For many years I have been interested in the personalities of horses, and I know that every equine enthusiast is interested in the temperament of horses to a certain extent. People describe their horses' personalities to me all the time without even realizing it. They say things like, "My horse is very bossy with other horses" or "My horse is afraid of anything new" or "My horse doesn't pay attention to me at all." These kinds of comments and observations are key in defining and understanding the behavior of any horse. Upon further examination, these same observations will lead you toward the most effective way to handle, ride and train your equine partner based on his basic temperament.
My goal in this series of articles is to share insights that may help you better understand your horse, yourself and the other horse people that you interact with regularly. In part two, I'll give you examples of mixed personality types and how to train them. In part three, you'll learn about human personality types from a colleague of mine who specializes in such things. Knowing our own preferences helps us have better relationships with both humans and equines. In part four, I'll give more examples of how to find the best match for your type and how this also works for choosing the right instructor.
Understanding the personality of your horse, coupled with knowledge about your own temperament and skill level, gives us the best chance for success in our daily rides. We want to be paired with a horse whose natural behavior patterns allow us to stay within our own natural comfort zones as much as possible.
Four Basic Personality Types
It can be argued that temperament is just as important as gaits, breeding and conformation when assessing the horse you already own or one you are thinking of buying. Studying a horse's personality type can help you understand his behavior patterns and comfort level, which helps you organize a good training program. But, of course, the study of equine personalities is done "in addition to" and not "instead of" the other riding and training issues we all gamely struggle with regularly. It's just one more tool that can lead us toward a better understanding and handling of our equine friends.
As I see it, there are four basic, clearly discernable personality groupings, which I call social, fearful, aloof and challenging.
The social horse is quite interactive and interested in the world around him. Social horses are the official greeters of the horse world. Even as youngsters, this type usually likes being petted and made a fuss over. They often enjoy playing with other horses throughout their lives. Social horses are the most likely to welcome you into their personal space, and they may be quite happy to invade yours. Social horses may struggle with their attention spans when they are young just because the world is so interesting to them. Overall, social horses, especially the more passive ones, can be very rewarding to own and easy to train. This type is usually more tolerant of poor handling than the other types.
The fearful horse is much more guarded and cautious than his social counterpart, especially when young. He often needs more personal space and may become claustrophobic or panicky when confined or restrained. Not usually at ease in new situations or environments, he often has strong, quick or reflexive-type reactions to stimulus or aids and can be described as over-reactive. He is more "flight" than "fight" oriented. He usually gets all or most of his confidence from a person or another horse he has bonded with. Once trained, fearful horses usually make strong efforts to comply and often have a long and focused attention span.
The aloof horse is not particularly interactive. Content to be in his own little world, he often seems independent of both people and horses. He may have a delayed or dull reaction to stimulus or aids and is usually more tolerant than welcoming of intrusion into his personal space. During training, the aloof horse must learn to interact and focus on lessons. This type often appears to deliberately shut out all forms of stimuli by ignoring or "tuning out" present circumstances. Owners of aloof horses will often note a rather glazed or removed look in their eyes. The aloof horse tolerates poor handling better than a fearful or challenging type.