Sunday, April 4, 2010

Personality, Communication and Learning in Horses – An Overview for Leadership



Equine society has developed a culture that is over 400,000 years old (Edwards, 1991). Horse culture has valuable wisdom in the art of leadership, and should be studied with an equal amount of attention for an accurate view of how to function as an effective leader. This is especially true of women leaders because in horse society the leader is almost always a female. Horses are herd animals, and the ultimate authority in herds, large and small is, under natural conditions, a lead mare. She assumes responsibility for the welfare of the other horses, as well as creating structure for her herd mates. Within horse society mares lead with the confidence of natural leaders (Harris, 2009). In my own experience this is true. A mare takes control of a band of horses even though, in a domestic situation, horses are forced together, and they have to make adjustments. These adjustments may take time, as the female comes into her role as a leader. Originally, within our own herd of horses, Jodee was the leader. She was wise. In our miniature horse herd, Magic Mirasol (Miri) took the authority. She was young and shy around her human handlers, but she exuded the aura of authority of a lead mare, and she assumed those responsibilities within her own species as a youngster, and she continued to be the herd leader even when her health began to fail in old age. Dolly, a Percheron mare, became the lead mare of her little herd when Jodee passed away. Her attitude was matter-of-fact, as if she had been studying diligently for her positions as lead mare. Cactus, an Exmoor Pony, eventually worked her way into the job of lead mare long after Miri had died. Cactus seemed to be practicing her craft for years before the rest of the animals allowed her to assume her position. She, unlike the other mares I have observed, had to prove herself worthy before she was granted her place as the leader. Human females need to study, learn and realize that their role as a leader can be a natural, legitimate use of female power, and the ways that they come into power can be as varied as any mare in a herd of horses. She may find herself suddenly the leader, or she may have to work her way in the position with time and growing experience.

Personality styles

Horses present us with a model for comprehending personality. Each horse is as individual as each human. Although a horse cannot be administered a written test to determine their personality, they do carry personality indicators on their bodies, especially their faces. Linda Tellington-Jones (1995) has made a detailed study of these personality indicators. The profile of the horse holds insight into whether the animal is uncomplicated, sensitive, confident or possessed of a mercurial personality. The jowls, head bumps and bulges, muzzle, mouth, lips, nostrils, chin, eyes, ears and facial swirls all present markers to analyze in understanding the characteristics of each horse. Body conformation also plays a part in interpreting the animal’s personality. These indicators, when blended, can seem contradictory, and no one element of the personality trait can be taken alone. People can require a life-time of study to “read” a horse’s personality, but equines understand each other quickly and accurately. They allow for the different personalities of their companions, and they quickly adjust their social structure. The mares who lead each herd are adept at interpreting the facial expressions of their followers, and each of her herd mates becomes quick to interpret her facial expressions. A mare leader has only to turn her head in the direction of a herd follower, and they will immediately comply with her wishes. At feeding time, Cactus has only to approach another horse, and the others will politely step aside. Being a lead mare has privileges and advantages as well as responsibilities. Human leaders can learn from these equines skills. The ability to understand another person through their facial and body language helps any leader to allow for the different personalities within their team.

Learning styles

Horses use precisely the same four learning styles as humans - kinesthetic, audio, visual, and tactile (Tellington-Jones, 2006). More of them tend to be kinesthetic because motion is a survival trait for a prey animal who has to depend on the ability to get away from predators. Within their own culture they have a stronger sense of proprioception and spatial awareness than humans. Auditory learning is more a type of toning than linguistics. Sharp sounds frighten the animal throwing them into a flight mode, but soothing sounds relax horses. Human leaders need to learn that their tone must match their words, and that a calm voice can teach better than an angry, sharp and bitter tone. Visual learning happens often in the horse world. They learn by watching each other, especially the lead mare, and a horse will learn a new task far more readily watching other horses, even strangers. When I am teaching a new skill to a horse, I try to have an experienced animal, especially a trained leader, show them what I want. Miri, an accomplished carriage pony, was especially helpful when I wanted to train another pony to pull a cart. She seemed to do as much of the teaching as I. Tactile learning occurs when horses are touched, either by a human or another horse. Far more than humans realize, horses with dominant tactile abilities will explore each other and new objects with their bodies, especially their lips, as a substitute for hands. Like humans, some horses are more dexterous than others, and these animals, will become adept at manipulating locks, knots and latches. Jodee was adept at opening gates, and she appeared to be trying to pass this skill on to her offspring. Around Jodee, latches had to be locked, tied and bolted. Even then, given a boring winter night, I might find her outside her quarters the next morning. Fortunately, she did not feel the urge to lead her little band very far from home. Horses teach one more important lesson that is transferable to the human world. They need time to learn, and to absorb a new skill, no matter their learning style. Often a horse will have to ruminate over a new task and skill. They will come back to the new skill a day later, and have the task mastered. They have been mulling over the situation and reached an understanding (Tellington-Jones, 2006, Chap. 3). A horse can be stymied by a new task. Why are you telling me to move, yet stopping me from going forward? Two days later, they get the same cue, and move back. They are obviously thinking, “I figured it out. This is what you want.” Human leaders can recognize the different learning styles of a horse, including the need to consider a task, and transfer that knowledge to human followers.

