Behavior, Personality, and Anxiety.

WMfine eyeCan you tell the difference between personality, who a horse is, and behavior, what a horse does?

With people it can be a bit easier because we are used to separating the two. We’re taught to “hate the sin and love the sinner.” Most of us know someone who is kind and funny, but a hot mess when they’re drunk. This is progress from generalized beliefs about groups resulting in racism, sexism and all the other “isms”; better than grouping people together without concern for who they are as individuals.

Horses are honest animals. It’s a rare and crazy thing that a prey animal should volunteer to partner with a predator, but they do. When watching foals play, they are curious, tentative, smart, and agile. They are born ready to respond to reward and they are easily frightened. We have a vote in what happens next.

I know a horsewoman who prides herself on being good with horses. She owns a small herd and tells me, over time, that each one of the horses is hot. It’s just who they are. There are young horses, old horses, and several breeds, but each of them has behavioral problems that look nearly identical. Did I mention her hands are brutal?

When they don’t listen at the walk, she sends them to the trot, and when that comes apart, she pushes them to the canter. She just rides them through it. She runs them fast and hard to get the energy out of them and she is a brave rider. Eventually they become exhausted and give in. Lots of us were trained to do it this way and it even works to a small degree for some horses. But for others, it accelerates to hysteria and becomes a chronic pattern. It’s how an elder horse can still be dangerous. And I’ll say, misunderstood. Is he really hot or honestly fearful of the pain and tension felt from his rider?

Historically women were judged too high-strung and emotional for many jobs. We were excused from important positions because we were inadequate by virtue of our sex. We might as well have been name-called Arabians, for all the false assumptions that were made.

In the end, horses are some combination of DNA, accident of birth, and experience. We can’t change the past for them, but we can improve their experience. We can reshape their future.

This is where recognizing anxiety becomes important. When you see a horse with wild eyes, a stiff neck, and a tense tap-dance of hooves, it’s easy to recognize the short list of negative behaviors. Is he mad or aggressive? Is he hot and crazy? Does he need to be exhausted for his brain to kick in? Or does he have some sort of plan to personally humiliate you, or ruin your breeches because they’re expensive, or test you for some random reason that he made up when you didn’t give him a carrot when you haltered him. And who is it sounding unbalanced now?

The foundation of dressage says that a horse should be relaxed. We don’t do it to please the judge, we do it for the good of the horse. It should be obvious to a rider that a horse can’t learn if he’s afraid. Or more truthfully, can’t learn anything positive. He can learn humans are callous and cruel leaders. We can train him to know we have no compassion.

There is one other option. Instead of running him into the ground or psychoanalyzing him, how about helping him relax? Instead of pushing him to distrust you at even faster gaits, how about walking and giving him enough rein to breathe. It isn’t as dramatic. It takes more skill and patience than bravado. And you have to listen to the inside of your horse instead of being distracted by exterior behavior. First you have to remember who he is and then you have to remind him. It’s what a positive leader does.

Because even if you can ride through the behavior, anxiety is a killer. Anxiety is the base ingredient in your horse’s overall well-being and has a direct connection to his health, happiness, and long-term soundness and ride-ability.

Here is the physical part: a horse’s adrenal glands are located in front of the kidneys in the lower back. It’s their job to manage stress by producing the anti-inflammatory hormone cortisol, as well as the hormone adrenaline, when the fight-or-flight response is activated.

If anxiety and stress become a habit, the adrenal glands become over-worked, causing adrenal fatigue or burnout. Horses struggling with adrenal fatigue show symptoms that can seem a bit bi-polar: they are excitable but with little stamina, meaning short bursts of energy in between crashes. They can be unpredictable, often having complete meltdowns over seemingly little things.

Chronically anxious horses have a high rate of stomach ulcers and colic. It’s also proven that stress affects the immune system, so these horses have a harder time fighting off illness, and are more likely to suffer more severe reactions to insect bites, parasites, and vaccinations.

Do you still want to screw up your courage and dominate him through his fit? Statistics also tell us that a huge number of rescue horses are given up because of behavioral problems. How many of those horses could be good partners if we had dealt with the real problem instead of fighting the symptoms? When will we finally learn to listen and not take his clear message as an insult to our egos? And even if you don’t want to do better for your horse, how is this level of stress working for you?

Breathe. Give peace a chance. Sing it at the walk.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

59 thoughts on “Behavior, Personality, and Anxiety.

