The Gamut of Equine Personality

Ron Parker

Originally published in The Horsemen’s Journal, April 1982


It wasn’t too long after I married that I realized that my wife talks in her sleep.

Now, a lot of people talk in their sleep.  It’s not a particularly unusual characteristic, except in her case it’s an educational experience.

Just the other night, for example, I learned that J.O. Tobin has the softest nose in the entire thoroughbred community.  About the time I was going back to sleep, thinking about soft noses, my wife sat straight up in bed.

“I can’t hold him!” she informed me.

“Hold who?” I yawned.

“Round Table,” she informed me, speaking of a horse she had written a book about.  “It’s supposed to be a work, but the minute he saw that track, well, I just can’t hold him.”

“Does he have a soft nose, too? I asked, now wide awake.

“Not really,” she answered while nuzzling me suspiciously, “but he’s so, well, perfect.

“Like me?” I added hopefully.

“Not really,” she sighed while rolling over.  “Your flexor muscles just aren’t in the same league.

“But,” she added with a mysterious smile, “you’re smarter than Swaps and Flip Sal.”

The next morning, over coffee, I reminded her of our nighttime conversations.  “Y’know,” I mused, “it almost seems as if you think these horses have, well, individuality.”

“They’re like people,” she reflected while trying not to burn the bacon.  “Every one of them has a different personality.”

It was a statement that caused me to reflect on the eternal argument about intelligence in horses in general and, more specifically, the thoroughbred.”

Depending on who you talk to, and the particular horse being discussed, the thoroughbred is considered to be everything from “that dumb s.o.b.,” a mental sub-species with all the brains of a rock, to “he’s a smart horse,” usually meaning he’s either well versed in Einsteinian theory or simply hasn’t bitten anyone lately.

It is, of course, a debate without an answer.  My own forays through the backstretch to talk to horses have offered me the opportunity to meet a wide range of personalities, ranging from apparent equine perspicacity to more primitive types who rely on primordial instincts in their quest to remove various and sundry portions of my anatomy.

A personality gamut, when you stop and think about it.  Like people.  Still, until the horses I have talked to learn how to talk back, or the scientists finally give up wiring houseplants for sound and turn their interests to the horse’s brain, the intelligence of the horse will remain an enigma.

One possible clue in this area might be the simple longevity of the animal, since its origins can be fairly easily traced back around 50 million years.

The dinosaurs lasted longer, something like 180 million years, and they were supposed to be pretty dumb, although I still don’t know how we figured that out since, to my knowledge, there weren’t any cavemen running around during the Mesozoic era asking the Tyrannosaurus if they would submit to an electroencephalogram.

So their actual intellectual capabilities, if any, are pretty hypothetical.  But, since I haven’t seen any dinosaurs running around lately, whereas there are an awful lot of horses at my neighborhood tracks, I have to score one for the horse.

If there is any conceivable method currently at our disposal to measure the degree of a horse’s intelligence it is, simply, an observation of its personality.  That’s hardly a radical postulation, it’s just that it’s the only thing we have to go by.

If you’re more into encyclopedias than condition books, you’re probably aware that personality is the “sum of behavior,” which is more cerebral than antediluvian in nature.  In other words, most actions require a degree of thought process.  And, the result of these actions is how we perceive our interpretation of intelligence in any animal.

Spot can sit up and roll over, ergo, Spot is a smart dog.

Of course, Spot figures he can expect a dog biscuit or at least a bowl of Gravy Train as a reward for such activity, but the physical endeavor had to be initiated by some degree of reasonably intelligent contemplation.

Fido is a dumb dog because he can’t, or won’t sit up and roll over.  Actually, Fido is probably smarter than Spot; why go through all that effort when the Gravy Train will still be there?  Makes you wonder about our definition of intelligence, doesn’t it?

Still, if personality is necessarily our guideline for intelligence, just where do horses fit in?

My wife and I sat in front of the fireplace that evening and began to discuss the quirks, as it were, that are a part of the personality of more notable thoroughbreds.  Sort of a Horse Psychoanalysis.

It was an exercise for a chilly evening in which we ultimately classified some of America’s most famous stallions into three general personality categories:  the psychos who, if they were human, would be sharing a padded cell with some guy who eats flies in a Dracula movie; the playful attention-getters, sort of your everyday beach party movie star; and the more sensitive ones, almost the Aldous Huxley’s of their world who seem to understand changes and alterations in their environment.

And, no matter how bizarre or mundane the behavior patterns we discussed were, we recognized one common trait in the thoroughbred: the very human need to communicate.

