A Journey Out of Fear

Horse Personalities: The Fearful Horse

Renee Swanepoel NDip Equine Studies, SANEF Level 1


Human personalities are a well-researched and well-known fact. We are all born with our own distinct personality and as we grow our environment causes us to react and respond to life in a way that reflects back to that personality.  Horses are very much the same and there are distinct personality types that can be observed with horses and how they react to their environment. The way in which a horse interacts with us and responds to his training can be a direct result of his personality and when working with any horse it can be valuable to first determine what that personality may be as a predicting factor in how he must be handled and worked and what can be expected along the way. It is also worth knowing your own personality type since that will also have a huge impact on the way you relate to your horse and his training.


I have had exposure to many types of personality when it comes to horses and the most common ones would certainly be the more extrovert type, the pleasers and the stubborn personalities. They fit my own personality well as does mine the discipline of Dressage which I love. Before this little stallion came into my life I had not had too much exposure to the fearful horse and had never had to reckon with raw fear as an obstacle to physical and mental training. Before we look at the fearful horse in detail, let us take a broad look at some of the theories of both human and horse personality.


There are a number of different opinions about the way in which horse and human personalities can be described. J. Warren Evans writes in his textbook, Horses: A Guide to Selection, Care and Employment, that there are six basic temperament types. He defines them as quiet, interested, nervous, extremely nervous, stubborn and treacherous. Yvonne Barteau, writing in the popular Dressage magazine, Dressage Today, lists the kinds of personality as four basic, clearly discernable personality groupings, which she lists as social, fearful, aloof and challenging. Britta Schoffmann, in her book, Dressage Training Customized, discusses 6 natural personality types when relating to training, as well as three “rider made” types of horse where training and the act of nurture over nature has had an influence on the horse’s reactions to his environment and training in terms of his personality.


 She lists the types of horse as follows:


·        The Overreactive Horse

·        The Slow, Stolid  Horse

·        The Hot horse

·        The Prankster

·        The Overachiever

·        The Sensitive Horse


She then lists the rider made types as:


·        The Fearful Horse

·        The Lazy Horse

·        The Resistant Horse


The young horse is mentioned as a special case on its own.


I particularly enjoy Britta’s views and descriptions of the personality types and would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in making sure that they are taking the horse’s personality and conformation into account when tailoring a training program.


Let us take a look at the information we have at hand about the fearful horse.


Britta categorises the fearful horse into two types – those that are born fearful, and those that are made fearful by poor interaction with humans. Horses are prey animals, so fear is part of their inherent nature, although years of selective breeding have lessened the need for flight. When a horse that has a natural tendency is bullied or that fear is reinforced by human handlers, it can spiral completely out of control. The most noticeable thing about these horses is that they lack self-confidence. When training and interacting with this type of horse, it is the first thing you should notice. They will never suppose that they can do anything and if they can be coaxed to try anything, their initial response is “oh dear, was that wrong, oh no, please don’t punish me!” before they have even given you a chance to say, well done! When they do make a mistake they will often retreat mentally and will not try again or be persuaded that it is ok to make a mistake. The sad fact with these horses is that many of them are really very talented individuals who could go far under the right circumstances but are often hastily passed along in a competitive situation simply because in the competition world, time equals money and there is no time to be spent coaxing a fearful horse out of his behaviour and instilling confidence. Patience is the number one key when working with these horses because training is a slow and painstaking process, but the end result will always be well worth the struggle. These horses will often have ‘triggers’ that will cause the horse to retreat into the panic, fearful state and part of the training is to introduce the horse sympathetically and careful to the triggers and try to lessen the fear response. The fear response will show in two different ways, I have found. The horse will either have an immediate outward response that will be sudden, violent and he will go into flight mode at once; or; he will go into an inward flight mode – when riding you will notice that suddenly the horse is not ’with you’ anymore and after a while suddenly “explodes” as he comes back to you. When they go into that internal fleeing mode, work is almost impossible because they will not respond to you at all and will not absorb anything you are trying to teach them. They will tend to freeze up until they cannot bear it anymore and will then only explode suddenly to escape the situation they see as threatening. They can be hard to handle from the ground and even worse to ride.


