A Thoroughbred gelding would regularly spook, rear and spin when ridden, and he stall-walked and often kicked out. Another Thoroughbred gelding also had a rear-and-spin move, but it wasn’t because he was spooking — and he could buck at the same time. In the barn, he nipped and never stood still, and he’d rear and strike when led to the field.
A Quarter Horse mare’s owner proclaimed her ”crazy,” because she’d rear or bolt whenever ridden in a new environment. Another Quarter Horse mare’s owner thought she was pigheaded and uncooperative and was glad to sell her at a low price.
A warmblood mare’s breeder considered her aggressive and wild. The trainer of another warmblood mare thought she was crazy and dangerous.
Each of these six horses came into our lives with challenging personalities and with no experience in eventing, the sport where they’re now performing well. Their personalities and temperaments don’t share a lot of similarities, but the common thread among them is that no one had ever given them a job to do, a way to channel their energy and eagerness. They’re each intelligent and sensitive horses who were frustrated, unhappy or anxious, for a variety of reasons.
Spouse Or Teacher’ The most important question whenever you’re considering purchasing a horse or taking a horse in training is often his personality. But it’s a tricky evaluation because you have to guess whether you can form a partnership with that horse, whether he or she has a personality that suits you, and vice versa. Sometimes it’s obvious, and sometimes it’s not.
It’s kind of like a marriage, although if it doesn’t work out the divorce isn’t as painful (and maybe not as costly).
Actually, your relationship with any horse should be more like a mentor or a coach, or even a foster parent. You need to be his leader, not his ”friend,” because your job is to teach and train your horse, to help make his life successful in every way, with you and after you. You have to figure out what makes him tick and what sets him off, what you should or can change in his environment, handling or even his diet to help him become workmanlike or even socially acceptable.
Two examples of this are the two Thoroughbred geldings, both of whom were given to us. The first one, who was 3 years old when he arrived, had some interwoven issues, but they mostly stemmed from one mental and one physical problem. The mental one was that he lacked self-confidence, despite standing more than 17 hands and being athletically gifted. The physical issue (which may have contributed to the self-confidence issue) is that he has shivers, a mild form of stringhalt. Whenever the shivers fires the nerves in his spinal column and the muscles in his hindquarters, he kicks out. That often that unnerves him and frightens people grooming or handling him.
The first thing we did was change his diet, finding one recommended for horses with nervous-system issues like stringhalt, basically low-carbohydrate and low-sugar. That made him a lot more comfortable. Then we spent four years doing basic work and low-level competition, plus lots of foxhunting. He won his first training-level event, and then he went on to win at the preliminary and intermediate levels, making 27 starts at those two levels. He’s now 15 and our schoolmaster.
The second Thoroughbred gelding, who was 7 when we got him, is remarkably intelligent and supremely confident in his own abilities. He’s also a very high-octane horse who had mild ulcers, so we changed his diet to low-carb and put him on papaya pills. The result was a more settled temperament and remarkable weight gain.
We train him by challenging him, by trying to give him something new or harder to do every day, to focus his energy and his brain. We’ve had him for 18 months, and he’s now competing at training level — a job he finds very interesting. So his attitude has changed from being hyperactive and recalcitrant to content and generally willing, especially to jump.
Think Of It As Therapy. These two horses are examples of how you, as a rider and trainer, have to be a mental therapist for horses who have strong-willed temperaments, are strongly influenced by old physical problems, or who are carrying mental baggage.
To have a safe working relationship with them, you may have to be willing to alter their environment, their feed, or your own riding and training to accommodate their needs and foibles. Possibly, though, your style or system is just what they need.
A large percentage of riders don’t believe that horses’ personalities and temperaments can be molded or channeled. Some even think that training can’t improve a horse. They think a horse just ”is” — he’s willing and 2generous, he’s crazy, he’s useless, he’s a dressage horse, he’s a three-foot jumper, he’s a trail horse, he’s a polo pony.
Certainly some horses are far better suited physically and mentally for different jobs — for instance, Hanoverians can’t race well and Arabians generally make the best endurance horses. But our largely ring-bound, stable-centered horse culture can be a source of comfort for some horses and a source of frustration to others.
Some horses thrive by living in the safe confines of a stall — they are, after all, safe from predators and get their food delivered to them on a schedule. And when they go to work, the environment, and often the routine, hardly changes — they’re comforted by the predictability. Others, though, find this unbelievably boring and frustrating. They need to be outside, free to roam around, to find new rolling spots and new grass, to interact with other horses. These horses are usually the ones who like to go and do new things when ridden, who thrive by going for a ride across the countryside.
Horses living in an environment that doesn’t suit them often exhibit the worst behavioral problems. That’s when you have to become a mental therapist to develop a program that will suit them and address the frustration and anxiety they’re expressing.
We’re not suggesting that equine temperaments can be fundamentally changed. The first Thoroughbred gelding will always spook, but we’ve learned how to anticipate and deal with it. The second Thoroughbred gelding will always want to be in charge and be looking to amuse himself. We’ve just figured out how to channel his busy mind and athletic body. Plus, their care has always revolved around at least 10 to 12 hours a day of pasture time each day.
But, usually, equine personalities and temperaments can evolve, just like humans, if you give them a reason and if you’re willing and able to figure out what the central issues are and work with them. Horses, like humans, are who they are; they’re the result of genetics and environment. A successful relationship is all about fathoming the foibles these factors have caused and working with them.
Article by John Strassburger, our Performance Editor.