Tag Archives: horse personality

“Personality Plus” — Jane Smiley’s “A Year at the Races”

If there is one thing that I would like to take up with author Nicholas Evans (The Horse Whisperer) it is his introduction into polite society the very term “horse whisperer.” It is annoying, if only because it comes up any time any lay person mentions anything about any horse.

We’ve all had this conversation with a new acquaintance:

“What do you do for a living?”

“I train horses.”

“Oh… are you a horse whisperer?”

“No… I’m not that good, so I have to shout.”

Or some variation on the above. But let’s face it, as horsepeople, we have all been sorted into two groups by the Outside World: those who are Horse Whisperers, and those who are Not.

And so when I was doing a little research on animal communicators, based upon the conversations that author Jane Smiley related in A Year at the Races, wherein she was able to have Q & A’s with her assorted herd of racehorses, broodmares, and saddle horses via one of these fascinating people who claim to engage in interspecies-chit-chat, I found it hard to get past the first line in this article in The New York Times.

“Horse whispering? Too loud.”


Thoroughbred racehorse in shedrow

Not whispering so much as getting a kiss.

But, I suppose, every little piece has its place in the puzzle. When you study horse training, you have to go into it with an open mind, and then shuffle around all the conflicting bits of information you receive in order to arrive at your own philosophy. Horse trainers, I explained to a girl at her therapeutic riding lesson the other day—a girl who had serious doubts about the riding instructor’s decision to stop the lesson horse from showing affection to the girl, who was on the ground, while another girl was on the horse’s back—are only alike in that they all have very different and very steadfast opinions on how to train. She, the girl who wanted to stroke the horse being ridden by someone else, was clearly a girl with great empathy for horses; the instructor, who stopped her from stroking the horse, also had great empathy for horses; unfortunately, they had different ideals about what the horse should be doing with his time.

She wasn’t impressed by my explanation, of course, although I thought it very reasonable and well thought out, and I think that is usually the case when two horsewomen who are not avowed allies of one another differ on their training strategies: we listen, and disagree, and continue on our chosen paths. We’re very fundamentalist that way.

But I have to admit that I’ve never been completely bound by any one philosophy. I dislike gadgets, but I use side-reins, for example. I believe in the prey mentality of the horse, and establishing oneself as dominant, but I’m fascinated by discussions of equine personality.

I don’t have a lot to say to people who insist on anthropomorphizing their horses, but I do think horses have opinions, and individual character, and, in varying degrees, ambition, drive, and desires.

A Year at the Races cover image

"A Year at the Races" is so much more than that

And after frantically flipping through the pages of A Year at the Races: Reflections on Horses, Humans, Love, Money, and Luck, I can tell you, the next time I really want to know what is on a horse’s mind, I’m totally going to call up an animal communicator.

That’s really not me, of course, but at the same time, why be closed-minded? When I was having absolutely no progress in connecting with Bonnie, I consulted a book I found at the library, Ride the Right Horse: Understanding the Core Equine Personalities & How to Work with Them by Yvonne Barteau. This is a book I would not have picked up were I not absolutely desperate to create a relationship with a horse who was not interested in me. And trying to create a relationship with a horse was not a problem I had thought about since I decided that the prey social model was the most logical approach to horse training.

Now, to be perfectly honest, the book did not salvage my struggling attempt to build a partnership with Bonnie. What it did do, however, was show me that it was probably a lost cause. We just weren’t compatible. She just wasn’t that into me. And, I guess, I wasn’t that into her. You just can’t be compatible with every single horse. And that’s because, sound the alarm bell, let the anthropomorphizing begin, horses do have unique personalities, and drives, and desires, and they’re not always going to sync up to yours.

It’s the same reason you just don’t like some of your co-workers.

(And you know you don’t.)

Smiley gets that some horses will simply never love you.

The goal of horse training is to mitigate equine idiosyncrasy and to give every horse some fluency in the common language required to get along with people. There are always horses for sale and always buyers, and a trained horse is supposed to function reliably, to walk, trot, canter, jump, gallop across country, stand, cross-tie, be groomed and bathed, ride in a horse trailer, go to a few horse shows, and even foxhunt, or to do similar things as a Western-style horse.

But there are horses who show affection, who share a bond with the owner, who do more than perform functions. They actively seek to please. Until you have owned a horse who seeks cooperation and behaves warmly toward you, you don’t realize how many horses were just passing time in your company, half ignoring you or barely putting up with you.

I paused after I read that, to take stock. I have had horses like that, haven’t I? Of course. But how many? I thought I could name them. Rillo, my first Thoroughbred. Final Call. Maybe even Rapidan, although I don’t think Rapidan sought cooperation and behaved warmly towards me. He sought something from me: to rile me up, mostly. I don’t think he was half-ignoring me or barely putting up with me, so much as seeing how far he could push me. Playing with me. Masochistic, always hoping I’d yell at him, that was Rapidan.

