Different Horses, Different Personalities: How I've Worked With Various Horses Over the Past 55 Years

Two horses, two personalities.
Two horses, two personalities. Flickr - Dave McLear

Every horse is different, not only in structure and physical characteristics but also in personality. Just like humans, some horses are timid, or hyper and nervous, while others are bold, laid back or aggressive. Working with some of them can be a challenge, to overcome the extremes in their mental makeup.

The important thing is to gain good rapport and a solid bond with the individual horse so your relationship is built on mutual trust and respect. With a timid horse you need to be supportive, and encouraging. You must become the person he can have confidence in when he’s scared or insecure. The last thing you want to do is intimidate this type of horse with aggressive action or forceful reprimands or he may never trust you.

Author Heather Smith Thomas ready to ride with Rubbie

Author Heather Smith Thomas ready to ride with Rubbie

With a timid horse you need to be supportive, and encouraging, while the pushy horse needs a firmer hand and consistent reminders of the rules he must follow.
© 2015 by Andrea Daine

On the flip side is the aggressive horse or the one that is always trying to see if he can get the best of you. He wants to be the dominant member of the team. The pushy horse needs a firmer hand, and consistent reminders of the rules he must follow. He can’t be allowed to push into your space or treat you like a herdmate to roughhouse with.

Working with horses is like dancing, being in tune with your partner, and every horse “dances” a bit differently.

One of the geldings I raised—now 29 years old—is a hyper individual with a very active imagination, always fussing and busy. He trusted me and wasn’t afraid because I’d handled him from the time he was a baby, but he became very bold as a yearling. He continually challenged me whenever I worked with him.

He lived in a pen by himself and his only entertainment was our training sessions in ground work. He tried to vent all that pent-up energy and enthusiasm playing games like nipping and trying to get the upper hand. I wasn’t making much progress on his manners lessons!

I didn’t have a group of young horses for him to live with—which would have been a healthier and more natural situation for him--so I put him in with a 13-year-old gelding. The older horse didn’t like being pestered by the bratty youngster and quickly taught him some respect.

Granddaughter Dani riding Veg - once a bratty youngster

Granddaughter Dani riding Veg - once a bratty youngster

The author riding Rub and leading Veg, the gelding who became a good ranch horse and later a great kid horse, with her granddaughter learning to ride on him.
© 2015 by Lynn Thomas

Living with the older gelding that winter did more for that young one (and a lot easier!) than I could teach him; he learned that he wasn’t the boss and had to submit to the dominant older horse.

When I started working with him again the next spring he was much more ready to behave and pay attention to me. He became a good ranch horse and is now a very mellow old fellow, completely trustworthy, and 4 of my grandchildren have learned to ride on him.

By contrast, a 2-year-old filly I bought 3 years ago was a different challenge. Even though Dottie was friendly, she was hyper and scared. She was halter broke and had been saddled, but not yet ridden. Something in her early handling may have damaged her trust; any quick movement or even a raise of your arm sent her whirling away.

It took a lot of patient, repetitious work to make Dottie realize that no one was going to hurt her. Even now, her 3rd season of being ridden, she still tends to be very reactive, so we keep working on desensitization and building trust. A horse that is reacting in fear should never be punished for his/her actions or this can destroy all the ground you’ve gained.

Gaining Dottie's trust

Gaining Dottie's trust

Dottie & me in Baker Creek during my first summer of training Dottie to ride... she’s wearing a breeching to keep the saddle from sliding too far forward going downhill.
© 2015 by Andrea Daine

Another example of differences in personality (necessitating different handling/training tactics) were three foals we raised, born in 1990, all sired by the same stallion. These were our Muppets; we named them Kermit, Fozzy and Miss Piggy.

Kermit was a “people horse”—always friendly and eager to be with people. His early handling and training went smoothly because he wanted to please us. People were his buddies and his security. His biggest fault was insecurity; he needed a lot of reassurance after we started riding out in the big wide world.

His half-siblings were more challenging. Fozzy was very independent, and not afraid of anything, but it also took more effort to bond with him and create a team. He was my daughter’s horse, and she spent a lot of time leading him out over the hills before she started riding him, and she was the only person he totally trusted.

Miss Piggy was the most independent of all; she didn’t want anything to do with people. Even though we handled her from the time she was born, she didn’t want to be caught. I kept her and her mom in a pen and caught her every day, using mom as an ally; I tied the mare to the fence near a corner, and gently herded the filly into the corner next to her mom, where I could slip a halter on her.

