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/
My shire/thoroughbred cross exhibits more sensitivity or spookiness than my quarter horse. Your analysis of the different personality traits is spot on. Moby’s size belies his insecurities, I am hoping he will gain confidence and comfort level with his environment as we work together. Thanks for the insightful video! Michele
It bothers me when people say “he did that on purpose just to aggravate you”. I know my horse well enough that is not how he works . If he’s resistant there is a reason…ie. he was refusing the bit while bridling and turns out he needed his teeth floated and had 2 ulcers in his mouth!
I can’t ride right now due to an accident so I’m paying my trainer to ride him and she’s pretty tough on him…I can’t decide if it would be better to just hand walk him and spend time with him on the ground or let her continue to work him.
Maybe doing in-hand work yourself with your horse would work better for your horse than having this trainer. Plus the in-hand work time could deepen your relationship along the way. 🙂
My thoughts too. Thank
I feel that you could benefit by the hand walking and use it as a time of connection. Use the ground skills you already know and practice until you get better, hopefully soon!
I really don’t think that either answer would be correct or incorrect; you will win something and lose something either way, and you need to decide what that should be. I would tilt a little more toward spending time with your horse yourself; during which time you also could work him in hand doing exercises that you will use later u/s. Personally, I have astonishing leaps in progress with my own horse when we spend time together doing stuff. Mostly, this would be talking her for hand-walks in remote places so that she gets de-spooked out in the wilds. I show her what good things there are to eat, where the water is for her to drink, animal nests & burrows – all good information for her to have. I clear trail with her, so that she is accustomed to branches crashing. I stick them in her tail, so that she knows what it feels like and is unafraid. I hand-walk her to what she is paying attention to, so that we investigate stuff together. She now looks at me to “ask to do something” ; we are more in tune with each other. If you are not mobile at all right now, then it probably is a good idea to have someone competent ride your horse. Try to be there though, so your horse knows that YOU are supervising. Good luck; hope you are back in the saddle soon!
Very good advice, sounds like fun too! I used to hang out with my horse in a wooded area behind the place I was staying for a time and it was amazing just o be with my horse out in nature, just quiet and relaxed. I could watch my horse react to noises, sights, smells and such. It really gave me a feeling of ease to just hang out with him and enjoy nature.
Mary Ann, that is exactly the type of anthropomorphizing that I think should be avoided and you horse was the perfect example that it can be something physical – I think you should probably just stick with hand walking him..was your accident from something with riding?
-Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager
‘My’ horse Mocha has neurotic moments most certainly. I am working on understanding this and being softer and more patient to help him through his flight habits, instead of blaming him for spooky behavior.
Great information and so timely! I was recently on a site that was “teaching” horse personality types and it seemed very regimented and gimicky. Some of it made sense, but other stuff didn’t sit right with me. THIS categorization is much more realistic and reasonable to me. I’m very much an introvert and was thinking that if I partnered with an extroverted horse, I’d probably interpret him/her as being pushy, or hard to handle! Very interesting to ponder! I can’t wait to learn more 🙂
Thanks for this great tutorial. As far as my current horse goes….he’s definitely been a challenge, I would say that neurosis fits his personality pretty well and seems to be flowing into mine as well. He is a draft cross, but per your description maybe he is an Arabian inside! I am constantly trying to figure out ways to help us both to communicate with good results….I guess the challenge is what keeps things interesting. I could do with a bit less of the sometimes fear factor though. Thanks again.
What we love about horses is their communicative nature. As herd animals they find a place in the herd and are comfortable in that role. Herd dynamics change as individuals are added/removed to the herd. This communicative spirit draws us too these beautiful creatures. We learn and they learn through an ability to use our specific adaptations; physical(bipedal vs. quadrupedal) and behavioral (predator vs. prey) to interact. Communication is key. Humans are loud carnivores, horses quiet herbivores. We engage each other in accepting change that benefits both individuals and ultimately the herd. We get to ride and practice horsemanship and our passion allows us to keep good care of these powerful animals. Be part of the herd! Is this anthropomorphizing or the opposite???
J. Manes, if I understand you correctly – I would think that you are mostly referring to the interactions we have with horses being a conversation, we make requests and they provide responses. I don’t believe what you are describing is anthropomorphizing.
-Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager
I feel that you have a genuine appreciation for and enjoy engaging with your horse. I like how you describe the differences us and them with the terms bipedal vs. quadrupedal, predator vs. prey. We are loud carnivores, too, that’s for sure. I think I am so drawn to horses and really other creatures because of their quiet grace. They bring me a peace and connection to all that is honest like nothing else can. Thanks for sharing your views, they were great to read.
My leased horse’s 2 obvious traits that I picked up on are conscientiousness & neuroses. I’ve ridden him for 1 1/2 years and I’ve observed these traits from the beginning. He is 16, has been a lesson horse, show horse & owned by 2 previous people BUT has always been at the same barn. He is perfect for me. As an old beginner 5 years ago he is not very conscientious in that my aid needs to be correct or he will ignore it (I live that about him because I have so much to learn) and he also is messy in his stall. His neuroses is the other trait I’m very aware of & thankful for. He is very steady, spooks at almost nothing, & when he is unsure we take our time & so far he’s always worked through his worry & regained his confidence. I am so blessed to have Tommy & his owner is thrilled to know that I feel Tommy is my forever horse, I’m 65. Because of his personality the better I become at riding the more responsive he is.
Once again, you are just so – how can I say – authentic I think is best. All the values and knowledge and sensitivity aligned.
This was a very interesting video. I think it made be think back to why I have the horse I have. I am a nervous rider. I ended up with the perfect match horse for me. He is very agreeable, open and likes to be challenged with different experiences (like a new show ring or trail ride). I was leasing him and finally was in a position to buy my own horse. I did not hesitate in purchasing him verses looking around at other horses. The traits of openness and agreeability are what I need build my confidence. My guy is so steady (agreeable) and curious without fear but sensible. I feel like he naturally takes care of me even when I am nervous and does not let me rattle him. The article helped me understand why I fell for this great horse in the first place.
Hi Callie, I have no horse of my own, but one of my favourite school-horses is Don, and Don’s greatest interest is food. Last year, when all the other school-horses were let into a big meadow they all started galloping. Not Don. He bent down and started eating grass, right there at the entry.
And I understood why Don was not always happy getting groomed bij me: I am often early and he simply has not finished eating yet. So now, when I’m early I do not take him out of his box, but leave him inside so that he can eat while i groom him. Simple solution to a simple problem. Interesting topic! ellen.
Very interesting! Useful to contemplate. I have two horses that I love to ride. One is an Arabian mare, and the other one is an older Tennessee Walker. When talking about neurosis, the Arabian mare is extremely sensitive to her surroundings and everything that is happening. But she is not, I repeat NOT, reactive! She is aware, but hands the reins over to me, and never, never reacts to anything negatively. So I wonder about a horse like her, on the personality scale, because she doesn’t quite fit that description, or the stereotypes about Arabians, or mares.
The TWH, on the other hand, is very very laid-back, not particularly sensitive, or reactive, except when he is left behind on the trail, or is not up with his buddies upfront. That’s one thing we’re working with! He is very reactive in that circumstance, but he is open, willing to learn, willing to do anything I want him to do. Except leave his buddies!
I LOVE YOUR APPROACH,
This is a very interesting topic. I lease an Appaloosa and whenever I tell people they immediately slap a label on him for being stubborn and hardheaded. I find that he exhibits different traits depending on the circumstances. At 17 years old he does not show a lot of openness. He is very even tempered when it comes to other horses and getting along with them for the most part but will not be pushed around when confronted in the pasture. He doesn’t go out of his way to be a pleaser but a lot of the things he does make me think we have a connection. I feel it is because of a mutual respect we have developed over the last 10 months. We take care of each other on the trail.
I started riding when I was 48 yo. Fast forward 20 plus years and I gained experience and knowledge via a couple of wonderful horses, trainers, and horsemen. I also gained by thousands of trail miles as I discovered a love for endurance riding.
Sadly, I lost my beloved, solid Arabian gelding trail and endurance partner last year to severe colic. For many years, fellow riders told me I didn’t know what a great horse I had. And they were right.
Because of my age I figured my next horse would likely be my last, so I put together criteria for my search. Safety (sane horse) was at the top of the list, just above soundness and suitability for trail and perhaps a few more endurance rides. Also included–smooth gaits and short (at 5 ft. 2 inches I wanted to get on from trail without searching for organic mounting blocks).