It bears thinking about. And it makes you think about the personalities you have been in contact with.

My greatest take-away from A Year at the Races was a deeper understanding of the equine mind. Smiley has studied human psychology and the nature of love and affection much deeper than I have ever had any inclination to, and she has been able to turn this inquisitive nature into a fresh and fascinating exploration of How Horses Think.

I will say this: A Year at the Races is an extremely misleading title for this book, just as “book review” is an extremely misleading category for this article. This book could have been called My Horses, My Teachers except that Alois Podhajsky already took that one, or Talking With Horses, except that Henry Blake already took that one, and anyway, both texts are mentioned within this one. This book is a fascinating exploration of equine psychology, what makes horses tick, how they manifest their brilliantly defined personalities in every day encounters, how they tell their riders and handlers and fellow horses what they are thinking through reactions, movements, and vocalizations, and if the stories of Hornblower and Waterwheel, Smiley’s babies at the track during this particular “year at the races,” are neat little bookends and good for anecdotes, the real power of the story is in the explorations of who horses really are.

And as for her frequent communications with her horses via animal communicator Hali Jones? Yes, I’m a believer. It makes just as much sense as whispering.




Filed under Book Reviews

What You Said: Feedback on Finding Your Perfect Horse

Everyone’s got an idea in their head of their own perfect horse.

The past few entries on vet checks and faults in horses received more than one thousand views over the past week. From those thousand readers, a couple dozen of you sent me e-mails or posted comments on the blog and my Facebook page. What you can deal with. What you can’t. Why you vet check. Why you didn’t. It’s not a great proportion, perhaps, but there were plenty of similarities in the responses.

For example, everyone seems to agree…

Personality is Key

Jessica writes at her blog, Spotty Horse News, of her OTTB, Bar: “He wants to please, and he does a damn good job of taking care of me.” You won’t find that in a vet check. Fortunately, as she adds in this blog’s comments, she wasn’t relying on one: “Bar would never have passed a pre-purchase exam and I would never have had the experiences–mostly good–that have come along the way. And I watched a flexion test and though to myself, ‘If that were my knee, I’d limp off, too!’ ”

Personality shows: This picture of Tre Cool, an OTTB available from Thoroughbred Retirement of Tampa (TROT) caught my eye immediately.

Jackie, from RegardingHorses.com, puts it very simply and aptly in the blog comments: When looking for a horse, “it was my exact approach to getting married. I figured every guy had issues, it was just a matter of picking the guy whose issues I could live with.” (I’ll admit, I don’t know if Jackie is married or not. But she has a damn fine OTTB.) She ended up purchasing a horse whose personality she gelled with, although it meant hiring someone else to restart the horse.

And Blob gives us the approach that I’m a personal fan of, as well, the Experienced Rider Seeks Cheap Horse With Issues approach: “My way of dealing with the faults is finding that hot, nervous horse that most people don’t want but that I actually do well with.”

Sarah from Miles on Miles weighs in as well: “Some horses are just ornery, even with the best owners. I’m not inclined to spend lots of my dollars and years with a horse like that, no matter what they’re like under saddle.”


Interestingly, the most oft-cited deal-breaker in an otherwise nice horse is colic. I was thrown on this one at first – then I thought about it and realized that after my first horse, a frequent colicker who only lived a few months after we purchased him, I never again went

near a horse with a colic history. It is probably easier to avoid if you’re buying from someone you know, i.e. at the boarding stable where you ride, for example.

This just illustrates that buyers are wary based upon their personal experience. If you’ve had a colicker, you’re not likely to go near one a

gain. Others cite bad feet (“I end up paying so much in farrier bills that it barely seems worth it sometimes.” “Sometime bad feet can be greatly improved with good nutrition and farrier care, and sometimes they’re just bad.”)

Realistic Vet Checks

To have the vet out or not? Always a fun question, and readers tend to agree that it depends upon your level of experience, your plan for the horse, and your personal knowledge of the seller. Pals with the seller of a potential pleasure horse? Well, you’re good on two out of three – probably don’t need to have the vet out. We’ve been discussing the advisability of drug screens as well, which just goes to show you that being part of a close-knit horse community, though not always possible, is preferable – when you can find what you need amongst your friends, you’re less likely to fret over drugged horses.

Kate from A Year With Horses has an interesting comment: “I keep my horses permanently when I get them, so I do do prepurchase exams including x-rays.” Sometimes you just feel better knowing what’s going in there. Kate is pretty thorough, though – she’s been chronicling her adventures looking at about eight million horses in the quest for – what are you looking for, Kate? I like this entry, though, a perfect example of what you’ve all been telling me – here is the horse, here is his conformation, the good the bad the ugly, and at the end of it all:

“His head isn’t his prettiest feature – he’s got a bit of a Roman nose – his owner says he wouldn’t win any prizes for pretty – but I like it just fine.  His personality shows through and there’s nothing wrong with what’s between his ears.”


Filed under Outside Sites, Selling Horses