      1. I feel amazed and glad to know about the horse personality. Most of the riders is not aware of this. Now, I know to be more respectful about my horse. I only think about my comfort on how my horse gives me a smooth ride. Your post explained well how to understand the behavior of the horses.

    1. Cathy Lambert

      Humans have a lot to work on in order to be the best for the horse! It does take time to achieve this.

  1. lsterling56

    It took me years and I’m afraid at least one sacrificial horse to figure this out. Thank God he was so forgiving. New riders are victims of so much bad advice and sometimes it takes a long time to find a trainer who actually understands horse behavior. Thank you for continually voicing the message of peace and non-violence!

    1. I do it for a certain sacrificial Grandfather Horse. But you are so right, the preponderance of bad advice is amazing and it’s attractive to a frustrated rider.

  2. My former trainer had an equation that helped quantify dealing with anxiety (or lack thereof) in your equine partner.

    Horses mental state / energy level plus yours, should equal 10. Horse is a 7 – you need to be a 3. Horse is a 2 – you supply 8. The addition of kindness is key. 😀

    1. Thank you. Sometimes I think if we hear the same thing a dozen times in slightly different words, eventually things connect. I mean that in a good way, it’s how I learn. Again, thank you.

  3. Another wonderful post. I wish I lived close enough to train with you, but we’re states away. Your blog was a large reason why I recently switched trainers. Thankfully, my new trainer considers the horse’s mental welfare just as important as any other aspect of training. The difference in my horse is incredible. I’m always amazed by her capacity to forgive me for my ignorance.

  4. Wonderful post! I learned a lot watching a co-worker work with young horses at the speed of light, and same formerly relaxed horses get fearful and anxious. It’s a problem, the “need to get something done” mindset. I screwed up royally recently, asking a certain horse to carry himself and lift his back. For 30 minutes. No anger, no struggle, calm reminders…but he’s a sensitive soul, and 30 minutes of saying “Sorry, yeah you had a good step there, but this is not good enough”? No wonder the poor guy heard “YOU CAN’T DO ANYTHING RIGHT.” He told me by breaking desperately into a canter and flicking his ears back. “Is THIS the right thing I’m not doing?” I felt awful. Thank goodness for remorse, guilt, and humble pie. I was able to fix myself, who clearly was the problem. And guess who happily offers his back and moves round a week later?

    1. I am not sure what we have done to deserve horses, I’m just glad I have the chance. Even to be wrong and forgiven, what a good day! Great comment, grateful rider, forgiving horse. All is well in the world. Thank you.

  5. So timely. I just had a conversation with an acquaintance about her young mare, who she characterizes as “always testing you”. Of course, that seems to be her description of all of her horses – and her answer is always to “lay into them”. Being horses, they eventually are overwhelmed by these attacks and shut down … but that’s not how she sees it. So hard to get people like that to understand that they create these problems. In her case, she even sees her horses’ stress behaviors (some stereotypies) as “quirky personality”.

  6. Excellent. In 11 years of “learning” horses I have seen many experts show how much they really don’t know. Horses have an unearthly sense of perception to our deeper character and feelings. I am not a good rider yet, but I’ve learned that approaching a new horse is an introduction and you have to let the horse decide to come to you. They can detect ulterior motives and personal agendas. Riding is not nearly enough, knowing the horse and being trusted are essential.

  7. Jane

    I soooo agree.
    Could someone please tell me how to change someone’s way who treats horses in that aggressive way?
    Unfortunatly this person works as a horse manager at a therapeutic riding center.
    Breaks my heart.

    1. Sigh. So very sad. Not knowing all the details, it’s hard to say what to do. Sometimes it’s beyond our control… but there might be someone to talk to??

    2. The same approach we use with horses works with people. Get to know the person, figure out what’s bothering them, support them and help them fix their problem. Demonstrate another way to do things–a better way–without being judgmental or harsh. Give them a chance to learn.

      1. Jane

        Thank you for replying to my comment about the aggressive barn manager at the therapeutic center. I do realize she has an anger problem that she tends to take out on the horses. I have tried to talk to her about this behavior and she gets quite angry with me. We have talked but she is the tpye of person who “knows all” and is not willing to listen to what other people have to say. I just do not go to her for assistance with the horses since I already know what her approach will be. Very sad.

