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Horse has no personality

From: Debra

Dear Jessica, this is a hard letter for me to write because I am so afraid that you will tell me I shouldn't even own a horse. Please call me "Debra" in this letter so that my teacher won't recognize that it's me writing. I am worried about whether you think I am a good horse owner because I'm wondering about that question myself right now.

I am 37 years old and have loved horses ever since I can remember, but all of my "experience" has been a week at camp when I was ten and a few trail rides on rental horses since then. I don't really know how to explain this, but although I have had a couple chances to lease horses, I didn't want to be dealing with a horse unless it was my own horse. My daughter has just gotten married and now I have time to ride. I am taking lessons and my teacher found me a horse a month ago, he is a retired (just before I bought him) show horse that is very pretty and eight years old and has always been a show horse (Western) since he was a baby. So I should be really thrilled now because I finally have what I have always wanted, right?

Here's the problem, I have always dreamed about how my horse and I would get along and understand each other and be friends, not just owner and horse. I have read stories and seen pictures of horses that play with their owners and things like that. I don't believe that my horse even understands that he belongs to me. He has no personality at all, he just does what you want him to do and the rest of the time he just stands there. He is not responsive. I tried to feed him treats but he doesn't seem to care very much about those either. My teacher can't understand why I'm not happy now, she thinks this is a "perfect horse". Maybe I am too idealistic or maybe I waited too long to get a horse, but I am sad and disappointed that I own a horse with no personality. I don't think there is anything wrong with me, so I really think it's just that this horse has something wrong with him. His health is good but it's like he is just "not there" emotionally, he isn't showing any signs of a connection to me.

I tried to talk to my teacher about selling him and buying a different horse, but she didn't want to discuss it. She is getting very impatient with me, but I think that is because she "does" horses for a living so isn't sentimental about them and doesn't care if they have any personality. But I do care. Can you help me with some ideas of how I can get this horse to have a personality, would a round pen help? Or if that isn't possible, how I can sell him and buy a friendlier horse without making my teacher upset? I hope you answer this. Your fan, Debra

Hi Debra! Relax, I'm not going to tell you that you shouldn't have a horse. What I am going to tell you is that I think you need to give your horse a chance.

Don't be in such a hurry to sell this horse and buy another one. Your instructor, whom you should trust (and if you don't, why on earth is she your instructor?), found you this horse and thinks he is ideal for you. He's attractive and healthy and capable of doing the things that you want him to do... the only problem is that he's not behaving like your personal pal - or puppy.

That is NORMAL, for many reasons. Let's start with his background. He's been a show horse forever, and retired just in time to be purchased by you. That means he's probably spent most of his life in a stall, whenever he wasn't actually in the show ring, or in a trailer going to or coming back from a show. His training sessions probably consisted of fifteen or twenty minutes a day, possibly not even every day. He's been handled by the vet and the farrier, and by the trainer and anyone else who rode him in the shows, and that's it. That's not a lot of interaction with humans, and ALL of the interaction was, in effect, business.

There's a very good chance that what you have here is a nice horse that is simply unaware that you want to talk to him and interact with him and be his buddy - because that hasn't been part of his life up to now, and isn't part of his expectations. Horses are naturally gregarious, social creatures, but ones that have been brought up under such conditions sometimes do appear rather blank and lacking in personality. They know how to do what they've done before and what they've been taught to do, but they don't know how to be friendly and "talk" to people because nobody has ever talked to them.

Right, that's one issue. Another one is your own expectations, which are not very realistic. No, your horse probably has no idea that you own him - that's not a concept that horses understand. He also doesn't know that you want him to be your buddy - horses DO understand being buddies with other horses, with cats and dogs, and with humans, but it's not something they'll do automatically. Nor will they do it instantly - if it's going to happen, it will happen over time, as a result of YOUR kind handling and nice treatment of the horse.

I've always said that people can expect their horses to respond more like dogs when they start treating them more like dogs - that is to say, when they begin keeping their horses in their houses, petting them and talking to them all day long, taking them for long walks, and generally interacting happily with them and providing a stimulating environment for them. Dogs will give their affection much more quickly and easily, but a dog that shares your home and your life is going to interact with you much more, and on a much higher and more complex level, than a dog that lives in a kennel and is taken out once a day to interact with you for half an hour of training. Your horse has spent most of his life in a small kennel - like a dog kept in a crate - and hasn't had the chance to get to know ONE person and understand ONE person and interact with ONE person in a pleasant, friendly, consistent way. You're in a position to give your horse a chance to do just that. I'm not suggesting that you move him into your spare bedroom (you DID say your daughter has moved out, though....), but try spending time with him. Not just riding time, but quality time by horse standards. Take him out on a leadrope and hand-graze him for an hour or so every day. Take him for walks - like a dog - and talk to him.

If you're willing to spend the time and talk to your horse, be nice to your horse, interact with your horse, and continue to do this over a period of weeks and months, I think your assessment of his personality will change. If you're always there, active and interested and friendly, and he learns to associate your presence with nice things, he'll probably come around in time. He's used to people grooming him and riding him and putting him back in his crate - sorry, stall - so give him something that he hasn't had before: a human friend. And as your mother no doubt told you when you were small, the best way to have a friend is to BE a friend. Don't expect your new horse to become your best pal overnight - it isn't going to happen, and it doesn't mean that there's anything wrong with the horse or anything wrong with you. You need to let the horse get to know you, and you need to handle it in a way that lets it understand that you mean well and are friendly. This takes time. Give it a few months - at least - and see what happens.

One more thing: I don't think that your instructor has lower standards than you do, I think she just knows more about horses and horse-human partnerships. Those partnerships can't be rushed, and they can't be bought - a human can spend a huge amount of money to purchase a fancy horse with all its accessories, but even that human's name is on the papers, the halter with the nameplate, the saddle and bridle and tack trunk and all the gear, the horse's interest and respect and affection aren't part of the package. You can't buy those things, you have to earn them, slowly, consistently, over time. The good news is that the process is enjoyable and the results are worth the effort - and if you're a real horse-lover, the effort won't feel like an effort at all.

Give your horse a chance to connect with you, give yourself a chance to understand your horse, and give your instructor the benefit of the doubt. There's a big difference between being sentimental over horses and actually loving them - love is a verb, and an active one at that. It isn't just a way you feel, it's a way you behave. ;-) Show your horse that you enjoy his company and that he can relax and enjoy yours, and after a few months, you may be surprised at how much personality you see.


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