My own experience with the fearful horse began in May this year when I was introduced to LCT; a beautiful little stallion hiding away in the corner of his stable. He would not let you touch him if he could help it at all and if you had to touch him he would quite literally freeze up and cringe and as soon as he could would move away and go hide in the corner again. For two months he did not put his head over the stable door and he would not take food of any kind from a human hand. Or even a bucket in a human hand for that matter. What I did not know about him then was that he is one of the foremost breeding stallions of his breed in our country and that his children are talented Dressage and Showjumping stars. In his younger days he was one of the top in-hand show stallions in his class and in ridden classes on a good day was unbeatable. The breeding farm, in fact, via his progeny have won Stud of the Year for 2012 just a few weeks ago. This boy is talented. But ruined. He had been turned out to pasture and had not been ridden for at least 5 years prior to us working with him because he was deemed dangerous and people were of the firm opinion that a woman would never be able to handle or ride him.


The first stumbling block I faced when trying to ride him was that he would not actually let you get on him! As soon as he realised you were going to get on him, from a mounting block, leg up, or any other creative method I devised to get onto him, he would shoot forward and if you did get a foot in the stirrup, he would bunny hop off with you until you came off and then you would repeat… Once on, he would go into a tense, almost saddler like way of moving – up in front, legs pounding away and running for dear life. He had no idea of contact, no brakes and even a pat on the neck would give him such a startle that he would jump up and start to shake. He would also sweat. Boy, could he sweat. The sweat would run off him, making puddles around his feet if you stood still on concrete for long enough. Even now, I know when he is stressed about anything because he will immediately break into a terrible sweat. A crop of any kind is not an option with this horse – not when riding him or from the ground, which is complicated by the fact that because he is not working in self carriage yet, he needs to be reminded that his hind end must be quicker and to keep moving forward. The entire process of being ridden he found traumatic and at times completely unbearable.


From the ground he was never unkind or mean, just nervous and blocked off to any interaction with humans. That was an important clue for me – the absence of any mean or violent behaviour. A horse that is this fearful but does not become violent towards his human handler is a horse that can be rehabilitated. When the horse is expressing fear in a violent or dangerous way, chances of rehabilitation become much less and those kinds of horses have to be handled by professionals only. To start with, I had to get him used to me without causing too much distress so it quite literally began with me sitting in his stable reading magazines and not doing anything. The first thing you want to do with these horses is spark some kind of curiosity. Because they are so blocked off, they will not notice you or want to interact with you, but if you persist, they will come to you and show even just a tiny spark of interest and that is where your journey will begin. I believe greatly in join-up, or, lock-on as it is sometimes called, so it is something I will do right at the start of the training process. His reaction to this was very interesting because initially, he was in flight mode – wanting to escape me and not anything else. It took quite a few tries of go and come but eventually he gave the clues – mouth softening, frame softening and eventually lock on. With these guys often the clues are very subtle – if they follow you around they will do so from a slight distance and if you turn towards them again they will take off into flight mode again easily, so it is important to recognise when they are joining up as it is not often as pronounced as with other horses although it is there. If you wait for complete ‘puppy dog mode’ you may miss it and end up going on for hours!


Touch is a very important part of the healing process with any horse that is fearful and has a past. When a horse has been made fearful through touch – ie being hit, roughly handled and so forth – you will need to use touch to gain trust. This little guy would cringe when you laid a hand on him, so starting with just putting my hand on his shoulder and keeping it there for a while until I saw signs of relaxation, gentle grooming and always always touch. When riding him I will still put a hand on his shoulder or wither in front of me when I feel him tense up and just keep it there until I feel him come back to me. It has become my way of trying to prevent him from ‘disappearing’ under me when he gets worried. Never a pat, just a touch or scratch. I am by no means a new-agey, touchy feely rider or person, however I really did find this to be of great help to him in the beginning. Just the act of quiet touch at all times.


