Tuesday, March 11, 2014


"Horses have two central emotions: fear and curiosity."
                                                                                                         -- Mark Rashid

A conversation J and have had on a regular basis over the last eighteen years, is the difference in personalities between her and myself. She is a pessimist of the highest order, being that people are inherently self-absorbed, unmotivated and not very bright. This is especially true if she is driving. I, on the other hand, am an optimist. I believe people are basically good, fair, have a story to tell, want to be the best they can be. Except when I am driving, then I channel J. Although, incidents like Sunday have a tendency to shadow my perception of humanity. It is this optimism that allows me to strike up conversations with total strangers on the bus or subway, and it is what drives my motivation to continue this blog.

So, does nature or nurture create optimists and pessimists? It may be an eternal question, but important none-the-less. And here is why. . . .

Horse have two central emotions: fear and curiosity. How these two emotions are dealt with by the horse is what creates their personality. Keili, the National Show Horse I owned in 1992, was ruled by fear. Ordinary activities could cause her to become terrified and when she did so, her intellect was ruled by blind, unreasoning panic. No amount of work ever seemed to make it better. Now, back then, I wasn't connected to a community of horse people. I was out there on an island by myself, just wanting to ride a horse that never, ever lost her fear. Do you have any idea how difficult it is to ride an animal that is just on this side of terror? It's really hard.

Why am I thinking about this now? Because of Ashke and Amaar. Both are Straight Egyptian Arabians. Ashke was seven when I got him and Amaar is seven now. Ashke wasn't started under saddle and was starved when I rescued him; Amaar had been started under saddle, not neglected, although a little on the lean side. Both are grey. But like J and I are opposite sides of the optimist/pessimist scale, Ashke and Amaar are the opposite sides of the emotional scale.

Ashke is ruled by curiosity. Even from the very first moment, you could tell this horse was going to be something special. When we transported him from Amarillo to Denver, we stopped in Limon (half way), found an empty lot off the road and pulled off for lunch. The field we stopped in was covered in grass. I expected Ashke to step off the trailer and begin eating. I mean, if I looked as hungry as he did, I would want to eat. Instead, he grazed sparsely, but mostly he wanted to look around. We wandered around the lot, up by the buildings, past the cars and around the trailer. He wanted to investigate all the things. Less than 50 feet away, cars, trucks and big rigs whizzed past on the road. He watched them, but never once showed any signs of spooking. It is probably his greatest gift.

Now, secure in his relationship with me, his curiosity just bubbles over. You can see it in how he follows Cassandra around when we are in the arena, neck outstretched and nose in the hair at the back of her neck. I could see it last night walking around the property, following the deer with pricked ears and a look in his eyes like "Ooooo, what's that?" Or his reaction to the mini Spirit, that just moved into the barn. Other horses are freaking out and Ashke just wants to be friends. He nickers at the regular boarders, nickers at the grooms that lead him to turn-out, steals tools and other items from Henry, whenever Henry is working in his stall, tries to take the handle of the hayfork in his mouth and help when they are cleaning his stall. He is more than just a pocket pony, he is a curious, active partner in crime. He likes and trusts people. He was born to be a trail horse, but does equally well in the arena, because he wants to please.

I think Ashke was born with this as his personality, but I also think it was shaped in his youth by the farm he was raised on. He was bred at Arabians Ltd. in Waco, TX and they have an incredible foal program. From the moment the foals are born, they are handled with the greatest gentleness, treated like the offspring of royalty they are, and it creates a bond that shapes both the horse and their response to stimuli throughout their lifetime. I truly believe this is why I have been able to train him to go under saddle with very little fuss. Not that I'm that great of a rider or trainer, but that I have that great of a horse.

So, if a horse can come with the personality and disposition to become a trusted and reliable partner, both in the ring and on the trail, might a horse come with a personality that makes it difficult to attain safety and calmness in the ring? The woman I know who purchased Amaar wants a trail horse. That is the kind of riding she wants to do and that is the kind of horse I know she was looking for. However, Amaar is ruled by fear. Cassandra thought they had a breakthrough this week where he finally began concentrating on the rider instead of his surroundings. Even after three months in training he is still spooky in the indoor arena, although it did seem like the spookiness diminished as they worked with him. Both the woman I know and Cassandra thought they were making great strides, finally, but then they had a set back with a dustpan on Saturday.

My friend has owned him for a year. She has had him in training for three months. They are making progress, but it is slow and he is no where near ready to be ridden on the trails. He still reacts to every thing with fear. His fear has taken the avenue of rearing. On Saturday, when the dustpan tried to eat him, he went straight up on his hind legs. I think it is this reaction that caused my friend to send him into training.

