Recently I was helping a rider looking at new horses. This rider had skills and experience, way beyond a beginner but definitely not an expert. But I felt the search was being driven by the wrong criteria. The horses on the prospect list were there more for their size, breed and beauty than suitability for their intended use. Little thought was being given to the temperament or athletic ability of the horses relative to the rider's skills.
The buyer had hired me to help screen and evaluate prospects as they showed up. I try to be unbiased and unemotional in this role, hoping to keep a buyer from making a big mistake or finding out later that the seller forgot a few "facts" about the horse. One horse in particular was coming to the top of the list, a real beauty though too big and spirited for the buyer, who was petite and really only looking for a good trail horse. Too many riders end up "over horsed" or "under horsed" — leading to problems for either the rider or the horse.
I voiced my concerns and heard the response that makes me "mental" — and that goes to the core of a basic issue between horses and humans: "Oh, that's OK if he's too big and athletic for me because my spouse is big and strong and can ride the horse, too. And I have a neighbor with a son and they're real big strong guys and they can ride the horse, too." The dreaded "horse as machine, bike or ATV" response!
That attitude says a horse is simply a stock animal that should react and behave the same way for any rider who mounts up, regardless of skills, technique or equipment. No regard for mental or physical development, different personalities, the psychological needs of the animal or unique bonds that may form — it might be my horse but once "trained" (meaning "programmed"), it should just do the job regardless of circumstances. If this were really the case, I wonder why so many people have problems with so-called "trained" horses.
This got me thinking about two horses, Romeo and Juliet, I've become attached to at End of the Road Ranch Horse Rescue and Sanctuary, and the wisdom behind Pat Parelli's attempts to build a "horse-anality" model to help people better understand and teach their horses.
Parelli likes to look at the basic personalities of horses along two intersecting scales — one going from introvert to extrovert, the other from right-brained (more reactive, spooky or "high strung") to left-brained (more responsive, thinking or calm). The idea is you can roughly classify any horse within those parameters to help guide your training. In other words, one size does not fit all, and you need to take these differences into consideration if you want to "build" or buy the horse that will best match your skills and goals. Ignore them and perhaps you have the reason behind many problems with "well trained" horses.
Romeo and Juliet have been a perfect case study of personality differences — almost like human twin studies that have looked at nature vs. nurture. They came to the sanctuary from a group of seized horses in northern New Mexico, starving and in bad shape. They looked to be yearlings given their size, and were long shots to even survive. After some quality vet care, it appeared the horses were probably between three and four years old. Their size and poor development were the result of starvation. It turned out Romeo was still a stud (hence his new name!) but was so underdeveloped you could not tell. Both horses clearly had a common parent as they looked like twins. There were stallions in their group, so with Juliet being older than first thought, there was a concern she might be pregnant. After Romeo was gelded (he got to keep his name, though) and Juliet tested negative for pregnancy, the first task was to bring them back to health with plenty of good food and loving care.
The efforts of the rescue owners and volunteers brought the horses to a level of health they had probably never seen. Clearly, the long-term effects of malnutrition would limit their size — about that of a pony, even though their bone structure indicated they would have been much bigger. But both seemed bright and happy with no obvious health or mental issues.
The horses were classic "blank slates" and had probably never been handled. As I started to evaluate them to begin teaching the basics, what intrigued me right away was that they were practically joined at the hip. Close in age with obvious shared parentage and breeding, they had probably been living together their entire lives. Yet, they had dramatically different personalities. Romeo was a more introverted, right-brained horse based on how he interacted with other horses and what he did when introduced to the first steps of training. Juliet was far more extroverted and left-brained in her behavior.
Neither is likely be a riding horse, except perhaps for a child, but they still needed to learn the basics: catch and halter them; teach them to stand for the vet or farrier; go into the trailer; lead and respect the handler's space; and be comfortable with grooming, bathing and being tied. The goals for each were the same and the natural horsemanship techniques used for training would be the same, but the pace of teaching would have to be different for each horse.
Romeo would literally shake when you approached him on his right side. He was difficult to catch, even in a small space. He showed no curiosity and would spook and flee from anything new or the slightest amount of pressure. Once haltered, he would plant his feet and not move when you tried to lead him. He was close to being dangerous because he was so afraid.
Juliet, on the other hand, showed great interest in everything we did. She grasped the concept of giving to pressure and in only a couple of sessions was giving basic yields with softness. She was easy to lead and quickly understood the sending exercises so important in this training. She handled some scary sensory challenges with few problems, even my "carwash," which is as scary as it gets for most horses. She accepted a saddle like she'd been wearing one her whole life, and has even started to do some work in long lines. As she learned more and gained strength and confidence, however, she also started to challenge other horses for a higher place in the herd and express "opinions" about her training.
Had I taken the "horse as machine" approach that you train them all the same way, both horses would have problems. Romeo needs a lot more time and patience, with each task broken down so he can succeed and be rewarded and praised for even the most basic exercise. Each training session requires going back and reviewing things until he relaxes and gains some confidence. Moving on to new things or higher levels of pressure takes planning, sensitivity and a good eye for what he is saying with his body and behavior. But he's getting it, showing some curiosity, and even trusting me enough to go through the carwash. His athletic abilities have surprised me. As for Juliet, the personality that has surfaced and grown indicates she will need a more experienced hand for a different set of reasons.
Can you imagine these two horses being handled or owned by someone who made no allowances for their unique personalities and ability to learn, expecting them to accept and understand things in exactly the same way, just because they're horses? Or believing they would not always react differently to different people or situations, even after training? We accept that differences in human personalities lead each of us down a different path in life, and that every person is not equally suited to every activity or career. You'll get a lot more from your horse if you look at him in the same way — make him yours, accept who he is and don't give him a life as a bike.