Fozzy and Kermit with Heather and daughter Andrea

Fozzy and Kermit with Heather and daughter Andrea

Our Muppets: Kermet, Fozzy and Miss Piggy are another example of differences in personality necessitating different handling/training tactics.
© 2015 by Lynn Thomas

Fozzy and Kermit lived together in a large paddock during their early years, from the time they were weanlings, but Miss Piggy had to stay in a small pen after weaning because she was still uncatchable without being cornered!

So for her I did something I never recommend; I left a halter on her, dragging a halter rope. That way, in the small pen, I could quietly get close enough to grab the rope without her running off. I caught her every day, hoping to make her realize that it was no big deal and just part of the daily routine.

Eventually she resigned herself to letting me get closer and closer to get hold of the rope, because she knew it was pointless to try to run away in the small pen. Finally she no longer needed the trailing rope, and eventually she no longer needed the halter.

She was just as stubborn about learning how to tie. I always start with the rope just looped around a post or pole so I can let out slack if needed, with some give-and-take so the foal can’t hurt itself. After these initial sessions I started tying Miss Piggy alongside her mama when she was a foal, but she always set back. I continued her tying lessons though the weanling/yearling stage, tying her up nearly every day and sometimes twice a day, and she finally resigned herself to being restrained by halter and rope.

By contrast I’ve raised a lot of foals that were very easy to halter train for tying, simply looping the tie rope around a post and holding onto the far end of it a little distance away, to give them a bit of slack if necessary. After doing this just a few times, they were content to stand tied, unlike Miss Piggy who stubbornly resisted being tied.

Every horse is different. You feel your way along with each one to find the best way to train and handle them, for optimum success and teamwork. There is no substitute for time spent with the horse, getting to know that horse’s mind, being able to “read” his/her attitude.

Remember this

Working with horses is like dancing, being in tune with your partner, and every horse “dances” a bit differently.

About the Author

Heather Smith Thomas

Author picture

Heather Smith Thomas has raised and trained horses for 58 years and has been writing about them nearly that long. She got her first horse at age 9 and began raising horses of her own while in high school, using them in 4-H and to help with cattle work on her parents’ ranch.

She began writing horse stories for children’s magazines and horse care articles for equine publications to help pay her way through college (University of Puget Sound), and has sold more than 10,000 stories and articles and published 24 books. Her first book, A horse in Your Life: A Guide for the New Owner, was written during the summer between her sophomore and junior year of college and published by A.S. Barnes & Company in 1966.

Most of her magazine articles deal with health care, breeding, training, horse behavior/handling or veterinary topics (horses and cattle). She and her husband raise beef cattle and a few horses on a ranch in the mountains of eastern Idaho, where they use their horses for cattle work.

What began as an expression of interest and love of horses (freelance writing) soon became a way to help pay the bills on a struggling family ranch; her writing became the equivalent of an “off farm job” that could be done at home at odd hours between riding range to check on cattle, delivering calves, etc.

Heather rarely leaves the ranch--staying home to take care of “critters” has been a way of life. After selling some of the cow herd to her son and his family, her part time writing job has become more full time. She now writes regularly for more than 25 farm and livestock magazines and about 30 horse publications,

Recent books include Storey’s Guide to Raising Horses, Storey’s Guide to Training Horses, The Horse Conformation Handbook, Stable Smarts, Beyond the Flames—A Family Touched by Fire, Care and Management of Horses, Understanding Equine Hoof Care, Good Horse-Bad Habits, Essential Guide to Calving, and Cattle Health Handbook.

Heather's most recent books include Horse Tales: True Stories from an Idaho Ranch, a compilation of horse stories telling about some of the interesting and challenging horses in her life. Cow Tales; More True Stories from an Idaho Ranch, and Ranch Tales: Stories of Dogs, Cats and Other Crazy Critters. Most of her books and articles deal with horses or cattle health care, breeding, or handling. Her goal has been to learn all she can about care and handling of horses and cattle and to share these experiences with her readers.

These days, she enjoys riding with her youngest grandchildren who live on the ranch are now ages 14 through 17. She has also appreciated the help of her oldest granddaughter (Heather Carrie Thomas) who graduated from Carroll College and is now married and living on a farm in Saskatchewan. “Grandma Heather” enjoys the special times with her grandchildren who share her love of horses.