Of the psychos, no analysis would be complete without a mention of Ribot, a once cheerful horse, who, as a stallion, quite literally went insane.

“It was tragic, really,” Darby Dan Farm Manager Olin Gentry once said of the horse who, on one occasion, seemed intent on trying to kill him during a typically vicious outburst.

“He seemed to want to destroy himself,” Gentry reflected.  “Maybe something happened to him during his racing career – maybe he recalled the pain of an athlete’s most violent efforts.  Whatever it was, he would surely have been happier in an insane asylum than on a stud farm.”

Ribot’s groom, who sat with the great horse for hours and was the only human the horse seemed to trust, mourned the horse’s passing in almost human terms.  “I guess I was the only one who shed a tear for him,” he said of the Mad Horse of Darby Dan who, at one point, was to be sent to Italy until the Italians realized that Ribot could definitely cost them a few fingers and toes.

“Poor old fellow,” the groom reflected.  “He was so tormented by something.  I hope he’s found some peace at last.”

But there are degrees of madness.

Hoist The Flag was always dangerous – his favorite race track stunt was to savage oddly marked lead ponies – and while he was no kinder in retirement he might possibly have developed an undetected sense of humor with age, once expressing his disdain over having his picture taken by lifting up a Japanese photographer by the collar and depositing him in a nearby pile of manure.

French Derby winner Herbager, on the other hand, preferred to scare his visitors to death by charging the fence, a favorite trick of Nashua, skidding to a halt at the last possible moment.  He would then look at his guests and lift his lip as if he were laughing, perhaps saying something to himself like “Scared you, didn’t I?”

Yet, there was method in this apparent madness.  When alone, Herbager would stand for hours, gazing at some unknown world that mere humans obviously could not even comprehend.

On the other hand, Double Jay’s best son, Bagdad, was either a marginal psycho or a frustrated artist, since he preferred to eat patterns – circular patterns – in his paddock.

“He’s a funny little horse,” a groom noted one day while Bagdad was devouring a section of ground as artistically as Dali might paint a watch.  “And I’ve never seen a horse who likes mud more than he does, when it rains he comes in caked with the stuff.”

The groom looked reflectively at an empty paddock while kicking away a piece of mud that had clung to his boot.  “Like I said,” he said almost sadly, “he was a funny little horse…”

On the other hand Ruffian’s sire, Reviewer, was either totally psychotic or your basic suicidal maniac.  A visitor once noted that his paddock fence was higher than the ones around him.  “Is that because,” they innocently inquired, “he might be able to jump over the lower fences?
“Nope,” a groom replied.  “It’s just because that, with the lower fence, the damn fool horse tries to hang himself on it.”

Which is certainly not a problem with Navajo, who treats his fence quite differently in that he prefers to eat it.

One board at a time.

Someone once got the bright idea that the way to cure that habit was to treat the boards with some evil tasting chemical, only Navajo ate that, too.  And, when a steel rail was suggested to replace the wooden ones, his groom shrugged off the idea.

“The only good that’s do,” he sighed resignedly, “would be to sharpen his teeth.”

But, as in the human race, psychotics represent a minority.  Most thoroughbreds, if you take the time to pay attention, simply want to play…and be noticed.

Graustark, for example, somehow escaped the mental pedigree of his sire, the aforementioned Ribot.

Whereas Ribot’s idea of letting you know that he wanted out of his stall was to kick it down, Graustark takes a much more subtle approach when it’s time for him to be turned out.  He simply grabs his shank with his teeth and hands it to his groom, as if to say, “Here’s my leash…take me for a walk.”

Never Bend, however, was much more frustrating once he learned how to remove his own halter.  It was a game he seemed to enjoy each morning when the groom would come to the stall, see Never Bend “naked,” and try to figure out where the halter was,  Sometimes it would be on the hay rack, sometimes on the floor of the stall,  Once, the man found it on the ceiling.

“Oh well,” the groom once said about the unusual antics of Spendthrift Farm’s Black Beauty, “I guess Mr. Combs can afford to buy him more.”

Belmont Stakes winner Stage Door Johnny, as gentle a stallion as one is likely to encounter, doesn’t bother with such obvious methods to attract his groom’s attention.  His idea of fun is to lie in his stall, thoroughly content to let his groom sit on him.

