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Your Horse:
Selection Of The Horse
Conformation Of Horses
Disposition Of Horses
Saddlery And Equipment For Horses
Care Of Saddlery And Leather
Feeds And Bedding For Horses
Horse Stables
Horse Pastures
The Veterinarian
Care Of Horse Feet And Shoeing
In Or Out Of The Stable
Transporting Horses
Basic Physiology Of Horses
Genetic Considerations Of Horses

Disposition Of Horses

( Originally Published 1954 )

A favorite story in my family concerns Reverend Randolph, a kindly soul who shepherded his small flock near the home of my forefathers in Virginia.

One morning as he looked from the door of the rectory he was distressed to see a stalled wagon, a motionless mule, and a negro energetically applying the whip. As he hurried out he cried:

"James, James, why do you belabor that mule?"

"Missa Randolph, he won't go."

"Well, James, have you tried leading him?"

"Yessuh, I done try to lead him but he won't go." "Have you tried to lighten his load?"

"Missa Randolph, I done lighten his load but he won't move."

"Ah, did you put a little pebble in his ear?"

"Ah tried that too, but he just shook it out and wouldn't budge."

"Perhaps if you built a little fire under himó."

"Ah did that too, but all he did was move the wagon over the fiah and nigh unto burnt it up. Missa Randolph the trouble with this mule isólie ain't sincere."

And that brings us to a consideration of disposition.

A lifetime with horses has taught me that there are no invariable conclusions. Of one thing, however, I have be-come thoroughly convinced: that temperament is present at birth, it is largely of a hereditary nature and that its basic attributes will not be altered by environment. Before we go further in the discussion of disposition I think we should offer a definition. Perhaps we might say that a good disposition is one which remains tranquil under circumstances which conflict with its desires. This does not mean that an animal is sluggish or will not put up a fight when unduly frightened or subjected to unreasonable demands. Rather it is the ability to evaluate and accept circumstances for what they are. While the horse has a very limited mental capacity and a minimum of reasoning ability, its memory is very long. He has a very highly developed instinct of self preservation and usually will seek flight from danger. An old prayer beseeches the Lord to help us change those things which can be changed and leave unchanged those things which cannot be changed and to have the sense to know the one from the other. The ability to adopt this proposition provides the essence of a desirable temperament.

We all know of horses who remain kind and tractable under the most trying circumstances. Every hireling has more than one justification to commit murder and it is amazing that so few of them become outlaws. On the other hand, many a horse who is pampered and given every thoughtful treatment remains a flighty and unmanageable brute to the end. A good disposition will stand a good deal of improper treatment before it goes sour, while with intelligent handling its attainment is almost limitless. A bad disposition is a liability, and a nervous and flighty animal is more apt to take himself and his rider to grief than one who is just intelligently mean. Even if they do well in the ring and the field they are more trouble than they are worth to the expert, and hopeless for the average rider.

Few horsemen have had wider experience than Grove Cullum. The following pertinent remarks are quoted from his splendid book SELECTION AND TRAINING OF THE POLO PONY: "A knowledge of family characteristics is of great assistance in judging temperament of Thoroughbred prospects when blood lines are known. Some families of the Thoroughbred are known to be temperamental, if not hot-headed, while others are equally known for level headedness. Some few families are, to say the least, very risky as Polo or Hunter prospects." And later he says: "In the life of every Polo Pony there comes a time when he must match his speed with that of another horse. If he is innately hot tempered and cannot stand speed the race track will show him up."

It is certainly established that selective breeding can do much to secure the desired qualities in any type of living thing. One has only to see what has been accomplished. This is true of swine, poultry and all other animals when the objectives have been properly set. As examples of the sad results of the following false Gods one has to look at the present day show Collie with his narrow skull and weak jaw to see how he is a sorry end to a good old working specimen. Another case is that of the Wire Haired Terrier who in his present state is a jittery bundle of nerves with nervous in-stability increasing with each decade.

In the past twenty years a number of the so called modern psychologists and educators have worked on the theory that the hereditary background is of minor importance, and that suitable training produces the desired results with nearly all of the human race. They go to great lengths to explain inadequacies as the result of frustration in childhood, lack of attention, and practically any other factor that may come to mind. With the present generation of children coming to maturity we are having results of this program and its fallacies are becoming apparent.

During my years of service with the Air Forces we examined many thousands of young men who were candidates for flying training. Experience has taught that emotional instability is the greatest single drawback in the making of a successful pilot, and we carefully combed the background of each applicant in order to determine his inherent reaction under conditions of stress. In a high percentage of cases we were able to predict the ability of the individual as it was revealed by antecedents of his early life. We found that those who are most successful in both Military and Commercial Aviation were the men who were made with the right stuff to begin with. There is a well known physician who writes a number of articles for lay magazines. In these he sympathizes with and encourages the emotion-ally inadequate. In his writing for the profession, however, he is more frank and states pointedly "some people are made of scrap material and there isn't much you can do but patch them up."

