We love to guess about what our horses might be thinking or feeling. We wonder at their emotion, speak for them, or narrate their interactions with other horses. But is this fair? Can we really understand what horses think and feel? Is it helpful or harmful to assign human qualities to a horse?
These are a few questions I want to start to answer in this article and video, because while later in this article I am going to share a framework for human personality traits and how these can give us insights about our horses, I wanted to begin by discussing both sides of anthropomorphizing.
The definition of anthropomorphizing is assigning human traits to animals.
It helps us understand animals and perhaps have more compassion and empathy towards them.
However, while there are similarities, animals do think and learn differently. When we assign human traits to them, we run the risk of expecting too much. We expect them to cognitively understand and generalize situations in the way we do, and get upset when they do not, perhaps blaming it on deliberate disobedience or spite rather than a simple lack of understanding.
When wanting to better understand our horses, making comparisons to human behavior, personality, and emotions can be a starting point. It can help us feel more empathy for a horse who is fearful, anxious, or bored.
But we need to be careful not to take it too far. Not to expect the horse to learn and think in the same way we do.
Having said that, I would like to introduce a model for understanding personality traits. Of course, this model is referring to human traits, but perhaps there are some parallels to our horses as well.
First, a simple and clear definition of personality. In the words of the American Psychological Association (APA), personality is:
“individual differences in characteristic patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving” (APA, 2017).
Personality has been studied in humans since the ancient Greeks as they sought to answer the questions of what makes people so different and what drives behavior.
There are many contributors to the study of personality through the ages, and many models that attempt to explain and sort personality.
The model I would like to look at here is called the Big 5. It is generally accepted as being the most simple, yet accurate, description of personality traits.
Description of the Big 5
Keep in mind that these descriptions are for the human experience. We don’t truly understand what a horse experiences, but perhaps we can gain insights by considering the differences amongst people.
1 – Openness
The first factor is openness to new experience. An individuals level of curiosity about the world, and comfort level with the new and different.
2 – Conscientiousness
This second factor is the level of care taken to oneself, one’s surroundings, and one’s work or activities. In people we would call a well dressed person, who keeps their house clean, and always shows up for work on time conscientious.
3 – Extraversion
Extraversion is the extent to which an individual gets energy from interacting with others. Extraversion in people is characterized by sociability, talkativeness, assertiveness and excitability.
Generally, an extroverted individual is energized being around people and social situations. An introvert is energized by quiet time alone.
4 – Agreeableness
Agreeableness is the extent to which someone cares to please others. An agreeable person would be described as being kind, sympathetic, and empathetic.
The lower an individual’s amount of agreeableness the more they will pursue their own interests or opinions.
5 – Neurosis
Neurosis implies a mental illness or instability, but in this instance, is meant to indicate an individual’s level of sensitivity.
This is the trait and the part of this Big 5 framework that prompted me to write this piece. I believe that by accepting some horses will have a higher degree of sensitivity, we can make better choices as to the type of horse that is a good match for us as well as set more reasonable expectations on what we can accomplish with any individual horse.
Some individuals, speaking clearly of both people and horses in this instance, are just more reactive, more easily startled, and more observant of the world around them.
Understanding & Accepting Our Horses
There is no “better” set of personality traits. Each unique combination of traits will have its strengths as well as weaknesses.
When we can better understand and accept our horses for who they are, I believe we can create a more fulfilling relationship with them.
Perhaps thinking of personality theory can help us do just that.
- APA. (2017). Personality. American Psychological Association. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/topics/personality/