So, You Think You Love Horses? Some Reflections on the Nature of Horses and Man

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Do Horses have personalities?


I do not have any doubt that horses have individual personalities. After you own and care for several horses you can form an opinion about this yourself. People who own dogs or cats agree that these animals have personalities. However, few people believe animals such as fish or reptiles have personalities. It depends on the intelligence of the animal and its ability to interact with humans. I believe that a big part of this is the animal's own interest in relating to people. If a horse approaches you and makes eye contact with you then you are relating to each other as individuals.


A certain amount of this has to do with feeding the animal. Being a source of food for an animal causes it to form a positive attachment to you. However, much of a horse's feeding has nothing to do with man. Grazing does not create any association with humans. However, when you feed them grain they associate you with being fed. They also enjoy that occasional treat that you give them. Feeding an animal just is the beginning.

So what exactly do I mean by personality in a horse? Certainly, a part of this is a personality trait of gregariousness on the part of the animal towards humans. When speaking of personality the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. What is that magical quality of charisma that some people clearly have? I find charisma in humans much like Supreme Court Potter Steward's quotation about pornography. It is hard to define, but "I know it when I see it." For example, it seemed that actor Peter Ustinov always managed to steal a scene, even if his role was a minor one, solely by virtue of his charisma. Kennedy had it and Nixon did not. There are those horses that you see at shows that also have that hard to define quality of charisma about them. Do not mistake beauty for charisma: they are different. A beautiful person or a beautiful horse can come across as emotionally flat and lacking in personality. Charisma is not self-centered or self-possessed but is about reaching out and engaging others in a positive way. It cannot be forced although some of its skills may be learned. In humans it often lends leadership authority to the person possessing it. A charismatic person does not need to be on a mission but when one happens to have the ability to charm and influence others, it is tempting to use it to some end. Human charisma is both seductive and seducing and one needs to cautiously size up the motivation of a charismatic individual. Fortunately animals have rather transparent agendas.


There are those recognized horse experts who will talk at length about specific personality or behavioral traits in horses. They classify these traits into a list from which you might try to rate your own animal. When I read some of these lists, I wonder how many of these things are genetically determined issues of temperament, and how many are the result of the particular environment and training the animal has experienced. You can also ask this question about people, and you will get just as many takes on its answer. Both heredity and environment are important in humans and horses. Heredity sketches the rough draft and environment fills in the colors. When you are acquiring an animal you need to have a feeling for its emotional nature in addition to its beauty, conformation, soundness and suitability. A horse lives a long time, and a poor choice on your part is not good for either you or the animal. It is useful to spend a little time with the prospective horse and study its behavior. Why is it being sold? What can the prior owner honestly tell you about its personality?

In prior times horseman did not worry about an animal's personality. There was this sense of "breaking" a horse by forcibly bending it to your will. Today most of us feel these old techniques are unnecessary and often constitute a brutal bullying of an animal. Horse trainer Monty Roberts talks a lot about the old approach in his various books which are an appeal towards more humane and animal centered training methods. Understanding an animal's personality is helpful in your approach to the training process.

A big part of the human-equine bond is the issue of trust: you both need to trust each other. I need to have trust in this huge animal when I am up on its back and it needs to trust that I will treat it in a humane and caring way. The heart of the matter is not just the personality of the horse. It is as much about the personality of the rider as it is the personality of the horse.

Yours truly,
The Accidental Horseman


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