My first pony Scooby and I had the kind of bond that I had always dreamt of when I was a little horsey girl. We trusted each other and knew exactly what the other was thinking. We were both very young – children on the verge of becoming teenagers – when we first met so naturally we grew up together.
There was, however, one factor that significantly changed our relationship for the better: It was the moment when I started asking “why?” instead of “how?”.
I have had a variety of riding instructors throughout my life and they all showed me how to get my horse to do certain things and provided me with a wonderful set of problem-solving tools. I still use these tools every day that I spend with a horse and I am incredibly grateful for them. However, Scooby’s and mine relationship grew when I started questioning why he did the things that he did (or didn’t do) first before asking “how?”.
Pat and Linda Parelli have developed a concept that has significantly pushed me towards a “why?”-thinking approach. They differentiate between different horsenalities (horse personalities). Depending on your horse’s horsenality, your horse will be more likely to react and respond to certain cues than to others.
A chart is included in the official training resources available for purchase but if you only want to have a quick look, an online image search will be your friend. Four quadrants represent four different horsenalities: left-brain extrovert, right-brain extrovert, right-brain introvert or left-brain introvert. Over the years the Parellis have identified characteristics that are most likely to correspond with this or that horsenality. By judging how strongly these characteristics are present in your own horse you can easily establish its horsenality.
Of course, these categories are not mutually exclusive and they are fluid over time. If you work your horse, its horsenality is bound to change one way or another. However, after classifying your horse according to certain behaviours and characteristics, it will become easier to understand why it reacts in certain ways. For example, right-brain horses tend to kick out of sheer fear, while left-brain horses are more likely to kick out of defiance.
Knowing whether your horse is a left brain or right brain should determine your next steps. Before I started thinking about this, I probably would have punished my horse and that’s it. Unfortunately, punishment won’t benefit either party. The best possible outcome it is a short-term solution; in a worst-case scenario the handler will be kicked again.
However, if I know why my horse kicked, I can be prepared and I can work on the problem. Only after I have asked “why?”, can I start wondering about how to solve the issue.
Much has been written about horsenality in the past and it is always best to check out the original resource, so the following explanation will be kept short and sweet.
In a nutshell, left-brain extroverts are curious and playful. They hate repetition and excel when given space or praise. The challenge is keeping them interested and chanelling their playfulness into desirable reactions.
Right-brain extroverts also prefer having their own space but for different reasons: if you hold this type of horse back, it will increase its fear. A right-brain extrovert lacks confidence, so they need your reassurance. In this case repeating patterns that involve circles and figures.
This lack of confidence is shared by right-brain introverts but to make matters worse they are also shy. They need you to be a consistent leader that they can trust. More importantly they require time and a soft voice when asking them to do something. They are gentle souls needing to take baby steps.
Left-brain introverts are gentle souls, too, but their quietness is often misunderstood as laziness. Personally, I find this type of horsenality to be the most interesting but equally challenging to work with. They require their human to think outside of the box and constantly find new ways of motivating them. Cue: directly asking them to do something usually never works! These horses are clever and need variety in their everyday lives but at the same time it is necessary to ask them to take small steps.
Some things come so easily to our young mare. She is fearless and bold and yet polite towards humans and most other horses. She understood to yield from pressure on the head collar very quickly, was never bolshie to lead and usually backs up at a wave of a finger and body language. Other things are more difficult for her to learn, for example giving hoof. Or anything that involves forward motion faster than a walk.
You may have guessed it at this point already: Vanity is a left-brain introvert. With a bit of practice it is often possible to quickly spot a certain horsenality. For example, I already had a hunch she would be all of the above things, when I first saw her munching on hay in a muddy field with her half-sisters. Most of the horses in the herd had received minimal handling in their early lives and knew humans as those odd-looking two-legged creatures that occasionally bring feed. While her sister was nibbling on my shoes, hair, clothes and kept vying for attention (clearly a left-brain extrovert), Vanity was not timid but still preferred to eye the whole scenario from a distance. She let us touch her but was apprehensive and going too far was met with a light kick of the air – out of defiance, not fear.
That was the moment in which I decided to buy her. I saw Vanity as the ideal scenario for my boyfriend and myself. I enjoy the challenge - that is in those moments when she doesn’t infuriate me… My boyfriend, on the other hand, is still very new to horses. He naturally can’t judge situations quite as quickly yet. I knew that a left-brain would be better suited to him at this stage than a horse that first and foremost listens to its flight instinct. He is, however, great at encouraging Vanity and giving her the motivation that she needs: endless love and scratches, making her feel like she is the most special little pony in the world.
Being a left-brain introvert means that Vanity is an expert at knowing what I want and not doing it. My challenge lies in getting rid of those resistant thoughts when working with her. There are two key ways to get Vanity to do what you want: You either need to show her what is in it for her – but you better be convincing in your argument! Or, you need to let her believe it was in fact her idea in the first place and reward this behaviour accordingly.
Vanity is of course not the first left-brain introvert that I have met in my life. Before I asked that important question – why? - I often misunderstood these horses – and it is the easy thing to do. Take the lazy fat pony, for example – it is such a stereotype. It is not lazy though - while you were not watching, it has actually galloped all over the field playing with its friends yesterday. It just doesn’t understand why it should move right now.
Learning to ask “why?” was not a simple process but a learning curve – one that I have most certainly not finished yet. Horsenality is one tool that helps and I will certainly explore others in future posts. Once you have started asking “why?” before you ask “how?”, you are on the right track though. I don’t see training horses as a pure matter of stimulus-response (or pressure-release) anymore. It’s so much more complex and beautiful than that.
What horsenality does your horse correspond to and what are your challenges? Please leave a comment!