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.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Horse Culture


An Introduction

Old Jodee loved foals. As her years advanced and her brood mare years ended, she took on the role of nanny, teacher, and comforter of the foals. When Dolly, the chestnut Percheron, had her baby, she proved to be an indifferent mother. She was young, and not ready to give up her days of being fancy free. Like a lot of first-time mothers, she did not have a firm grasp of the responsibilities of motherhood. She was available to Jewel, her filly, for meals, but she looked forward to her own play times. Jodee stepped in. The aging Quarter Horse nuzzled and encouraged the big filly. She remained by Jewel, comforting her, guiding her, disciplining her, making sure the youngster understood the nuances of growing up as a horse. She taught Jewel the rudiments of horse culture. Jodee had a role to fulfill, and like most of us her emotional well being depended on being needed. As I watched I, too, was learning along with Jewel. At the time I did not realize I was seeing one of the facets of horse culture, but the sight of the old Quarter Horse helping the young filly to grow and develop became one of the many scenes I tucked in my memory to become part of a larger picture.

Horses have culture. That culture is sophisticated and intricate, demonstrating a range of positive qualities that make it worth studying and considering. Humans have a great deal to learn from the equine species. As a species, we members of Homo sapiens tend to think of ourselves as being at the pinnacle of cultural development of all the big brain creatures on earth. Our many cultures are complicated and convoluted, with rules within rules that vary with cultures within cultures, including a multitude of sub-cultures. Horses have a more permanent culture. That is probably because, unlike human culture, their culture works for individuals in all geographic locations. We have to ask ourselves why we constantly struggle to find peace within our culture, whereas horses tend to be examples of contentment.

Although horses may provide humans with emotional therapy, it is the rare horse who requires similar help. Certainly it does happen, but almost always as a result of human intervention and blatant interference in the equine world. We do not understand this alien culture, and we can damage or destroy what keeps horses healthy. Within their own cultural structure, equines provide each other with enviable social support.

Culture has a variety of different components. Certainly within a culture attitudes and behaviors are similar. Communication is important. Values must be passed on from one generation to another, and part of those shared values is a notion of time. There must be a sense of roles, and even a concept of possessions. Arts and science must be part of a culture. Spirituality is important.

Horse culture contains each of the elements that make up the various parts of a culture. Jodee demonstrated many of the values of her culture. She is not alone.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

One Horse Open Sleigh

Anytime we get snow in our area of Washington State, it disappears within days. I have considered buying snow runners for my open horse carriages, but I have always decided the expense is not worth the short pleasure of whizzing around on the snow and ice. I have always thought it would be fun, though.

I may be the horsewoman in my family, but my non-horsey parents were the ones who had the pleasure of experiencing a sleigh. They assured me it was fun, although it could be a little hazardous. They told me that when spring arrives, the runners should be replaced with wheels.

When my parents were first married in the 1940s, my father took a teaching job in the interior of British Columbia in a small community called Trinity Valley. The area was isolated, with few roads for an automobile, and cars were limited to use for trips to the “big city”- Lumby. The school was a one room structure, and my father taught all elementary and high school grades. He and my mother lived in a cabin about a mile from the school, along a path through the woods. Everyone either walked to school, or rode a horse or pony. There was a shelter area outside the school to keep the animals. My parents had a cat and a dog, but no horses. Dad walked to school, unless one of his students picked him up in a cart or a sleigh.

Spring had arrived to the valley, and the ground, although still white with snow, had begun to sport a patchwork quilt of brown, with sprigs of green poking through. My father had finished a day of teaching, and he was offered a ride home in a sleigh. The student was an older lad, in the upper grades. Not only my father, but my mother and a friend would be passengers. My mother and her friend had been visiting another woman. They would be picked up and then my mother’s friend would be driven home before Mum and Dad stepped off at their cabin.

The four of them were bumping along at a rapid pace. Dad and his student sat in the front. They were quiet. Dad was tired, and the young man was a taciturn sort. Mum and her friend maintained a lively conversation. They giggled, and enjoyed the pace, snuggling in a blanket. They perched on a bench on the back of the sleigh. The bench was less of a true seat and more of a temporary platform for the convenience of an occasional passenger.

The path was inconsistent. The sleigh dragged and dipped as it hit the patches where snow and ice had melted. The horse kept an uneven pace as a result.

My father and his student suddenly realized that the women were quiet. They turned around. No passengers. No bench.

The driver halted his horse, and looked for a place to turn around.

Off in the distance they could see the women, or rather; they could see part of them sticking up in a snow bank. Their legs waved in the air, like reeds in a wind. As the men approached, they could hear gales of hysterical laughter.

My father made solicitous noises, trying to keep his own laughter under control as he helped my mother and her friend to their feet. The young man replaced the bench, working silently to put his sleigh in order.

As everyone settled in place for the ride home, the young man finally commented, “I guess it is too late in the season for the sleigh.”

The moral of this story is: Don’t leave the runners on too long.

I haven’t put them on at all. Could be fun, though. Sleigh

Photo from pmarkham’s Flickr.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Remembering Devon

brown2 The roadway concrete shook, rumbled and threatened to crack. Devon was coming. The engine roared like a freight train chugging around a mountain bend, rather than a horse hauling company bringing in one Exmoor Pony stallion. The gigantic truck looked like a cruise ship as it navigated the suburban streets to our farm, a lonely hold-out of pastureland, in the small city of Buckley. Neighbors pushed aside curtains to see what invaded their streets. Our generous circular driveway hardly accommodated the length of the vehicle, as it halted with the exhale of brakes.

The driver clambered down, and grinned at us, “Glad to find you. He sure is a nice little guy.” The friendly man led us around to the back of the trailer, and he guided my husband, Steve, and I up the ramp to peer in the interior of the generous stall accommodations of the trailer that was as large as many barns. Two young thoroughbreds stamped impatiently. In a corner a dark figure peered at us with huge eyes buried under a massive forelock. Again the driver said, “He sure is well mannered for a stallion.”

That would always be true.


The date was December 16th, 2003. That morning one of our beloved Miniature Horses had passed away. She had been a friend, a talented carriage pony, and she had suffered from Cushing Syndrome. In the early morning Miri gave up the fight for life. That evening Devon’s New Decade, an Exmoor Pony stallion, born in 1980, came to our farm to live with us hopefully to breed our Exmoor mares, and retire on our farm for the remainder of his life. The December day had been an emotional rollercoaster of sorrow and joy. Miri left. Devon arrived.

Steve led Devon to a back-pasture enclosure we had created for him. He pranced, but he proceeded like a gentleman. He called to the other horses, and they trumpeted their return greetings.

Our eyes saw the dark chocolate pony as perfection, but we were not alone in our judgment. When the farrier, Mark Buck, arrived to trim hooves he took a close inspection of Devon. He proclaimed, “You guys won the lottery. When you told me you were being given an Exmoor Pony stallion from someone in Canada, I held my tongue, but I admit I did not think you would get an animal this good. He will improve any mare.”

Perhaps we should have let Devon breed some of our other mares, but we held him back for our two Exmoor females. They would never get pregnant, but not for want of Devon trying. Although he had left progeny across central and eastern North America, he would have no foals on the west coast. Perhaps he was too old when he arrived. Perhaps it was our mares. They were not much younger than he.

Early on, his Canadian owner, Anne Holmes, urged me, “Don’t be afraid to put him with your Exmoor gelding. Devon will get along.

That summer we turned Devon out on a five acre pasture along with the two mares, Flax and Cactus, but also with the gelding Bramble. To our delight, after a brief altercation, the two males began to chum with each other. They would form a bond of friendship that would last.

