Temperament vs Rideability

As I was handgrazing Henry the other day, I got to thinking about how different he and Sadie are to handle. Not that Sadie is difficult, but she’s definitely smart, and if she thinks you’re a pushover she will both literally and figuratively walk all over you. Henry is more like an old lesson horse (albeit one who’s had too many cookies and is probably a bit spoiled but let’s ignore that). He’s just kinda there, and he might glare at you but he’ll do pretty much whatever you want without argument as long as it doesn’t involve putting anything in his ears.

his typical expression: bored with my shit

Sadie, on the other hand, can smell dominance from a mile a way. If you’re assertive, she’s very simple. But if you give her an inch, she’ll take a mile. Her general temperament has a definite “Hmmm… how sure are you?” theme. This was illustrated really well when she was at the vet clinic with Presto, because the guys that cleaned the pens were very clearly terrified of her. They would slowly tiptoe into her pen, keeping their eyes on her at all times, and if she moved toward them at all, they would go running. I don’t totally blame them, she is a BIG horse that had a sick foal by her side, but I’m pretty sure Sadie found their terror to be hilarious and it became a game to her. Yet if I went in there she was a total lamb and I could move her backwards just by pointing my finger at her (which I’m fairly certain the workers thought that was some kind of majikal horse whispering voodoo). Mare ain’t stupid, she knows who’s alpha. And if you’re alpha, she’s great. If you’re not, you aren’t going to enjoy her very much.


Yet once you’re in the saddle she’s so easy and simple that it’s borderline ridiculous. At her first trail ride as a 3yo, fresh from the breaker, she was the bravest, quietest, easiest horse in a big group of seasoned trail horses. I can’t leave just anyone holding her unattended, but I’ve always been able to throw literally anyone up on her and say “keep your hands down and you’re golden”. And she was. A blind geriatric monkey could ride that horse. She loves to work and the answer is always yes. The more difficult it is, the more interested she is. She’s the most pleasant, happiest mare I’ve ever ridden. And she is definitely more rideable than Henry. I’d classify both of them as fairly easy horses to ride but he is more sensitive and naturally more tense than she is, thus he requires more tact.

3 years old, first trail ride. She’s the sleeping donkey on the far right.

Yet if you spent 5 minutes with each horse on the ground, almost everyone would probably guess that Henry was much easier to ride. I’ve noticed over and over that it seems like a lot of people think that temperament and rideability go hand in hand. You see it a lot with people that buy babies… “oh he’s so smart and quiet, he’ll be a great ammy horse.”. Enh… well… maybe. I personally have not seen a strong enough correlation between temperament and rideability to ever bank on that.

The only really reliable indicator I’ve seen is a genetic one, and it’s why rideability was so important to me in choosing a stallion. Some lines have strong reputations for making horses that are easy to train, ride, and are forgiving of mistakes. Others are known for creating quite the opposite. In that case I don’t care how good the temperament seems, I don’t want one.

monkey proof

But really, you don’t know what you’ve got until you swing a leg over and put them to work. I’ve had one that was super stupid on the ground but super easy to ride, and I’ve had one that was bombproof on the ground but a total moron to ride. That’s the extra fun part about breeding, buying a young horse, or buying sight unseen: it’s a surprise! Whether it’s good surprise or a bad surprise, well… that depends.

30 thoughts on “Temperament vs Rideability

  1. This is such an interesting topic!
    Even though you can never bank on temperament and rideability going hand-in-hand, Roger is alllllllmost as polite as he is rideable. I’ve had people tell me that he’s one of the most polite horses on the ground they’ve ever met: basically, Roger knows that you are the boss and will stand ground-tied forever if you let him. He’s not dominant in the stall whatsoever, and he prefers to sleep in cross-ties than wiggle around or be a jerk. However, while you need a spur to flat him (because lazy), he tends to get REALLY EXCITED when it comes to jumping, because jumping is the best day of his life. While pretty much anyone can flat him around and be successful because he’s pretty straightforward, it would take a rider with some skill to take advantage of his jumping “excitement” and not be intimidated by it when he tends to speed up a bit…not ‘speed up’ in a way that he’ll run away with you, but in an ‘OMG WE ARE JUMPING THIS IS SO MUCH FUN WHEEEEEE THIS IS THE BEST THING EVER JUMPING IS SO MUCH FUN I LOVE THIS’ way. The only place I’ve ever seen Roger be dominant is in turnout, when he is the boss (most of the time, anyway). Definitely an interesting correlation!


  2. and you want to put me up on that wild maniac, Henry. Gee thanks a lot! 🙂

    HA I am lucky to have a quiet QH who is pretty much the same on or off. BUT yes the alpha has to be established EARLY for Remus too. He knows when to push. And when not to with me. And a finger pointed does work wonders. Course i know how quiet Sadie was for you to break so knew she would be the ