January 25, 2010

The character of a horse

Is the character of a horse set in stone?
Is a nice horse always nice?
Please bear with me and read a rather long ingression to my thoughts.

There is a good discussion going on over at Mugwump Chronicles.
The first post is about what kind of sensitivity you need in a horse depending on what work he is to do.
That post made me want to share some thoughts over things I have been pondering over lately.

This is my daughters pony MacGyver, aka Charlie, aka Prince Charming.
He is such a sweet horse, and we really love him.
When you ride him he is always happy to cooperate, he works for light aids and tries to understand what you want.
If you really look hard for problems he is a bit ticklish when you brush his belly, and he can throw off the odd happy buck when out on trail, but that’s it.

Or at least, that’s what we thought – until now.
Prince Charming has been misbehaving.

We have had a very sweet girl at the same age as my daughter, C, that has been riding him twice a week for over a year.
C rode him well and everything was fine up to beginning of December when she wanted to stop riding him as Charlie had been misbehaving.
Charlie had been acting up when C was out on trail with two other riders from the stable.
C also said that Charlie had bucked with her in the arena a couple of times.
We understood nothing of this as he at the same period of time had been his normal angelic self with my daughter and me.
We were sad though as we liked C, but concluded that the level of what is scary can differ from person to person.

In December Charlie had time off due to a shoeing problem.
Around Christmas we started to ride him again.
And again, even after having time off, he was his normal cheery self and no misbehaving.

Until the new girl, M, was to ride him last week.
She tried him the week before without any problems, but comes Thursday and she was to have her first dressage lesson.
I was riding Fame at the same time, when our Prince Charming suddenly starts a rodeo show.
I could feel my chin fall down to my knees…what on earth was going on???!
M manages to stay on, and continues to ride.
Just to have another act of entertainment a few minutes after.

Still in a state of shock of my Dr Jekyll-Mr Hyde-pony, I ask M to change horse with me.

Our ill-mannered pony was opportunistic enough to try the same on me and gets an unpleasant surprise.
He tries once again, with the same result.
After that he is behaving himself again, and M sits up and rides the rest of the lesson without any problems.

He has apart from this incident never misbehaved with my daughter or me, or any adult persons riding him, so I rule out any health problems.
On the contrary, he is happy to work.
So I guess he was just looking for some extra entertainment.
Exit Prince Charming, hello Mr. Bad Guy.

Now to summarize this rather long story, I am coming back to the questions on top.
Is a horse’s character set in stone?
Is a nice horse always nice?

In the example above we have a horse where the setting around him is the same, and still he acts totally different depending on the rider.
If you in addition change environment, how you manage the horse and how you feed him, the horse might behave quite different.

So I would definitely say that a horse's character is not set in stone; it may differ quite a lot.

Here you have the difficulty in selling and buying horses.
Assessing the horse’s temperament is perhaps the most difficult task when you are out to buy.
You get a “feel”, and personally I always try to test by pushing the horse a bit, and see how he reacts.
But still it's a qualified guess, at its best.

From time to time I assist people in buying horses.
I love the match-making feeling, of trying to get a good horse-rider combination, and it makes me happy when things work out.
But I always try to have a discussion about the "adjusting period".
The horse is no car, it takes time to learn to know and ride a new horse.
In my opinion you need between 6 mths to a year to learn to learn to know your new partner.

Don't expect it to be perfect from the start, because it won't.
Or perhaps it's very good to begin with as the horse is still working on the previous, more experienced, owner's routines and riding, and then there is a performance drop after a while when the horse adjusts to the new, less experienced owner.

And so much is about management, and routines.
No turnout=bad horse.
Much feed, little exercise=bad horse
No rules=bad horse

I have been pondering a lot about my antelope problems before Christmas.
As it is difficult to get any answers from Fame I think I am concluding that less trail riding and no playing around when turned out (due to uneven, frozen ground) at least play a part in the equation.
Again, a change in managment (due to weather) that affects the behaviour of the horse.

Comments anyone?


Ice Pony Girl said...

Adorable pony!

stilllearning said...

It sounds less like a personality issue than a ranking test. Horses will always check their rank with someone new. I don't think they consider it nice or not nice to take advantage of an opportunity when it is presented. It's just what they do.

Laura, on Equestrian Ink, had a similar issue with her son's dead-broke horse forgetting he was dead-broke for awhile.

And...maybe your visiting riders weren't as quiet in the saddle as your daughter? And Charlie was objecting?

Seems like it's all part of the fun of riding. Even riding antelopes :)

Anonymous said...

It's quite possible that the pony and your daughter have a bond, and have adjusted to each other to the extent that they're both comfortable. The pony may have been saying that he didn't like something the other girls were doing - they may have been using their hands, seats or legs in a way that was unfamiliar to him or that even was uncomfortable. Ponies will often object to thing horses will put up with. If they were riding in a different saddle, it could be a saddle fit issue.

I think ponies can be somewhat different from horses - ponies by and large are more intelligent, and do more thinking - which can be a good or bad thing depending on circumstances!

Pony Girl said...

I do think their character changes. My horse was not affectionate when I first started leasing him. He has become more friendly and affectionate (and interested in people in general) since I leased/bought him 3 years ago. But, I also spoil him more than he was. He is probably worked less and held to standards less than his previous owner. I'm his only herd, and I do need to remember to hold him accountable and that I'm his "boss" for lack of a better word. He'll fight me a little at times, but nothing unsafe or crazy.
When someone gets on my horse, especially a beginner, he will test them every time! It's really quiet funny. He won't go forward, or, he goes in a circle. Until you prove to him you know what you are doing and are going to make him do it, he's a stubborn pill. Then, he'll be fine. He knows me well enough now to know that when I get on, it's me- and he has to work. He's so weird! ;)
My first thought was the pony was having physical issues, but if you have ruled those out, I would gander that he's just testing new riders or has learned "short-cuts" and bad behaviors from riders that weren't confident. For example, after his bucking to-do, those girls should have pushed him into a fast-paced trot and trotted, trotted, trotted circles until that pony couldn't trot no more. What they probably did was back off and give him a break, for fear of him bucking again. What I think we inadvertently do is reward the bad behavior. The pony figures out "hmmm...if I buck, I get less work." If I was afraid of a bucking horse, I'd hop off, slap on the halter and longe line and make them work that way, I'd feel safer, but man, they are not getting put up after being naughty- they are working their hineys off! That is just my thought. Good luck!
What a cute pony, though!

Grey Horse Matters said...

I think Prince Charming is just having some fun testing the new girls. He has a connection with your daughter and you and may not like others riding him.
Ponies are just too smart for their own good.

RuckusButt said...

I'm not sure about the fundamental character of the horse, I tend to think that is relatively stable. But I DO think behaviour is highly dependent on the context.

When I first started my lease in Oct, I honestly didn't really like the horse. I saw his potential and how much I could learn but I didn't LIKE him much. He was pushy, mouthy, and wouldn't stand still on the cross ties. When leading him into his stall, he dragged me in because he wanted his grain. He wasn't really mean, he just really paid no attention to me unless it suited him.

The first few weeks I had to establish my boundaries. He got backed out of the stall if he pulled at all. I repeated this until he stood patiently for me to remove his halter. I stopped feeding any treats and he got big reactions any time he failed to pay attention to where I was in relation to him.

Now, he respects where I am so I don't get bowled over anymore. He doesn't try and mug me for treats as often (still working on his oral fixation!). He stands still.

I now like being around him. It helps that I don't get inadvertently hurt anymore when he turns his head too quick, lol. I can appreciate his personality quirks because he now displays them within what he has learned is acceptable to me.

All that is to say I think a horse's "personality" looks a lot different before and after they accept your leadership. Like stilllearning said, Charlie's issues sound like he's testing.

Perhaps his new young riders need some coaching in terms of how to gain respect from the horse in a kind but firm manner? The riding skill level is a good point too but I think he should still behave unless he's in pain, which he isn't.

Anonymous said...

Hi, your pony looks and sounds so much like mine it makes me laugh! He is a Welsh-Arab and definitely knows his own mind. He can be sweet or naughty at a moment's notice. Your pony has a bond with your daughter, it wouldn't occur to him to misbehave. That is his character - with her. With another rider who does things differently, is perhaps not so confident, he will express an opinion. That is his character - with that rider. Ponies are clever that way. That's why I love them!!


trudi said...

mmm, good post and now I have to visit another blog too and so even less time in my day for housework.

I don't have time for lots of words but I think essentially equines have a personality part hard wired from birth, part nurtured from other equines (mum, field buddies) when they are young but I also think that their personality can change because of the human in their lives.
My guess is the pony is telling you something but not the whole story yet...

TCavanaugh said...

I think Prince Charming is still charming. He was just checking his ranking in the herd (people and all). I am certain after a few Alfa reminders from you he will continue his charming ways. :)

HorseOfCourse said...

Thanks for your comments all!

Ice Pony Girl - thank you!

stillearning/Kate -The equipment was exactly the same.
Both girls are quiet, skilled riders - there is nothing in the riding that should cause any objections from Charlie.
C had been riding him for a year, twice a week, before the problems started.
My guess is that after the first event C perhaps got a seed of insecurity, and Charlie got a whiff of extra entertainment, and it developed from there.
After Xmas I have had two other adult, experienced riders helping me out with Charlie as my daughter has been sick.
Not a sign of trouble.
The only thing I can think about re. M was that she was positioned slightly in front of the vertical. Maybe that was enough to check her out, sly thing.

Pony Girl/GHM - I do not know whether he got any unintended reward of his bad behaviour the times when I wasn't present, but on Thursday he did not. My honest opinion is that he is just looking for some extra fun on the rider's expense, checking the limits. Sly thing.

RB/Trudi - maybe I was using the wrong terms, not being English.
I agree with you that the personality of the horse stays fundamentally the same, but that the behaviour and the reactions may differ.
And that is why it is so difficult to sell (or buy) a horse.
A horse that is behaving well with you, might act up and misbehave with a new owner.
You never know.
And being on the other side - you never know when you are to buy either.
I find that espescially tricky when it comes to buying ponies to (smaller) children. If you have a pony that has been working well with an older, more experienced child, you often have the risk that they start checking things out with a younger, less experienced child. And children get scared so easily.
Finding well behaved, smaller ponies with a good temperament can be VERY difficult!

Virginia/TCavanaugh - yes, I believe he is pony smart, and checking out the limits...

Siri said...

I don't know where he started bucking with the new girl, but when I trained him yesterday he seemed to be scared in the corner between C and M. If I'm not mistaken, it's the same place where Licero and Fame also got easily spooked? He didn't do anything, except for loosing concentration, but he might have with a less experienced rider.

HorseOfCourse said...

Haha, Fame and Zan-Day spooked because they mistook a horse for a moose the other day.
(But then again, they don't need much of an excuse, neither of them...)

I rode Charlie in the arena Sunday.
No spooky corners at all.
And then he had had two days off since everyone was ill, and I rode him bareback.
So if ever he should have played up, that would have been the time, lol!
If I remember right, he started in the middle of the arena with M.

Shorty said...

Ah, you gave me a hint - "M was positioned slightly in front of the vertical". Your daughter is a lovely rider, she has good balance and a soft connection. Charlie is clearly a sensitive pony, and any deviation from that riding style could make him react.

I ride my husband's pony as well as mine, and I have to be very careful to stay centered because he will buck if I am too forward.


Anne i Hannover said...

I'll second Rucusbutt's comment - I also think that the character of a horse is pretty consistent, but that the behaviour is highly dependent on the situation or rider.

Of course a horse doesn't always respond in the same way, but the probability of say, a "naughty" response, is higher with a certain character.

For example, I was bucked of a young horse last week. He's a naughty kind of horse, that's his character, but he obviously chose to take it out on me and not the owner (who is more confident and a better rider).

Regarding Charlie, he really is a sweet, lovely pony, but I also remember that, as an example, one time I corrected him in his box (he wanted to push me away so that he could eat his food right away as we came in from a lesson) and instead of backing off, he got somewhat "gruff". Again, I don't want to hurt Charlies reputation ;) but I, like you, think he sees, or feels, an opportunity and grabs it!

Shanster said...

What a fun post! I love Charlie - what a beauty! Very interesting... been dealing with a naughty horse issue myself from a younger gelding I brought home from the race track. He was going along well and then decided to test and I failed the test!

I'm studying and hope to pass the next test...

I think new horses are a bit like boyfriends or marriage... you don't REALLY know what you are getting until you've been involved for awhile. :)

stilllearning said...

Charlie sounds like quite a character! Wish I could meet him in person.

RuckusButt said...

Lol, Shanster! I think that sums up one of HoC's points well. It is a good thing to date for a long time!

I hadn't really thought about personality/behaviour with respect to buying/selling in quite this way before. As one who hopes to buy a horse in the next couple years, I am concerned about how to make a good decision if it's not a horse you already know.

Reading your follow-up I'd agree he is being sly and testing out what pony mischief he can get away with.

stilllearning said...

"My guess is that after the first event C perhaps got a seed of insecurity, and Charlie got a whiff of extra entertainment, and it developed from there."

This sounds right.

Besides riding skills, I think horses will take advantage of riders with even slightly timid personalities. And once they discover this new fun game it can quickly become a very bad habit.

Glad that you were able to show Charlie it wasn't such a good idea.

trudi said...

HofC your command of the English language is better than most of us for whom it is our mother tongue!!

I wasn't really disagreeing that horses may have different reactions with different riders, it is very true and very often down to communication (which covers how we handle them from the ground, how we use our weight when riding, how we 'feel' the mouth through the rein.....and so forth). After bad/different reactions happen frequently then yes the pony will become habituated,in fact with equines it can only take once for it to be ingrained in it's mind.