Using food as a reward and tool, which I have always used with great success proved to be a problem at first, since he would absolutely not take anything from a human hand. It presented a challenge in the beginning because there was no reward that I could employ that would help him understand he was doing a good job – a pat or rub was stressful, an enthusiastic ‘good boy’ was not something understood or liked, food was not tolerated. At first I tried to use backing off as a reward – retreat a little and back down. That was not always practical though – when lunging or riding he was too stressed to notice. I will never forget the day he took a treat from me for the first time – I will eternally be grateful to Kieffer for making their divine Apple treats, because that was the first thing he showed any interest in. Today, he will sell his soul and probably do back flips for a Kieffer cookie! He can smell then a mile away! It was a case of try and try and try. Finally, he noticed it, had a taste and for the first time his focus was on me. It was breakthrough. He now is making up for 10 years of lost treats and will eat carrots with great gusto! Anything new is still treated with suspicion, but the Kieffer treat and carrot is always a winner.


Another unusual trait with this little guy that was surprising to me was his unusual sensitivity to anything. If, for example, you change a piece of tack, let’s say using bandages one day and boots the next, he would be completely out of his comfort zone. The first thing that you notice is the sweating – then it will take a good 20 min to find his focus again. Changing arenas would do the same thing. At first I tried to keep everything simple and make no changes but as his trust grew, I made a point of changing just one thing every time – a different set of boots, a different arena, riding with music, having people stand next to the arena (his absolute fear) and so forth. We go on plenty of outrides and I let him have some choice about what he does at times – it took him a while to discover the joys of a good gallop, but now he that he has, boy oh boy!


The Dressage training is a slow process – we have had to start from scratch and drill the basics – relaxation, straightness and contact which are so vital, are things he really struggles with. He has a very difficult mouth – the scars around it tell a story as well. We have tried a few bits but he was very resistant to them all – I eventually after thought decided that what he fearful of was pressure on his tongue and so tried a Myler Comfort snaffle on him that has a greatly reduced amount of tongue pressure. This was another breakthrough in his education and he was although not perfect, much happier in that combination (we use a comfort bridle as well) and work is progressing slowly but steadily.

I introduced some jumping as well, because it was something he had never done before, as well being something that would ask him to make decisions and choices – something he has never been allowed to do. He absolutely loves it – it gives him the freedom to make his own choices (all of which have been good ones! ) and to have fun, let his hair down so to speak. We only jump very small things as I want him to keep gainaing more and more confidence and if he finds an exercise too easy, I can make it more complicated without actually having to raise fences beyond 60 or 70 cm. When outside, we jump logs and ditches and go through puddles – all targeted at trying to expand his educatina dn give him confidence.

One important thing that you should know about working with the fearful horse is that when they start to gain more confidence, they will begin to test boundries. That is also partly because the rider will tend to coddle the horse a little too. Always be firm and reasonable. Boundries are what give confidence. By feeling sorry for them and letting them test and get away with things you begin a see-saw kind of test, punish, retreat, cycle which is not productive at all. My rules apply – stand still for me to get on (that was a lot of work but now he knows!), when we work, we work, no looking for girlfriends while we work, when outside, we go as fast as I say, when I say and where I say. There is no need for beating or shouting – with him a firm no will do the trick or just positive riding and keeping his mind focussed. Because he is so scared of any crop or stick and even a baseball cap scares him, I devised a clever way of reinforcing without sending him into a fear spiral. I have taken the bottom strap of a flash noseband and have worked it through the D-Ring on my saddle. In that way it is not in my hand, he doesn’t notice it and it holds no stressor for him, but if he is in a place where he needs a bit of backup to the leg or he wants to go out the gate or anything, I just take the strap and tap him once with it, let it go and he gets the message without the need for a crop. It has worked really well as an alternative reinforcer. With this I don’t mean to say that everyone needs straps – what I do want to illustrate is that when working with any horse, you have to think outside the box and really try to understand what is going on in their heads and how you can help them. Sometimes unconventional methods can be of great value!


We still have a very long way to go and it will be years before he is truly happy in his work but the journey thus far has been fantastic and every little scrap of progress, no matter how small, is a gem that I value highly. The hot fearful horse is a huge challenge, but if you can work miracles, it will be worth every bit of hard work you put in.




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