So now I have a 9 yo, 14-1 hand Arabian mare. She was a wash out from a breeding farm and performance stables because “too short, western way of travel as opposed to high stepping country pleasure, etc., and dislike for arena work.” She was sent to a trainer to learn a new job. Enter, me. I shared criteria with the trainer and rode several times on trails near the barn. The mare did well and I was amazed at how smooth and balanced she was. She also did well on her vet check with his additional comments on her wonderful and efficient “way of going”.
And this is where I wish I had see your horse personality video! My mare is not just a little more sensitive–she is a lot! I subsequently learned the trainer kept her on daily MgSO4 to keep her “sane”. I would not have purchased her if I’d known. I didn’t continue her MgSO4, but it took two hard unplanned dismounts before I brought her to a wonderful horseman who assessed her under saddle and on trails for a month. The most important information he gave me was this was a very sensitive mare, likely always would be, but there were ways to work with her to help her tolerate her environment. He also pointed out she was agreeable to learning but would rely on her rider for support.
This mare has caused my riding skills to improve significantly! She doesn’t tolerate my being unbalanced or heavy handed. She and I have come to an understanding, she doesn’t pull on me and I don’t pull on her. That said she responds much better with the lightest contact, so no throwing the reins away! If she begins to lose focus and amp up anxiety, I stop or do a movement she knows well until she regains her sanity.
And what has she brought to the table? She moves over tough terrain like a gazelle–light and balanced. With support she now copes with amazing array of trail obstacles, i.e. wooden bridges, fast moving mountain streams, mountain bikers, tom turkeys, other horses going in the opposite direction, etc. But I’m always an active partner, never a passenger! And there is still much for her to learn.
I’m still not 100% sure I should keep my mare, the last fall 10 months ago put me out of commission for 3 months. I wrote her For Sale ad 7 months ago, but I haven’t posted it. Could it be that sometimes she calls to me from the pasture, trots up, and gently touches my shoulder or chest with her nose.
Thank you for giving me a forum to put my thoughts into words. I’ve enjoyed seeing and learning from your videos and lectures. Gail
Love your story! (And feel your pain 🙂 You are a fantastic writer, btw!
I have two horses who couldn’t be more different. The N in your scale was most i interesting to me because I never thought of it in relation to sensitivity. Using that focus will help me interact differently with them, especially with my “spooky” horse.
Most of the horses I’ve had as an adult have been the macho studmuffin overconfident type of geldings. Recently, I got a rescue mare, Arabian/Morgan mix and rather anxious and reactive. She has been a real challenge for this old lady (71) as she is very powerful, but she has a fabulous mind and intelligence and doesn’t enjoy jerking me around at all. For my first two horses, I had to take things slow and steady as I’m not terribly talented and couldn’t find a trainer I liked, so I just read the Old Masters instead. Their counsel worked well with both horses, and now is also working well with the new girl. However, when I first got her, I let the young trainer at the barn I was at work with her for a while, as I didn’t feel I was experienced enough to deal constructively with her high anxiety level. Now we’re working alone together, and she has never done anything bad under saddle, but gradually making her more curious than afraid has been a several year process, though it is proceeding very well. It’s gratifying to see her blossom as the months go by, and I’m going to take it as slow as I need to for as long as I need to, and always be respectful of her heightened reactivity and tendency to see monsters. She is a 180-degree change from my macho, studly geldings who were kings of the Universe, but in her own way she is just as fabulous and wonderful.
One of my horses, Hank, a non pro cutting-reining bred horse. is cautious. but with careful exposure and patience can become interested and curious. He can border neurotic sometimes and if I can just be open and understanding he can be quite entertaining to observe and work with. In this new posting on personalities I learned to view my horses behavior with less judgement and with more understanding I am able to appreciate the honor of caring for, and engaging with, such a fine creature
as my horse, Hank. Thank you Callie for bringing to light the interesting concepts you are generously sharing with all us your readers.
Both my horses have a good degree of openness! They are totally fine with new experiences and extremely curious, this was interesting to pinpoint.. One is 20 and seen it all before, and one is only 9 but both similar in this. They both very rarely spook – in fact the 20 year old mare has never spooked whilst with me!