  8. Sandy

    I got a horse last August and he was boarded for a few weeks until my barn was ready. I haven’t ridden him yet because I feel we are really just getting to know each other and I don’t want him to think I’m depending on him to be the brave one all the time. Much of the communication you write about comes easily to me because I’ve worked with horses for over 30 years as a Veterinary Nurse, but not an owner. I’m an older female but this is my first riding horse.
    Having been stalled most of his life (16 yrs), he’s quite new to the fields and woods of his new home. I want him to let me know when he’s ready, and I’ll try to let him know when I am. But am I in danger of letting too much time pass so that he won’t accept being ridden again?

    1. I can only guess; it would be fool-hardy to say much without seeing him. With that disclaimer, if a horse has been under-saddle, and had consistent riding for a while, they never forget that it happened. Has it been almost a year then? Make sure your saddle fits him well and having a trainer or someone around when you eventually get on, for safety sake. Good luck and happy riding.

  9. Marie

    In case you didn¹t read thisŠ..

    From: Horses |AnnaBlakeBlog | Equestrian Reply-To: Horses |AnnaBlakeBlog | Equestrian Date: Friday, July 24, 2015 at 8:34 AM To: Marie Subject: [New post] Behavior, Personality, and Anxiety.

    WordPress.com Anna Blake posted: “Can you tell the difference between personality, who a horse is, and behavior, what a horse does? With people it can be a bit easier because we are used to separating the two. We’re taught to “hate the sin and love the sinner.” Most of us know someone “

  10. Beth Weaver

    Ok. I hear you. I even believe you. And I’m afraid I might be the woman you are describing. But I don’t know how to fix it. Maybe it’s not my being cruel(I hope) because I don’t ride with a tight rein and they don’t toss their heads. And I don’t ride with spurs or use a whip or anything like that. I think my aides are light and pretty clear. But both my mares are afraid to leave the herd. The one is much better than she used to be, but they both can’t wait to get back and once we turn toward home they want to fly. And they both also prefer to be in the front of a group and I have to work to hold them off the butt of the horse in front of us. And my old gelding used to be the same way. So I am happy to take the blame for the behaviors, but I’m not sure how to fix them. I spent 1500 dollars and 5 days at a John Lyons clinic with the gelding years ago, and the solution then was to move the hind quarters to the side. They can’t go forward if they’re hind is going sideways. Ok, I can use that. But that technique doesn’t change the fact that the horse is anxious and afraid. Or maybe just excited? I don’t know. Is it because I’m a weekend warrior and they aren’t ridden as much? Hard for me to believe that. I’m a horse addict and I ride every weekend, pretty much. One of my mares is 12 and the other 6. One bought at a sale and the other after someone else bought her at a sale. Oh, and mostly we ride at a walk. I’m a trail rider. I do chores every day, and we have a daily relationship, I just don’t have time to ride daily. I seem to be able to train some things, like trailer loading, ok, but why do they all have that need to be in front? They don’t feel safe with me, I fear.

    1. Well, I can’t actually give you a lesson here online. And you are right, that correction from the Lyons clinic may alter the symptom but doesn’t build confidence. And doing the same thing and getting the same result doesn’t fix it either. Horses don’t like fighting and that’s the pattern you’re in, meaning resistance separating. Let’s say you have a barn that is where they want to be, and a long drive way. Walk away from the barn. Just a small way and reverse and walk back to the barn. Repeat, each time going a few steps farther, but not fighting, and returning each time, going farther away or a slightly different direction each time. What you are training here is not that they must leave the barn, but that they always get to come back to the barn. Most of all, don’t do it the way you always have. It doesn’t work. Be positive, be light with the reins, relaxed in your body, keep them moving with rhythm, both directions. Repeat, lots of praise. Be patient, be cheerful. And good luck.

      1. Perfect advice. BUT I will add you need to do this much more than once a week. 😦 Have someone else that you trust at the barn do this daily. I did it almost daily with a gelding while a mare screamed for him. Every day we got a little bit further.. I hand walked him. It took about a month for him to reach the point where we no longer saw her. It took her about 2 weeks to stop screaming for him. Then I got on and rode him past the point where she couldn’t see him and it was completed. THEN, guess what? I had to do the same thing with the mare. It took longer and she still pranced back to the barn, but eventually she became my soul mate and left willingling alone for long trail rides in a public park.

  11. Loriann

    Thank you–this came to me right after a particularly challenging ride where I started to go down the path of “why is my horse being such a nitwit” which is very out of character for her–to which I responded with very little tolerance which made me feel horrible. After reading your article I took a step back and thought, what changed to change her and me? Perhaps it’s that I lost my mom a week ago and she’s feeling that I’m not quite right? I know, duh, but it didn’t occur to me. So, thank you for your enlightening insight.

