When you think about all that we do with horses, asking them to be our partners in sport, it makes sense that we consider both how well their personality matches the discipline we wish to ride them in and how well their personality meshes with our own.

By Ingrid Henry

This article won the 2018 GMO Newsletter Award in general-interest for GMOs with 175-499 members. It first appeared in the July 2018 Central States Dressage and Eventing Association “Cross Country” official magazine.

When looking for a new horse, there are many factors to consider and it can be rather overwhelming. In no particular order, here are just a few:

  • Breed – What a horse is bred for can make a difference for what it can do well and easily
  • Age – Starting a baby or getting a schoolmaster to learn from are two very opposite experiences!
  • Height – No one wants their legs hanging by the horse’s knees and having an appropriately sized horse can really improve your own riding
  • Gender – Some people plan to breed and want a mare or stallion; many people have strong preferences for geldings or mares
  • Discipline – Ask anyone who has done it: retraining from another discipline is often more challenging than starting from scratch!
  • Level of training – The old adage about green horse + green rider = black and blue applies here… i.e. if you’re a novice rider, it’s best for you to have a well-trained horse!
  • Color – This is particularly important to those who consider color genetics for breeding, but seriously don’t we all have color preferences?
  • Pedigree – Again especially important for breeders, but it can be helpful to know what runs in your horse’s bloodlines
  • Temperament – Usually considered on a scale of 1 being bomb-proof to 10 being super hot and sensitive
  • Location – Not all of us can fly to another state or country to try out a horse!

Many would-be horse buyers enlist a professional’s assistance, quite often their trainer. But even then, it’s helpful to know what you want as well as what you need. Like in dating, we are not necessarily attracted to the ones who will be best for us in a long-term relationship. We can be blinded by dazzling gaits, outstanding conformation, long locks of mane, or a striking coloring. We often neglect to consider the personality of the horse.

Like people, some horses are more extroverted or more introverted, some love to be exposed to new places and challenges and others prefer their familiar routine. Some lean into massages and grooming, and others find it ticklish or uncomfortable. Some are bold and brave, others timid and shy. When you think about all that we do with horses, asking them to be our partners in sport, it makes sense that we consider both how well their personality matches the discipline we wish to ride them in and how well their personality meshes with our own.

Personality & Discipline

Ingrid with Kaleidoscope

Ideally a horse’s breeding, pedigree, and conformation would match the sport they were bred for. Of course, we all know that genetics aren’t a guarantee and sometimes breeders hope for a horse that is talented in multiple disciplines. Breeders generally will look for a suitable temperament in their breeding stock. However, there are many aspects of personality that we haven’t yet figured out to a science and it’s important to consider the individual horse and what he or she would be happiest doing.

A horse that is timid by nature might not be a good candidate for disciplines that require courage like a mounted police horse, eventing, or trail riding. One that is exceedingly nervous away from home and his or her normal routines may not be suited to becoming a show horse that travels the circuit all season. Of course, an astute trainer may be able to instill confidence in these horses and might have some success with them despite these challenges, but suitability ought to be considered for the horses’ sake.

Often after months or years of time and money invested in training a horse for a given discipline, we come to the sad conclusion that the horse just doesn’t love his job; that perhaps his motivation and personality suit him for something else. A confident trail horse might be made crazy by walls and fences, bored by circles and figures, or even frustrated by a succession of aids. A high-strung former show horse may be much more content as a schoolmaster for someone who just wants to learn at home. A frenetic jumper might be happier as a dressage horse.

It can be difficult to assess a horse’s personality from a brief visit and nearly impossible to tell from a video. But ask questions of the current owner about the horse’s personality. Is the horse standoffish or interactive with people? How is he with other horses? Top of the herd or bottom? Socially anxious or independent? How does the horse handle a new rider? Is she testing you with every stride or eager to please? Is the horse patient or ready to go? Does the horse prefer challenges like jumps and trail obstacles or continual feedback from the rider? Is the horse content in a stall or does he prefer to be always moving outside? Challenge yourself to spot various aspects of personality in person.

Personality of Horse and Rider

Ingrid with Elena

Our horses are our partners in sport, our pets, our livestock, and sometimes our livelihood. They can play so many roles in our lives whether as a hobby or a profession, and we spend lots of time with them. It is important to our happiness and theirs that we have compatible personalities. 

Your horse doesn’t need to have the same personality as you, but it is helpful if you can relate to them and ideally the horse would have a personality suitable to your discipline of choice as well. Like a friend with a common interest, if your horse enjoys jumping and you’re a hunter/jumper or eventer, you are likely to have more harmony as a team.

A highly sensitive horse would have a difficult time with an insensitive handler. A laid-back rider may really struggle with an energetic horse. A highly social horse would get along better with an owner who is also engaged and interactive.

Some horses have quirks that a certain person just wouldn’t want to live with. For instance, a very vocal horse might really grate on one person’s ears, or one who is lippy and mouth brushes one person may consider adorable while another person might think it is rude and annoying. As with all relationships, it might not be perfect, but you have to decide, ideally before you purchase the horse, what you can live with and what you don’t want to.

The best professional equestrians are the adaptable ones who can work with almost any horse because they understand their needs and they do their best to meet them. With a greater understanding of equine personality, each of us can make a more informed decision about which horse is the right horse for us.

About the author:  Ingrid Henry is an adult amateur dressage rider who has made a career out of her love of horses by working at St. Croix Saddlery in Minnesota. She says “People have often remarked in surprise to me that I can have two such very different mares.  Kaleidoscope (the chestnut Holsteiner) is sensitive, high strung, and anxious.  She finds security in the confines of the dressage arena and comfort in being told what to do.  Elena (the bay Friesian Sport Horse) was laid back, confident, and brave.  She enjoyed exploring the trails, was schooling 3rd level dressage, and could get bored with arena work and often had an agenda of her own.  Together they taught me that each horse has a unique personality and individual needs.”  Sadly, Ingrid had to say goodbye to Elena on March 28, 2019, after 13 years together and raising her since she was a yearling, they had built a very special bond. 

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