I watched a trainer at my last barn working with a little mare who had spooked at a new banner on the fence of the outdoor arena. The mare was a nifty little Arabian mare who had shown some hesitation at the banner when she was first ridden into the arena. The woman who owned her, instead of urging the mare to approach the banner, or even ignoring the mare's slight spook and getting on with her ride, immediately got off and waited for the trainer. The trainer came out, gone on the mare and forced her past the banner over and over again. Every time the mare paid the slightest attention to the banner the trainer whalluped on her with his stick. He justified this approach by saying, "if she spooks at the banner she could hurt me, so when she does so I am hurting her." Yeah, he was one of the reasons I wanted to leave that barn. Ashke hated him and rightly so. He could use this approach without risking a lot of injury, because the mare was placid by nature and more curious than fearful.

I don't believe this approach could work with Amaar. I think it would make him worse. Cowboy breaking is not a solution. Cassandra has been very patient. She's spent a lot of time working him from the ground. Setting the stage for him to be able to work through his fear and attain a place of peace and calm, to reach a place where he could find trust in the humans working him and let go of his fear for a little while.

So, my final thought is, if a horse reacts primarily from a place of fear, is it possible to encourage the curiosity and calmness necessary for a good trail horse? Can he find within himself the ability to trust and be trusted? Will he become the horse my friend would like him to be? At what point should she either give up her desire to ride on the trails, or give up on the horse? Is there a point when the rider has to make the decision that the horse is not a good fit for what she wants?

My only experience with a horse of this type was with Keili. My experience says Amaar will not change enough to be a safe ride, but my experience is also based on a horse that did not have access to the training and ability of a trainer of Cassandra's caliber, nor did I have the friendship and coaching of a rider like N. Nor, for that matter, did I have the insight and blogging experiences of this horse community I discovered on the interwebs. All of which have contributed to changing my perception and challenged my ability to grow and progress as a rider. And given me clues or ideas when I become stuck, and support and encouragement when I want to quit.

I have great faith in Cassandra. We shall see if she can work miracles, because I think that might be what it will take.


  1. I think a horse can be trained to react to their fear in a better way, but I don't think you can change the core make up of a horse that has more of a fear-based personality. That said, for this horse, it sounds like he will need a lot of training and possiably a rider who can be very consistant on every ride, every time. It sounds like this is not his current owner. They could both be trained to be able to function down the trail, but I don't think that is what she wants. Most who aim to trail ride want to be able to wonder down the trail and take in the views or chat with friends. This horse sounds like he is going to need constant and consistant monitering any time you ride him. Even after he has the training and skills to handel his fear better, it will still be there. He has no base reason for his fear other then the fact that that is who he is as a horse. It's not like he was beat with a dustpan when he was younger, or has had no training until later in life. He doesn't have "baby brain", or any other reason for this. So there is no real way to get him to change that. You can modify it by training him to no react by rearing, but by something else. But there will always be a reaction of some sort, for him. It's who he is. Which sounds like it doesn't mesh with what his rider wants. Depends how much money she wants to dump into training him too, and if she is willing to change what she wants out of a trail ride, and has or can learn the skills she needs to handel him.

    It might be best to find a more suitable horse. It is better for both of them, unless she wants to put the money into getting him the training he needs and then selling him. That gives him a better shot at a good home. Almost every older horse I have had in for training, or as a project horse; has had issues only from their owners trying to make a horse work that was not suitable for them. People tend to want to hold onto a horse that is too much for them because they feel they have a bond with the horse. 90% of the time that is a one sided bond. And the horse is only getting worse, therefore less chance of a good home, the longer they own it.

    I trained a mare a few years back who was like this, her mind was compleatly fear-based. She was always looking for something to eat her. What I ended up having to do with her was get out and do the miles, see the scary things, and let her bolt for a few strides before pulling her up and around. If I did it right away she would compleatly panic. In her mind, she needed to get away and anyone who wanted to stop her was trying to kill her too. But if she had those couple of strides to get away from the hungry rock that was going to eat her, so she could think, she was game to go look at it when I turned her around. But this ment that riding her out was always a event and I had better be paying attention to her signs and sitting deep. I also had to keep myself from reacting to fast and picking up my reins too soon. That mare could throw a pretty epic fit if I did, blind panic. However, once we had a understanding of each other (me knowing her per-spook signs and allowing her those strides), and her knowing I would allow her those strides but then she had to walk up and touch said scary object....she setteled down a lot. There was less spooking and more going up to scary things on her own accord. But that was because I had trained her too, not because she wanted too really. She never changed who she was. She also was a heck of a horse in the arena once she was more comfortable out of it. That mare was a lot of fun to train and taught me a lot about fear-based horses and how to work with them because your not going to break them of it.

    That's my opinion anyways! :)

    1. I think the biggest issue you face when dealing with fear based horses is the over reaction they have to EVER LITTLE THING. There is no middle ground. Just blind, frantic panic. I also think most horses fall in the middle, with a mix of fear and curiosity, it's the ones on either end of the spectrum that become special. The horses with more curiosity than common sense would not last long outside the pampered care of their humans, and the horses with more fear and little curiosity can be dangerous to work.


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