Thoroughbreds, of course, delight in all kinds of physical amenities, again a most human trait.  Epsom Derby winner Sir Ivor, for example, enjoys the fairly common thoroughbred pleasure of someone pulling on his tongue.  Except that Sir Ivor insists on playing by his own rules, requiring that one first strokes his muzzle with a downward motion until the tongue appears.  Only then is one actually allowed to pull the tongue, a process that the horse can sometimes revel in for hours, until he finally tires of it and simply turns his tongue over as a signal that the game is over.

Vaguely Noble’s preferences lean more towards an insistence that there be a rider on his back when he is brought in from his paddock for a bath, subsequent to which he long ago made it clear that he prefers having his eyes, muzzle and ears touched up with a soft cloth covered with baby oil.

Forli is another spoiled champion who loves his bath, although he sometimes lets his enthusiasm overwhelm the situation, as in the time he happily reared up and placed his forelegs on his groom’s shoulders in apparent appreciation.  Fortunately the groom was able to continue the bath, once he picked himself up off the ground.

Even more playfully, Buckpasser seemed to think he was a dog (the familiar Canidae family variety, not the derogatory colloquialism favored by losing bettors).  Having never learned that a stallion was expected to be a raging bull, Buckpasser spent his idle time chasing sticks.

Well, not really sticks.  In his case they were actually tree limbs, often large ones, but all things are relative.  Buckpasser was more like Spot, except he had a 1,200 pound weight advantage.

And J.O. Tobin, Never Bend’s best son, prefers to “dance” on his hind legs, possibly making him the first link in a new evolutionary process in the equine order.

But the most fascinating thoroughbred personalities are the horses who are neither insane nor simply playful –the quiet ones who seem to comprehend what is happening in their environment and react accordingly.

There is a jealousy in the pecking order of the thoroughbred.  Forli seems intensely jealous of any attention given Ack Ack, who spends his afternoons romping in an adjoining paddock.  Forli will usually only come to the fence to greet a visitor if Ack Ack got there first and, naturally, was receiving all the attention.  Forli approaches the visitor as if to say, “Hey, I sired a five time Horse of the Year, why are you paying attention to him?”

At times Riva Ridge, perhaps the most gentle of Claiborne stallions, displays an almost human jealousy of the attention given his more renowned stablemate, Secretariat.  He once enjoyed my wife’s attention for over half an hour of petting and small talk.  Then, as she started to walk over to another paddock, he called her back in the only way he knew how – a nicker and a hopefully commanding foot on the fence.

Of course, some horses aren’t that interested in human attention, preferring to associate with other animals, although this kindred spirit association is more prevalent at the race track than on the farm.

And it’s a two-way street.  The chickens at Claiborne seems to prefer Riva Ridge’s paddock, presumably because they sense his gentle disposition.  On the other hand, Canonero II preferred the company of a farm goat to a groom’s attention, after his retirement.  The 1918 Kentucky Derby winner Exterminator had a pony by the name of Peanuts as a constant companion.  Citation was happiest with a friendly cat perched on his back.  Loners, in a sense, just like people.  And sensitive to their surroundings.

The great racemare Allez France was a nervous wreck without her constant companion, a sheep.  When she was sent to Kentucky to be bred, the farm staff had a barbeque with her companion.  Allez France would not be comforted.  She knew.

America’s greatest sire, Bold Ruler, usually a kind horse to handle, uncharacteristically went wild the day his sire, Nasrullah, dropped dead in his paddock.

“It was his daddy lyin’ there,” groom Snow Fields recalled about Bold Ruler’s behavior that day.  “It was the only time I ever saw Bold Ruler fret.  He was hollerin’ and pawin’ the ground and runnin’ up and down that fence.”

Expressing awareness and emotion, Fields might have added.

But is the horse really intelligent?  Your guess is as good as mine, though the human race seems to insists on categorizing intelligence as it relates to its own assumed superiority, a comparison that could be subject to vast revisions when the first intellectually superior aliens from outer space land on this planet in whatever form they might exist, be they slithering blobs, something with three eyes and eight tentacles or, possibly, something that looks suspiciously like a horse.

Maybe the horse isn’t that smart, in any comparison.  After all, hasn’t he entrusted his well being and his very life to man?  It might not be a decision by choice, but it doesn’t strike me as a particularly intelligent decision on the horses’ part.

As my wife and I looked into the fading embers of the fire, we reflected on Ribot’s insanity, Buckpasser fetching tree limbs and Bold Ruler’s expressing knowledge and emotion over his sire’s death.

Personality, the “sum of behavior” by which we gauge the intelligence of our fellow man.

And, I like to think , our horses.