  12. pishkeen

    This is lovely Anna, thank you. My old black mare has enough confidence and personality for both of us; we hit it off the day we met, and I work hard to listen to her. She graciously offers rhythmic and joyful forward movement at a thought. I thank her with light hands, long walks on a loose rein, and short rides — she gets to tell me when she’s done.

    My little white mare (who is very new) on the other hand is anxious and runs through my hands, so we end up in an escalating pattern of
    “it’s ok, you can walk,”
    “I can’t.”
    “yes walk”
    “NO”
    And then we lose each other. An hour later she’s tired, I’m tired, and no one is happy. I have lots of conflicting advice for dealing with her but I will try to stick with less is more. If I start off yelling she definitely won’t calm down. So I have to get her energy and anxiety down to a level where she can hear me without me having to yell. Too bad you don’t give online lessons 🙂 but I think I know where to start, and your blog re-affirms the path for me. Thanks 🙂

    1. If I could figure a way to give online lessons, I would. My feet would love it. The biggest advice I have is also the smallest. The one that works but no one believes it. Loud and proud, exhale. It is quiet and she wants that peace, the split second there is a gap in the hysteria and she hears you. I’d also give her something for her stomach. Ugard or something to help the stomach acid. Good luck!

      1. pishkeen

        Thanks Anna, we worked on this last night, first on the lunge, then under saddle. She’s incredibly sensitive in all directions, which tells me that leaning on the bit is learned, not natural. I got good results by staying quiet, keeping my movements slow, asking for downward transitions with a long exhale and gradual increase in pressure both on line and under saddle. It became apparent that she was trying really hard to do what I asked! We ended the ride walking long and low along the rail, probably our best ride yet. I honestly wasn’t expecting such a dramatic improvement in such a short time… even in just one ride.

    1. Stay slow and quiet. Exhale. Calm them at the walk and ask them to relax, by having a relaxed body and exhaling. And dear Newbie…it’s counterintuitive! Good luck.

  13. Thank you for this Ann. As a beginner, I received a lot of bad advice. Had I been able to read this post, I would have had proof of the wrongs people were trying to make me do. I always felt, in my heart, that there was a better way, a way to build our relationship out of mutual respect and trust and not dominerance. I am grateful that I followed my gut instincts. Looking forward to reading more from you ☺Happy trails…

  14. Pingback: The Psychotic Moose Capriole Show | Bay with Chrome

  15. You have incredible insights and excellent writing. The human parallels are striking. I serve in a healing ministry (for people) and the issues you describe are spot on. Thanks for sharing.

  16. D. K. Young

    A million thank you’s for this. I reached this pinnacle five years ago with a very special Arabian gelding who taught me to breathe, relax, and learn confidence by thinking like a horse. Slowing down and realizing the horse is always right if you can remove the human ego and listen. I truly believe that without this experience learned from this gelding my life may not be as richly appreciated as it is now. My wish is to someday meet you and shake your hand for sharing.

    1. Agreed. Everything of value that I know, I learned from animals. It improved my human relationships more than I expected–by being the human my horse wanted me to be. Thanks, and hope that meeting comes soon.

  17. Rose

    I have a horse that is 7yrs old rescue horse she has been with me for 3 mths now shortly after she arrived I started really watching her because she was acting different she wouldn’t go with the rest of the herd she stayed close to or in the barn if someone new came in the barn she would turn her rump around and try to back you in a corner but she never kicked and if more then one person went to the barn she would bit her front leg or bob her head up and down we changed her name and it seemed to calm down a bit but she still has them if strangers come around and if men come in contact with her she well push her way passed you to get away she is a great horse when she is one on one with someone or when my kids brush her down she seems more comfy with them I don’t know anything about her pass all I know is if we call her by her old name she has a full out anxiety attack and I have to take my time and rub her neck and face and say her new name over and over again to calm her down. Just wondering if there is any remedy like feed or anything like that to get her to relax and not have the attacks my kids enjoy riding her but at this point I can’t let them because of her anxiety

    1. First, this is only a guess. I would be an idiot to diagnose a horse by a description, without actually seeing the horse. That said, there are a few things I know. Your horse has had a lot of change recently and change is always hard. Ulcers are very common in horses in this situation and some of the things you describe could be considered symptoms. Google ulcers, or search my blog for information. On my site, I always have a few articles on Gastric ulcers. Best idea for feeding is NO sweet feed and free fed hay. Go slow and give her time. It will take as long as it takes… and good luck.

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