Communication styles

Although horses do use some vocal communication, they are masters of body language communication. Like humans they use facial expressions, as noted in personality style. To communicate, though, they add an extra dimension. Smell and taste (used with touching), are far more important in exchanging information for horses, than for humans (Edwards, 1991). One other method of horse communication needs to be discussed. Horses seem to have a mind-to-mind system of communication. Any closely bonded herd of horses has the ability to behave like a flock of birds, suddenly running in fright, or in play, in perfect unison. The Exmoor Ponies are masters of this method of moving, and acting in unison. Further, many horse people have experienced an unexplained connection with their horse. Some study has been done on the subject. Anna Wise of the Boulder Institute of biofeedback working with a “Mind Mirror” (an altered EEG) developed by biophysicist Maxwell Cade; measured beta, alpha, theta and delta brain waves (Tellington-Jones, 2003). We do know that horses’ brain waves are altered, especially when they are touched, and some sort of neurological communication occurs. For a leader of horses, this knowledge would indicate that intuition may be part of communication. Certainly many human leaders have developed a strong sense of intuition in understanding other people. This is a talent worth developing.

Assessments of styles of personality, communication and learning

Human methods of communication can be different from one day to another depending on the need, although one style will be more prevalent. Even non-verbal communication can vary, but it will be accurate for that moment. Horses’ methods of communication also change; however, horses are invariably honest in their communication. That is a constant. Over the years I have “heard” my horses without my ears. Is this imagination, or a real connection? By whatever method, we need to listen to prevent errors in communication, and I do pay careful attention to these thought communications. The ability has saved me from dangerous situations (e.g. there is a cougar in the upper pasture), and helped me to diagnose equine ailments. Further, a horse’s social nature is dominant, and probably I have been influenced by my association with the animals for over 55 years. I, too, am a social animal. Horses do set an admirable example for any leader.

Final thoughts

Based on different situations, horses relinquish leadership to the horse with the most experience (Kohanov, 2001). They do this naturally, without fuss or loss of ego. It is a lesson for all of us. Equines offer one more lesson; leadership for horses is a responsibility they accept with grace. Each leader varies in her style because no one horse is the same. She will have a different personality, communication and learning style from another mare but she will exude an aura of enjoying her position. Leadership is satisfying, and it can even be fun.


With special thanks to the lead mares in my life who have mentored me in the art of leadership. I list a select few of the many skills, traits and examples that they have modeled.

April Star Jodee (Quarter Horse)

· Kindness, caring, and a strong maternal instinct are valuable leadership qualities

· Discipline when necessary, but always be fair

· Forgiveness must be total and immediate

· Wisdom should be shared, and all followers should empowered

Magic Mirasol (Miniature Horse – class B)

· A diminutive physical size should never be considered a handicap

· Ill health is not an excuse for stepping away from responsibility

· Learn new skills

· Enjoy each day, and help others to enjoy that day with you.

Dolly (Percheron)

· Demand respect

· Expect loyalty

· Remain dependable, and be trustworthy with all   followers

· Tolerate and encourage diversity within the group

Claret Cup Cactus (Exmoor Pony)

· Leadership can be calming for a high-strung, neurotic personality

· Enjoy power, but never abuse it.

· Learn trust

· Practice leadership to become a leader


Edwards, E. H. (1991). The ultimate horse book. (1st American ed.) New York, NY: Dorling Kindersley, Inc.

Harris, D. (2009). The alpha mare: Women & power. University of Notre Dame. Retrieved from

Kohanov, L. (2001). The Tao of equus: A woman’s journey of healing & transformation through the way of the horse. Novato, CA: New World Library.

Tellington-Jones, L. (2003, January - March). From Linda’s Desk. TTEAM Connections.(pp. 1-3).

Tellington-Jones, L. (1995). Getting in TTouch: Understand and influence your horse’s personality. North Pomfret, VT: Trafalgar Square Publishing.

Tellington-Jones, L. (2006). The ultimate horse behavior and training book. North Pomfret, VT: Trafalgar Square Publishing.

1 comment:

  1. What people with horses often fail to recognize is that in traditional training as well as the newer "natural horsemanship" a horse still perceives the presence of a predator. Fear factors are used to coerce performance from a horse, but recreational riders have an opportunity to reduce the fear factors and experience a unique relationship with a horse. Eliminating the use of lunge lines or round pens where horses are compelled to move in mindless circles and see themselves as in the presence of a predator chasing them, as well as eliminating the use of such fear factors as bits or spurs can bring about the beginning of communication with a horse in a more benign way. Relating to a horse as if the human is the alpha mare member of his herd is possible by using sounds (words) and teaching the horse the meaning of these sounds, while commanding the respect a horse has for the alpha mare by the kind of reprimands used by an alpha mare. This kind of communication is described in Basic Training for a Safe Trail Horse, which is a small paperback narrative available on