One of the joys of working with horses is searching for new information that can help us understand them better. We recently came across a book called “Is Your Horse a Rock Star? Understanding Your Horse’s Personality” by Dessa Hockley. This is, of course, not hard science– but it has been fun and useful to figure out which “horseonality” best fits each horse. The author describes the needs of each horseonality, which has come in handy when figuring out how to meet a horse’s needs during their training here and after they leave.
To help you decide which category a horse best falls into, the book gives four basic traits and their corresponding opposing traits: Dominant or Submissive, Energetic or Lazy, Curious or Afraid, and Friendly or Aloof. You pick the traits that best fit the horse in question, and end up with four letters. For example: we think one of our current rescues, Apollo, is DECF– Dominant, Energetic, Curious, and Friendly. Another current rescue, Shadow, seems to be more SLAF– Submissive, Lazy, Afraid, and Friendly.
It’s worth noting that none of these traits are negative ones, although they might sound like it at first. Consider a horse that is Lazy: they’re quiet, not particularly reactive, and likely won’t take off at a gallop if a rider uses a little too much leg pressure. A Lazy horse might make an ideal lesson horse, or a weekend trail horse.
Apollo, being DECF, is considered a “Rock Star.” That certainly doesn’t make him the perfect horse for everyone, though– have you ever heard of a low-maintenance rockstar? Apollo needs to be challenged in his training, and gets bored with repeated drilling. We have to think fast and switch things up frequently for him to remain interested. He is very opinionated, and likes to feel like his ideas are taken under serious consideration. Although Apollo understands the ground rules when we are clear and firm, he isn’t afraid to test those boundaries on occasion. Setting clear and consistent ground rules and combining them with a wide variety of activities has helped Apollo excel in his training.
Shadow’s SLAF personality makes him “The Wallflower.” He’s content to be loved on, and generally keeps his thoughts to himself. This can make the Afraid trait less apparent than it might be in other horses, so it’s important for us to pay attention to the more subtle signs of discomfort that he might express. Shadow’s sweet, soft personality requires lots of praise and assurance. Shadow is still early on in his training, but we plan to take things slowly with him and not push him too far outside of his comfort zone as he gains confidence. The Wallflower’s trust and confidence is built slowly, but the Friendly trait makes them willing to work with you as long as you go at their pace.
This book has helped us consider not just how a horse’s personality can meet our needs, but how our personalities can (or can’t) meet the needs of a horse. Interestingly enough, two members of our team read the same draft of this blog and each had totally different impressions from the paragraph about Apollo. One of them said it seemed to paint Apollo in a bad light, and the other said that the paragraph was describing the perfect horse for her. There’s no doubt that humans can have preferences in regards to a horse’s personality— it’s equally important to remember that the horse might have a preference, too.