Devon proved to be the friendliest of the Exmoor Ponies. When we tried to get promotional photos of the ponies running in their pasture, a few arm waves would set Bramble, Cactus and Flax into a mad gallop. Devon nibbled at our sleeves and tried to entice us into a few scratches. He finally obliged us with a canter, but he would return to his human handlers for attention.

Devon loved any treats, but he proved partial to the apple-oat variety. Apples were good, carrots better, but any treat would produce the plaintive stare of a golden retriever. Give Devon a treat, and he would stick like a post-it note.

I had ambitions to get Devon trained. I did not feel confident in teaching him to be a saddle horse, although I think he would have done well. With the help of one of my students, I started to teach him the rudiments of carriage driving. He proved an apt pupil, but I never finished the training. I always thought I had time to get back to working with him.

His affectionate nature went on display in 2004. We took him, along with his buddy Bramble to the Puyallup Fair to be part of the “Animals Around the World” exhibit. He proved to be a ham. He thrived on the attention, and he encouraged Bramble to be on his best behavior. I often sat with my back to Devon, and when he wanted my attention, he would lip on the back of my jacket, sometimes gently grasping the hood in his teeth to bring me closer to him.

In 2005 we returned to the fair for the last time. Bramble refused to load into our trailer in a timely fashion, and we decided to take Devon alone. He seemed to be all right with the solitary five days without a personal equine friend, but when he returned home he burst through the barn, into the Exmoor area, and promptly attacked Bramble like a parent chastising a child who had missed curfew. He clearly said, “Where were you, you nit? You were supposed to go with me!”

Every spring we looked for the mares to widen their girths. They got fat from grass, never from foals.

We loved them all anyway.

Since Friendly Horse Acres is a charitable organization for people who need the company of the horses, I finally allowed Devon to be part of the work. I had a five-year-old girl help me groom him. We spent an hour combing out his luxurious thick black mane and tail, even though nature seemed to take out the tangles leaving him with a heavy, wavy black mass. Alone, Devon comforted an adult in need of his gentle solace. He never shared the secrets she told him. Devon was the most principled of counselors, along with having the virtue of endless compassion. I was told he offered far better emotional healing than the most gifted human therapist.

Then on September 5, 2009, we noticed Devon had a swollen penis. We trailered him to a veterinarian who seemed to have a solution. We thought the stallion had been kicked, or possibly stung. The penis would heal, but on September 24th Devon appeared to have a bout of colic that caused a lot of minor lacerations from thrashing on the ground. All cuts appeared to be curable. That night I noticed Devon had trouble eating the mash that I routinely prepared for him, and his lower lip drooped nervelessly on the left side. The veterinarian returned the next morning, took blood, and listened to Devon’s heart. Then he listened again. And again. He turned to me and said, “Yesterday he had a heart rate of 34. I thought this old horse would live forever. Sixty is in the dangerous zone. Today he has a rate of 112. Steve joined us. The veterinarian took out one more needle. “I am going to warn you, I am doing a tummy tap. There should be no blood in this needle when I pull it out. If there is, it means his system has started to shut down.”

There was blood. A lot.

We made the difficult decision to end Devon’s life before he endured any more pain. Leading the old horse onto the lawn felt like a betrayal. He munched happily, even with his awkward lip. Another poke, he fell, and was gone.

The blood work came back inconclusive, but there were some cancer cells present. I think the horse had a heart condition. Maybe he had a stroke the day before he died. I will never know.

I do know that there are four new chrysanthemum plants in rainbow hues by my back door. Two of my students and their grandmother carefully planted them the afternoon that Devon left us.

When I notified one of his human friends that he had left this world, she asked for photos, and then told me he had been her soul mate. If a soul mate is someone who looks into our soul and forgives us, leaving us feeling better, Devon was a soul mate to all of us who knew him.

I look at Cactus and Flax. Are they swelling? Please, please, let Devon leave one more gift.