A few specific horses come to mind to well illustrate the point I am making. Some years ago I became attracted by a fine looking young Thoroughbred. He had been improperly handled and was subjected to jumping in a major show before he had any preparation. By the end of the week his owner was not only unable to get him over any jumps but he couldn't even get the horse in the ring, as each command brought no response but a determined rear. In spite of this I bought the horse and spent six months in reschooling him. At no time did the horse hurt himself or show any viciousness toward his rider while in the stable. When his training was completed lie was one of the most consistent and successful horses in the community. In other words, we have here a perfect example of bad training and in turn a fundamentally sound type as soon as re-education was accomplished. Another who fitted into this pattern was a little cow horse of unknown breeding who arrived at our Club as a result of some confused tales. Nobody seemed to want him and finally he was raffled off in order to pay his board bill. We all tried to ride him with a notable lack of success. I climbed aboard once, but the explosion started before I was in the saddle and when I picked my face out of the tanbark he was still bucking. This poor little fellow regarded every man as his enemy and he would crouch and tremble if you went into his stall. His new owner set about overcoming this fear and a few months later it was quite a sight to see the man running down the aisle while the horse chased him in order to win another carrot. We found out later that our unknown friend had started out as a bucking horse for a rodeo. With confidence in mankind established he became an honest and competent jumper and polo pony and he lives today in honored retirement. Here is another case where the disposition was fundamentally sound and all that was needed was a fair break in environment.

Quite the opposite is a young Thoroughbred mare who came into my stable before the War; she had only the best of treatment but it soon became obvious that she was going to blow up under practically any circumstances which did not meet with her approval. When on the trails she would go berserk if her stable mate left her sight, and in an at-tempt to go toward him she would go sideways, backwards, or jump off a cliff. Punishment did nothing to improve the situation and as her training progressed she showed no evidence of quieting down. She could put in a brilliant round over jumps, but noise, confusion or movements of a stable mate would throw her into a fit again. In these battles she was not primarily concerned in fighting her rider but in a senseless flight to escape imagined ills. I felt that she might be better following maternity and she was bred to a sturdy Thoroughbred stallion who appeared to have a good disposition but whose antecedents were untraceable at that time. The mare was a good mother but as soon as her colt was weaned she was as irresponsible and difficult as ever. The offspring, a sturdy little filly, gave early evidence of a nasty temperament. While not as flighty as her dam, she was far more stubborn and willful. She was handled with the utmost of care, but by the time she was ready for saddling the battle was on and continues to this day. I subsequently learned the sire came from a very hot tempered strain and although they had been intended for hunters they were uniformly so difficult that the line was abolished. When the mare was bred a second time extreme care was taken in the selection of an even dispositioned mate. The stallion him-self had a perfect temper as did his sire; fortunately, the resultant foal tends to be more like his paternal parent, al-though it is too early to be sure. As I look back on this family group I am forced to admit that I probably would have been better off to have disposed of the mare forthwith and started with another strain. Sentiment and horsemen being what they are, however, I hope will allow me to be for-given. Anyway, I had the bad tempered filly spayed so that there won't be another generation of idiots.

I am older and, I hope, wiser now, and certainly I have less enthusiasm for risking my neck in needless heroics. My latest purchase will, perhaps, illustrate what I mean. I learned that a very fine four-year-old Thoroughbred was for sale in the eastern section of the State. When I went to the ranch I found a dozen Thoroughbreds, all of whom were quiet and friendly although they had very little handling. The sire had been a good dispositioned horse and all of his colts who had been put to work had shown themselves to be sensible and capable as stock horses. The horse I selected had never been saddled but he stood around quietly as if he were a member of the family. He left his home in a truckload of cattle and was jostled on two hundred miles of winding roads through the darkness. At that point I met him with my trailer; he got in without coaxing and continued with his journey. When he arrived at his new stable he took one sniff and started to look for food. In the first two weeks of his training he put in a couple of hard bucks, but both times he had an adequate excuse to be frightened. Three months later he was able to go into a major show ring under strange circumstances and to acquit himself with credit. This fortunate outcome certainly cannot be attributed to skillful training, but to the kindly, sensible temperament which were his by heritage.

In 1944 I decided to do some analytical research to deter-mine what I could about inheritance of dispositions. Quite naturally I selected the Thoroughbred since there is no other animal who has so complete a genetic background in the records. With the aid of various stud books and other charts it is quite possible to identify every single ancestor of all Thoroughbreds for at least six or seven generations, and there are comparatively few discrepancies and omissions after the middle of the Eighteenth Century. While very little information was gained by compiling a seventh generation list of names, we soon find that many outstanding sires play a predominant role and the names are seen again and again. Along with these family trees we find written ac-counts of most of the famous horses, the details as to their conformation, their racing abilities and their temperaments.

As a basis and an outline I selected THOROUGHBRED BLOODLINES by John F. Wall. This has gone through several editions and each one has huge charts showing complete sire lines of every strain common in America today. Soon it becomes obvious that the three foundation lines have been carried by a single line through many generations, and as a result they are frequently referred to as the line of the outstanding horse of more recent years. Thus the line of Matchem remains through his descendant Hastings and his son Fairplay. The line of the Byerly Turk is much less prolific and is known now primarily because of Herod and his immediate progeny. It is this line which carries the gray strain and, while only a small percentage of them have this coloration, you will invariably find that all gray Thoroughbreds today derive their color from an ancestor in this group.

Eclipse is the foundation sire of the third great line and this strain has been so prolific that it finds many offshoots.

Among them is the line of St. Simon, Whalebone, Bend Or, Touchstone and others.

After the melting pot of the American strains has been well stirred we were left with three foundation sire lines known respectively as Fairplay, Ben Brush and Domino, the two latter both being of Eclipse blood.

My original article included a detailed study of each of the lines in Wall's charts, but in this book I believe our purpose can be served by giving a brief outline of my methods and the conclusions which suggested themselves. I gathered together every possible reference that I could find either from books, charts or personal reports as they concerned temperament. I then took a blue pencil and underscored each stallion for whom I could find a record of good disposition. Subsequently, I underlined with red all those whose temperament was described as hot, difficult or mean. When this was completed I had quite an interesting crossword puzzle, and it was apparent, at least to me, that bad disposition was predominant in certain strains and was transmitted from father to son, whereas in other lines good dispositions seemed to be quite uniform. At this point it might be well to state that I firmly believe that the mare plays an equal part, but from a research standpoint it is extremely difficult to gather sufficient data. A well known stallion may produce several hundred sons and daughters, whereas very few mares leave more than eight or ten to carry on her line, and records of mares are much less de-tailed in all respects except for a technical pedigree.

In the past twenty years many new lines have been brought from England and Europe to be blended with our native strains. As a result the picture becomes more complex as our old lines are diluted, and we find the necessity of trying to evaluate the temperaments of these newcomers. In general, the descendants of Ben Brush are tractable and even tempered and this is apparently even more true of the line of Domino. The Fair Play family provided most of the bad actors and there are many stories dealing with problems of trying to train the sons of Hastings and Fair Play. They continue to survive, however, because of their great courage, their endurance and their will to win. They have shown a great ability to jump and have become famous as steeple-chasers and cross country horses. They were apparently much less satisfactory as hunters and pleasure horses, but in more recent years the line has been diluted to such a point that the sullen temper is now pretty well weeded out. I admit to some prejudice in this matter and I have usually tried to avoid horses of the Fair Play line, but I must admit that one of the sons of Fair Play who stood in Oregon for many years has produced many fine tempered colts and one of them is in my stable today.

Two prominent English lines which have not proved suit-able from a temperamental standpoint are those of Blenheim II and Sir Galahad III. They have both produced outstanding race horses in large number but I have seen a large number of sullen and moody Galahad horses, while the nervous tension prevalent in the Blenheim line is generally acknowledged.

There is, of course, nothing final in these conclusions when they apply to the individual horse, but all other things being equal it is well to avoid animals with a heavy infusion of the blood of bad tempered strains, and conversely it may be worthwhile to seek those which are opposite in their philosophy.

Breeders of race horses seem to pay little or no attention to temperament and, in fact, some of them believe that this disposition is a thing that makes for successful runners. This is a subject on which investigation is incomplete and not entirely conclusive at the present. It is certainly quite an-other matter to breed horses for pleasure and general saddle use. Numerous examples come to mind. Not far north of here there is a magnificent imported English stallion who looks like something out of an old print. He is a mean and dangerous animal, and I am reliably informed that a large percentage of his colts are just like the old man. Some of them are so bad that they can't even train them for the track. At several breeding establishments where I have visited I have been allowed to look at a stallion only by peeking through a barred door, much in the manner that one would view a tiger. Some of these can be handled only by clubs, whips and a group of men armed to the teeth. I consider it the height of futility to allow such lines to be transmitted. Why do it when there are hundreds of others who are equally sturdy, fast, and desirable? I can point out any number of stallions who are as kindly as one could wish, and I would feel quite safe to send a small child into Casa Royal's stall armed with only a carrot.

In a few communities where intelligent breeding plans have considered the factor of temperament, the results have been most gratifying. The stallions have usually been Thoroughbreds while the mares were either registered or well enough bred to produce the qualities 'of the blood horse. It is not surprising that Virginia has been a leader in this field, since hunting and good cross country horses have been traditional since the days when George Washing-ton and his hounds followed the fox. The Genesee Valley country of New York also has an extensive program and buyers come from far and wide to make their selections.

One of the most interesting cases of genetic prepotence can be found in the story Gordon Russell. This stallion had raced in the bush leagues of the West and Midwest for many years under all sorts of conditions and owners. He had entered the starting gate over a hundred times by record and nobody knew how much oftener. He was finally purchased by the Army Remount Service and placed in the hands of one of their agents. He moved from place to place and had harems of all sorts of mares, many of them far from first class. Some years later, when the Army buyers went out to pick up horses for the Cavalry, they purchased a large number of the get of this stallion. As soon as they were put into training it became obvious that they were something special and that a very great percentage of them had the courage and jumping ability of their sire. At one time practically an entire show team was mounted on the sons and daughters of Gordon Russell, and his most illustrious daughter, Jenny Camp, established records in two Olympics that will be remembered for a long time. By the time the knowledge of Gordon Russell was established it was too late to do very much, although the Army brought him back to Headquarters and made every effort to enlarge the strain. This, as well as their other programs, came to an untimely end. But people still look for the make with Gordon Russell blood.

The most beautifully controlled experiment to illustrate the transmission of temperament was that done at the King Ranch in Texas. As a working stock ranch they require a large number of first class working horses for use of both the experts and the less qualified cowboys. Some years ago they had an old stallion who was apparently all that one could ask as the ideal stock horse. He was mostly Thorough-bred with some infusion of the Quarter Horse strains. When his outstanding accomplishments became evident he was placed at the head of the breeding program. He was provided with a large band of high class mares, with some Thoroughbred and some Quarter Horse-Thoroughbred breeding combined. The first generation was rigorously tried and culled, the best of the mares were bred back to their sire while others were bred to half brothers, or young stallions to their dams. This careful program of testing and inbreeding was carried on for several generations further, each time intensifying the blood of the foundation sire and weeding out the misfits. As a result of this, the King Ranch has developed a string of working stock horses who are almost without equal.

Now you may well wonder just what this has to do with the horse in the neighbor's back lot. It is only a guide and perhaps a help in evaluating that which is available to your purchase. Nothing will take the place of actual testing of the individual, for even the most unsatisfactory of parents may produce a great offspring and vice versa. The average horse is really a willing soul if he is given an even break in life, but there are enough bad tempered ones to make us be constantly on our guard. Try the prospect with a crowd and see whether he still remains calm. Many horses will be levelheaded until you ask for a test of speed, but once they have been opened up they won't quiet down the rest of the day and some of them for weeks. Obviously they are neither safe nor pleasant. Horses are gregarious and any youngster will try to get back to his stablemates, but a few want to make a big battle out of the affair and will never show the self-confidence which enables them to take out in the direction they are asked. I certainly do not advocate the abuse of horses, but it is a wise thing to rile the horse up a little bit to see how he will react. A little roughness, noise, sudden stops and turning, taking him away from his familiar surroundings and sending him into some-thing new will often tell you a great deal. Avoid a horse who wants to dance and fight after he has been reined in rather sharply once or twice, as well as those who have a bad case of the "I don't want to's." A horse should be for-given for having a fear of anything new or strange, but if he continues to shy away after a reasonable familiarity there is something wrong in his head. If a horse is upset by a small ditch, a pile of logs or a child on a bicycle take him gently to the object of his concern and let him smell it and be sure that it is something that will not harm him. If his disposition is right he will then accept that thing as part of his life and you will have no further trouble. If he continues to object to the same thing day after day you may be sure that his vision or his disposition, if not both, is permanently unsatisfactory.

Sometimes we find ourselves with a bad tempered horse and we refuse to get rid of him. Unconsciously we have perhaps one of several reasons or a combination thereof. Probably the most important, if we will admit it, is a sense of false pride. Our novels and our histories are filled with the glowing exploits of men who could and would ride anything. That goes back as far as the time of Alexander the Great and continues in our present day horse operas. We feel that inability to conquer such an animal is a reflection upon our courage and our skill. What we don't realize is that we are wasting our time and risking injury. Again I repeat, you will never make a bad disposition into a good one. The best you can hope for is some degree of mastery. The same amount of time and effort devoted to patient training of a good dispositioned youngster will bring a far more gratifying reward. For sentimental reasons some of us continue to maintain horses who are totally unsuitable and we cling to the fond hope that time and care will accomplish all things. It is far better to pension or to dispose' of such creatures so that you may devote your time to an animal who is really worthwhile. There is no ultimate gratification in forging a sword out of faulty steel or spending your time with a horse who lacks ultimate potentialities. When you ride either alone, in company or in competition you 'wish to be mounted on a horse of whom you may be proud. Remember the words of the late General Chamberlin: "To apologize for his horse, even tacitly, is the essence of bitterness to a horseman."

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