Lots more to say (noooo they scream) but I have to go and work mine, until later then :-)

HorseOfCourse said...

Thanks for your comments all!

Virginia - it wasn't much, but maybe that was the reason for testing M and not the other two riders? NO excuse mind!

Anne - good point.
From time to time I have to remind him who's the boss, but it kind of goes automatically, and I don't think about it.
But if he is testing and is not corrected, he might get bad ideas. I will spend some extra time with M next time she is at the stable to make sure Charlie behaves.

Shanster - LOL, that was a very good description!!

stillearning - I think you are on to something there. Both girls are of the sweet, kind and quiet type. The type that many horses love. But some horses, like Charlie, might use it to check things out.

RB- it's a great advantage if it is a horse you know, or can lend/lease (trial marriage, lol!)
You know, trying a horse is a bit like meeting a person for the first time. It can be decieveing...

Trudi - shoot, man, shoot!

trudi said...

mmm, I may get shot, hehe!!

I'm not going to say too much except to mention that it's a natural instinct for a horse to avoid work, save his energy for better things (like avoiding predators) it's one of the hard wired things isn't it?
So what we're saying is that Charlie sees an opportunity and takes it. My question though is, what does he think (remember he's not a human) that rodeoing will achieve? I'm not sure I believe that he associates messing about with upsetting the human on his back. I still say he's trying to tell you something...

...OK I'm running for cover.

HorseOfCourse said...

Trudi - another valid point, no need to run.

But horses do use energy unnecessary, don't they?
In addition to the instinct of preservation of enery, they also have a large need to move.
We have a variation here of course - some horses are lazier than others - but in general, they love to move.

If you let a group of horses out in a field, what do they do?
They run.
And after a while, they play.
Nothing of this is necessary, but they love it.

Over to Charlie.
He has after summer pasture been let out for himself, as he litteraly was eating Fame.
He is a bossy horse.
As he is out by himself, he is probably moving around less than he would if he had someone to play with.
I do not like him being by himself, but the other alternative was having serious injuries, so that's the compromise.

So what we have is a bossy horse, that has no-one to boss around, when he is out.

Might be other factors too, but then please tell me what's on your mind. You know I love a good discussion, Trudi!

trudi said...

I don't have anything on my mind but I'm sue Charlie has.

Agreed that horses, youngsters particularly, can play and buck and fart in the field but I don't think you can confuse that with a horse rodeoing under saddle. Yes I guess excess energy is a big possibility but I just can't sign up to the bossy horse has no one to boss in his field so he picks on the weakest human he can find theory.
I would be more convinced that there is some communication problem but without knowing him or the riders then it's impossible for me to even guess.

I'm not debating for the sake of debate but because I've learned over the last ten years that anthropomorphism gets between us and understanding.

Kate said earlier...
The pony may have been saying that he didn't like something the other girls were doing - they may have been using their hands, seats or legs in a way that was unfamiliar to him or that even was uncomfortable.

....I think Kate may have something there.

Like I said though, he has to tell you and you have to listen.

Thoroughly interesting debate!

Anne i Hannover said...

I also find this a very interesting debate! Sometimes I find it hard to try to explain (to myself) why horses act like they do without humanizing too much.

Regarding Charlie, maybe it's a combination of excess energy and communicationtrouble?
After having read this post I went to the stable yesterday and rode a stallion who has had a few days off (unfortunately, here that often means that they stay inside, especially the stallions).
Of course he was very motivated to move;) But he even reacted a lot sharper whenever I made a mistake, or put my weight slightly wrong.
((even with rodeotendecies, but this time I stayed on - there's no motivator like a german bereiter screaming: "Don't you dare fall off!":o ))

In my experience,the horses also have a lot more energy/need to move during the winter than the hot summer.

So to sum up (it always ends up as a much longer post than intended...): Excess energy+somewhat unexperienced rider=buck buck Charlie?

Seeing as how he's usually so willing to work, I'm leaning more towards "opportunity" than any underlying cause.

How has he been the last couple of days?

HorseOfCourse said...

Trudi - I think I need another post, lol! We need to continue this. But there was nothing in the rider's behaviour on Thursday that should cause such a reaction. Really.

Anne - he has been Mr. Nice Guy since, even with M, for which I am grateful.

mugwump said...

Here I am, late in the conversation....but I think every horse, no matter who or hat will test out a new rider/handler.
It's the nature of the beast.
He's going to try for control every time.
It isn't badness, it's just how a horse works.