Do horses really have a distinct set of personality types or is it just a load of equine excreta?
There are times when I think all taxonomy is pseudoscience. It certainly seems to have a predisposition that way. For example, people have been classified by their star signs, the pattern of whorls and loops on the skin of their finger tips, their birthplace, shape of head, colour of skin, handwriting, and so on. Some of these are without doubt useful in given situations, others seem arbitrary to say the least.
When it comes to classifying species, we have a workable system based on evolutionary principles. It is well understood despite at times being difficult to apply. However, how do we fare classifying individuals of species other than our own?
Take horses for example. Why horses?
Well, for me they are an vere present factor in the equation of life. My partner and three daughters are besotted with the creatures.
On any non-working day they can be found washing them, grooming them, dressing them, undressing them, riding them, talking to them (or about them), or any combination of the aforementioned.
Consequently there are a lot of horse books in our home. Recently I picked up one entitled Professor Beery’s Illustrated Course in Horse Training; Book 2 Disposition and Subjection (published in 1962). What a load of … pseudoscience! It begins with a classification of horses into four types by disposition;
- Teachable, kind
- Stubborn, wilful
- Nervous, ambitious, determined
- Treacherous, ill-tempered, resentful
Now there’s a nice piece of anthropomorphism. Apparently, according to Professor Beery, each kind of disposition is indicated externally by certain lines of the head.
Type 1 is characterised by a kind eye, a deep forehead and plenty of room between the ears.
Type 2 is recognised by a bulge below the line of the eyes and a heavy jowl.
Horses of type 3 have their eyes set far out to the side and forward, and are favoured with forehead furrows.
Type 4 have a prominent forehead (indicating treachery), a dished face, small eyes, and long narrow ears which are hairy inside. Some of these descriptions sound more like people I’ve met, but that’s another story.
Professor Beery assures us that type 1 horses are worthy of the utmost confidence when trained, and make perfect family horses. The type 2 variety take a long time to train and have no feelings when their senses are aroused (whatever that means). Type 3s act through fear and are liable to shy, or run away. They surrender unconditionally. Type 4 resist like bulldogs and are liable to kick, bite and bolt.
The impact of the theory is somewhat lessened by a strong implication that through good training a horse can overcome these natural tendencies. After all, as Professor Beery says, “Because a horse has certain natural inclinations there is no reason wby he should be spoiled or vicious. Many a man has become a public benefactor who would have been a criminal, if he had allowed his natural desires to govern him.”
Horses are not seen as being of one type. They may combine characteristics of two or more types. They can be described as being, for example, 3-2; a combination of types 3 and 2 with 3 predominating. An added complication is the fact that the lines of the head may not be immediately obvious, the eye may deceive. In many cases a horse’s true disposition can only be ascertained by running a hand down its face.
No head can be fully read from any one angle. The book describes many combinations of types viewed from the side, top, front and bottom of a horse’s head. Apparently some characteristics can only be discerned when lying flat on your back scrutinising the underside of the horse’s jaw.
An interesting paragraph describes how to classify mules, the majority of which are said to be 3-2 types, all having a smattering of 4. Professor Beery exhorts us to “Never allow a mule to get the better of you.”
Knowing that Arab horses have typically a dished face, I was intrigued to see how the author would handle their classification. He tells us not to let this one characteristic cause us to misjudge the horse’s disposition. Apparently, only an exaggeratedly dished face indicates that the Arab is treacherous, ill-tempered and resentful.
This is not a review and I am not recommending that you buy the book (although it is available from the Beery School of Horsemanship, Pleasant Hill, Ohio, USA). It’s just that a lot of the style seems familiar. What do you think? All those in favour say “Yes.” All those against say “Neigh.”