Thank you for a great article Callie
This is a really great topic and one that stimulates lots of thoughts, opinions and discussion! I can see lots of personality in the animals that I have owned and the horses that I have worked with but as you reminded us, animals think differently and at the end of the day are different “beings” than us. What struck me about the traits in the framework you presented as it relates to my new horse of 7 months, Captain, is “agreeableness”. He is not always the horse that wants to please, but when I remind myself of his past circumstances, this really fits, as he was basically a “ranch horse” and not really involved with one owner/rider/companion. He has other fine personality traits and I realize that a connection/companionship takes lots of time, so patience is key. As you have reminded us in this video, more understanding, less judgement and less anthropomorphizing is best when working with our horse. Thanks for another great video.
I had to laugh at the conscientiousness one. Frosty is a flea bitten grey “pig”. Haha. I’ve been told he poops and pees more than most horses and he doesn’t care where…and he’s fine with rolling in it. It’s a good thing I LOVE to groom. On the other hand his openness to please has improved greatly since I got him 3 1/2 years ago. The more I’m with him the more I can see his trust for me improve. It’s been so fun growing with him.
Pistol, the Saddlebred I ride, is sooooo open and a definite extrovert. He loves to learn and try new things and is very, very social with his herd and with his people. He does NOT live up to his name – he’s calm and confident. Riley, the Arabian I ride, is like one of the other commenter’s Arabian – very sensitive and observant, but also very confident and non-reactive. He also loves to stay learning and doesn’t love to do the same thing over and over again. I would say I’m lucky that both of them are beautiful examples of agreeable-ness!!
This was another great informative lesson. The difference in horse’s sensitivity caught my attention. I have a 16 year old Standardbred that is anything but laid back. I don’t know his past as he’s a rescue, so I’m not sure if he’s been traumatized or is an anomaly. I just love him as he is, but will no longer refer to him as spooky but, rather, very sensitive. Thank you!
Anthropomorphizing horses does a huge disservice to this intricate and complex instinctual animal. It is a slippery slope for humans when they use human behavioral terms to to describe and try to understand horses. It’s best to immerse oneself into understanding the horse’s behavior from their point of view as sublime creature they are and how they evolved to be so successful for 32 million years. Dr Robert Miller is one of the best equine behaviorists still living at age 80 and I encourage everyone to read his materials and listen to his lectures. Understanding reactions from the horse’s brain’s point of view unlocks understanding. The horse’s brain remembers everything. They learn through desensitizing, habituation and counter conditioning which are different applications.
Thank you Callie for this intelligent contribution to the topic of horse personality. I was not prepared for the drama that my Standie gelding brought into my life eight years ago, and it has taken me most of this time to accept him for who he is, and find a situation (at home with me and another horse) that works for us. In our last boarding situation there were multiple herds, and it was very difficult for him to relax around horses from the other herd, let alone strange horses trailering in for clinics.
Sara, it sounds like you have gone above and beyond to make him comfortable! Some horses, in my opinion, seem to be more sensitive to their environments than others. I wonder if they too can be slightly introverted where they don’t get energy from being around other horses…and vice versa which would be a ‘herd bound’ horse.
-Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager
Enjoyed this immensely. I was very influenced by Dr Temple Gradin’s you tube on How horses think and we always have to remember that we as humans think in WORDS mostly (it is our defining factor as humans) but horses SEE in PICTURES AND FEEL in their minds’ body and react to SOUNDS.
The mare I ride now seems to intensely dislike “being wrong”, which means that if I want to ensure she is fully listening to my, one simple tap of the whip behind my legs if necessary brings her immediate intention. Of course it is just my human interpretation to say that this is “not liking being wrong” (a trait we find in many humans, including myself). What I also feel as I ride her more and more is her willingness to please, she will do her best in the school and so I want to do my best for her. At times I’ve felt this deep connection as I take her back to the field and she stands for a few seconds to “nuzzle” me : she then turns away and returns to her “horse freedom”, ie rolling and grazing, which I also love to watch. Well, always so much to learn from her and thanks for these videos which provide lots of learning questions!!
Fiona, you are so in-tune with your horse! I find that many horses are fearful or concerned about ‘being wrong’…
-Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager
Callie, Please advise me on introducing a new horse to a small mixed (mare and gelding) herd. I have had trouble recently with the gelding protecting his mare from the new gelding.
Are you able to introduce them over a fence, in adjoining pastures?
-Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager