Understanding Horse Personalities, Part 2: How to Train, Reward Mixed Types

Learn how to better train and reward horses with mixed personality types.

| All illustrations by Joanne Mehl

For many years I have been interested in the personalities of horses, and I know that every equine enthusiast is interested in horse temperament to some 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. Understanding the personality of your horse, coupled with knowledge about your own temperament and skill level, gives you the best chance for success in your daily rides. Ideally, you want to be paired with a horse whose natural behavior patterns allow you to stay within your own natural comfort zones as much as possible. My goal in this series of articles is to share insights that may help you better understand your horse, yourself and even the other horse people who you interact with regularly.

In part one, I explained the four basic personality types as I define them. They are social, aloof, challenging and fearful. Also, I introduced you to the passive/aggressive (P/A) variations that can be found within each type. Now that you have developed some awareness of type among horses, you may have a pretty good idea about where your horse fits in. If your horse shows clear behaviors from two different types, then you are dealing with a mixed personality type. The best way to explain the mixed types is to give examples. So now I’ll share with you a few mixed-type horses I’ve had and how their personalities guided me in their training.

Mixed Personality Types

Many horses appear to have a Jekyll-and-Hyde approach to life. They may be one way at home or in their normal work environment and then behave quite differently under stress or during any change in their regular circumstances.

An aloof horse, for example, might tune you out and be slow to respond to your aids. If you turn up the heat on him by increasing the intensity of your request, the aloof horse will finally jolt into action and respond. If he is aloof/fearful, however, he may seem indifferent and, when he gets into trouble, he may suddenly panic and try to escape from under you, appearing to change from indifferent to worried based on situation or circumstance. But, an aloof/social type may actually start to interact better once you turn up the heat and may then behave in an interested fashion until you let him off the hook again. An aloof/challenging type may tune you out. When you finally get through to him, he may want to argue about things or try to assert himself.

We have an 8-year-old Swedish mare who is fearful/ social and about a 4 on the P/A scale. Because she has a social side, Romance was not as difficult to start as many fearful horses are. We were slow and patient with her initial round pen work, and consequently she became easier and easier to reassure. She was both interested in, and somewhat dependent on, her relationship with my working student Sue and my daughter Kassie, who did much of her early work.

When it came time to take Romance on a field trip to school her at the show grounds, I chose Kassie to handle the assignment because she is balanced in the saddle and never allows a horse’s fears to become her own. She babied the mare around the show grounds, catering to her uncertainty until the mare realized that Kassie would be there for her. Kassie was careful never to lose her temper with the mare, even when she jumped around or spooked repeatedly. Kassie just kept settling and reassuring until Romance regained her composure and confidence. By the end of the weekend she was already trusting Kassie to see her through any scary situations and, eventually, the pair ended up having a great show season together as the mare became more and more confident.

Our other working student, Endel, encountered a very different scenario with his 9-year-old, Fourth Level Dutch horse, Picasso, a fearful/challenging mix, who is a 4 on the P/A scale. Picasso also displayed fearful tendencies in a new environment but, often instead of settling down when reassured, he would switch gears from defensive maneuvers to offensive ones quite suddenly.

Endel was instructed to pay close attention and deal with whatever behavior was in front of him. If Picasso spooked, then Endel would soften the reins and try to develop a soft shoulder-fore to take the horse’s mind off his worries. Sometimes that would work, but if Picasso became confrontational about the aids, pinning his ears, pushing against the aids or jumping around, Endel had to change his own tactics, as well. He was then instructed to deal with getting the horse to answer the request even if he had to use a sharp half halt or whip to get it. As soon as Endel established his answer, he was then instructed to ride in neutral for a few strides to clear the air between them. This strategy worked, but there are many riders who might make mistakes in assessment or timing of the aids under these circumstances or even become fearful themselves. Therefore, Picasso would not be suitable for an amateur without a certain level of confidence and riding skills. The pair is now making steady progress in all of the FEI movements and should get to Grand Prix together.

An uncomplicated example of type is the Dutch stallion Liberty, a social horse with no discernable behaviors from any other group. He is starting his second season at Grand Prix. Usually, stallions are higher on the P/A scale than geldings because of their hormone levels, but even with his stallion parts Liberty is only a 2.

In the beginning, my husband, Kim, a very methodical trainer, allowed Liberty ample time to learn and absorb all of the lessons that brought him up the levels. Liberty is always composed and confident, and he stays “in the moment” during training and riding sessions. He is interested in his environment, rarely distracted and very forgiving and tolerant. He loves attention. In the summer, Kassie rides him bareback while he swims in the pond, and my daughter Jessie can lie down with him while he is napping. His only fault is that he would like to be lazy. But, he can even be talked out of that. I have done exhibitions around the country with Liberty, and crowds, spotlights and cheering do not bother him a bit.

| © Joanne Mehl

We have found that a horse’s personality is defined before he is even weaned. If we are lucky enough, or sufficiently educated, to handle our horses appropriately from birth, it often makes an important difference in how the horse will accept a training routine for the rest of his life. A spoiled or sour horse has the best chance of being “turned around” if he is retrained by someone who not only has good riding and training skills but also understands his temperament.

Rewarding the Different Types

Rewards are important in any training program. Some riders use treats, while others just take away stimulus as soon as a horse responds. Any reward is fine as long as the horse understands he has behaved appropriately and that is why he is being rewarded.

We pay attention to type even when we reward, because a fearful horse might be happy to be petted and told what a fine horse he is, but an aloof horse may find it more rewarding to be left alone to zone out for a moment. Remember that interacting is work for an aloof type. Social horses like pats and a chance to look around the ring. Challenging types often find it rewarding to argue, but we don’t want that, so we are careful with this type to get in, get out and get answers to our aids. As a reward, a firm rub on the neck or a big pat and a moment where they can stop and look around the arena at everyone who has to work harder than they do is sometimes just right.

I have a social Friesian stallion who is about an 8 on the P/A scale. When he gets a break, I reward him by letting him stand or walk on a loose rein and call out to all of the other horses in the arena or show grounds to tell them how great he is. I am quite sure Boater believes that a horse show is the equivalent of an equine singles bar, because he often acts accordingly. I allow him his interactions and socialization until I pick up the reins again. Then it is time to work, and he must once again focus on me. While all of our horses eventually need to behave and perform to a certain standard, understanding temperament will help foster a more successful partnership, and that is a definite plus.

| © Joanne Mehl

There is much more to say on the personalities of horses and how best to utilize this information, but I hope you have read enough to try and incorporate some “type awareness” into your riding and training program.

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 the fourth and last part of this series, 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.

Now, observe your horse’s behavior, decide what type he is and think about how this new insight might affect your next training session.

Yvonne Barteau is a U.S. Dressage Federation bronze, silver and gold medalist and a popular clinician and freestyle rider. Currently, she competes Liberty, a Dutch Warmblood stallion, at Grand Prix and Raymeister, a Holsteiner stallion, at First and Second levels. She and her husband, Kim, run KYB Dressage at Indian Hills Training Center in Gilberts, Ill. The couple spent 10 years at the Arabian Nights dinner theatre in Orlando, Fla., where they trained horses and performed in the show. The parents of four children, their daughter, Kassandra, won the 2007 National Young Rider Championship at Gladstone, N.J. Yvonne’s book, Ride the Right Horse, is published by Storey Books and available from or by calling 800-952-5813.

This article was originally published in the October 2007 issue of Dressage Today magazine. To order back issues, call 301-977-3900.






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