Horse Personality Profiling
By Will Clinging
When starting to work with a new horse, I am never sure what I’m faced with. In order to make my training time with that particular horse more efficient, I need to know more about his personality.
Several factors influence how teachable a horse might be. I use the first few sessions to help me develop an individual profile for the horse. In order to be accurate I have to look at all information that’s available about this horse, including age, breed, past experience, and the type of home he comes from. The owner’s personality will help me learn more. If the owner is timid, aggressive, or unsure of what he wants, this will help me understand if the horse has been over-handled, allowed to get away with things, or left to his own devices. When creating a profile I remind myself that the horse’s genetic makeup is only half of the equation; the other half is the horse’s environment.
You could take an exceptionally well bred horse and put him in a neglectful or abusive environment and he will never reach his potential because he has not had the opportunity to do so. On the flip side, you could have a nondescript grade horse and put him in a supportive, nurturing, environment and he may develop beyond what was ever expected of him because he was encouraged and allowed to realize his potential.
When profiling a horse I study what he is doing, or how he is behaving, without adding any pressure at all. In the round pen I just let him go and watch what he does. I want to see if he is scared, threatened, aggressive, or running in circles trying to escape. Is he distracted or paying attention to me? This will help me to roughly establish his level of self confidence or lack thereof, and give me a basic understanding of his threshold for stress and how he responds to stress.
Finding himself in a strange enclosed environment with a strange handler can be very stressful for a young inexperienced horse. How the older horse responds may indicate poor past training or the anticipation of being worked a certain way.
In the round pen, I want to see how the horse responds when I apply pressure. Photo: Karley Fraser, Moment in Time Photography
Next, I want to see how the horse behaves when I start to apply pressure. Does he get faster, slower, more distracted, or more attentive? Does he get more expressive in his movements by kicking, rearing, or bucking? This information will help me judge the horse’s sensitivity levels and give me an idea about his desire for authority or need for leadership.
By controlling the horse’s movement I can also get an idea about his willingness to learn. Is he a confident horse that just wants to please, a scared horse that just doesn’t want to be hurt, or a princess that just wants her own way? These are just three examples of how a profile will contribute to personalizing my approach to working with a particular horse. There are endless combinations of personality traits that if left unaddressed will affect the progress of the training.
There are three important parts to the training process: philosophy, approach and technique. Philosophy is the general intention about how results are achieved. For example, natural horsemanship is a philosophy, as is training through force and domination. Approach is how you present yourself when teaching. Do you come on strong and force an issue, or do you work quietly and allow the horse time to work through his options? Technique is the specific teaching tool employed at any time.
Related: The Pampered Horse Complex
Technique is affected by approach, and approach is affected by philosophy.
Philosophy is fairly constant, but approach and technique must be flexible to achieve success. The more horses I work, the more I believe that it is necessary to modify all techniques based on the personality of the individual horse. Being adaptable as a trainer is important. I have learned many things from many people and sometimes the technique just isn’t working the way it should. I try to adapt techniques that are fundamentally sound, but just aren’t working. Sometimes by changing things it becomes easier for the horse to grasp the concept.
The horse’s personality will help me decide if and how I need to change. With the very withdrawn horse I may need to get louder; for the hyper-reactive horse I may need to be smoother. I try not to overlook anything about the horse when trying to figure out my approach. Things like his facial expression, muscle tension, the comfort in his movement, and the speed of departures and transitions all mean something. I try to interpret what they mean in terms of training. A single gesture could mean many different things, so it is important not to jump to conclusions.
Look at the whole horse, and actually see the whole picture. If what you are doing is not working, why not do some research? Get too strong, get very quiet, move faster, move slower, move smoother. Watch how the horse’s response changes when you do something different. If things change for the better, you have successfully modified your technique. If things stay the same or get worse don’t quit, just keep changing.
I have said this before but it bears repeating: the best piece of advice I was ever given about training horses was from Ray Hunt, and he just said, “think.”
Related: Disciplining Your Horse - Part 1
Related: Sharing Responsibility
Main photo: When starting work with a new horse, I use the first few training sessions to develop a profile of the horse. Karley Fraser, Moment in Time Photography