help the uterus get back into shape. Fennel and fenugreek are also very enriching and will aid in milk quality as well.

Useful herbs

- Agnus Castus Vitex Berries - Helpful in easing mood swings, agnus castus nourishes the pituitary gland, with its most distinctive feature being that it has a positive rebalancing hormonal effect on the body. Its action helps normalise hormone levels by lowering prolactin (the hormone released from the pituitary gland which stimulates the breast glands to produce milk) and raising progesterone levels to counterbalance the increase and effects of estrogen during estrous.

- Black Cohosh - Considered indispensable as a natural way to ease menopausal discomforts. Black Cohosh is thought to be a wonderful, natural sedative that has been used to relax the entire body, relieve aches and pains and alleviate anxiety and depression.

- Chamomile - A natural relaxant with a calming effect, which soothes frayed nerves. Chamomile is also an emmenagogue, an agent that helps to bring on a mare's season and regulate its flow, calming a nervous stomach, seasonal cramps and stress.

- Cramp Bark - As its name implies, cramp bark’s primary medicinal use is to relieve cramps of all kinds including menstrual pains, relaxing muscles and easing spasms by gently sedating and relaxing the uterus, helping to ease her seasonal discomfort.

- Dong Quai Root - Considered the 'female ginseng' because of its balancing effect on the female hormonal system. Renowned as an overall tonic for the reproductive system, it is used to relieve the discomforts of a mares’ season.

- Raspberry Leaf - A well know fertility herb and renowned uterine tonic, Raspberry Leaf has been used for centuries to strengthen the reproductive system and tone the uterine muscles, with the ferulic acid content in the herb acting as a uterine relaxant, allowing for an easier estrous cycle and relieving seasonal discomfort, PMS and cramping. It also has a high nutrient profile being rich in minerals and vitamins.

- Meadowsweet - Nature's aspirin, meadowsweet's anti-inflammatory qualities help to soothe and reduce inflammation and are beneficial for, amongst others, the relief of cramps.

- Milk Thistle - Milk Thistle nourishes and cleanses the liver. This remarkable herb is said to have no pharmaceutical equivalent for its beneficial effects on the liver, spleen and gallbladder, ridding the system of toxins, boosting immunity and providing valuable antioxidant protection.

- Passion Flower - A very gentle but effective calmative with studies demonstrating that passion flower can help neutralise, or at the very least greatly diminish, anxiety symptoms. Working harmoniously with chamomile, It has been used for centuries as a reliable remedy for relaxing spasms and muscle tension, and other manifestations of extreme anxiety, and can help calm a pounding heart by relaxing the walls of the arteries and keeping blood pressure balanced. This wonderful herb is also packed with protective antioxidant elements.

- Rosehips - In addition to supporting overall health, Vitamin C is helpful in stimulating dopamine - rosehips are jam-packed full of Vitamin C, which is why our mares' blends have a generous measure of rosehips.

- Valerian - Often called nature's best tranquiliser, valerian is the herb to pull out of the bag if you've tried everything else. Excellent to help diminish restlessness and aggression, and its antispasmodic benefits help to alleviate muscle, intestinal and menstrual cramps. Please note that valerian is a banned substance for competitions, so check with your competition rules. If you are at risk of being tested, stop feeding valerian at least 3-5 days before your show date.

- Yarrow - I love yarrow - it's probably my favourite herb. I find it so useful in so many areas, and the heady flowery scent is just lovely. For our mares, yarrow is so beneficial - while yarrow is considered a ‘cure of all ills’, and it certainly is, Maria Treben, a renowned Austrian herbalist, considers yarrow “first and foremost… a herb for women”; Abbe Kneipp, one of the founders of the naturopathic medicine movement, also says in his writings, “women could be spared many troubles, if they just took yarrow tea from time to time!" Yarrow is considered invaluable for supporting menstrual discomfort, and our mares respond very well to it during their seasons - one study from the University of Maryland found it to be very effective at lessening cramps and helping soothe muscle spasms. Yarrow is full of flavonoids, important plant compounds that smooth out the lining of the intestines and uterus, and its mild sedative effects can help soothe associated anxiety and inner restlessness.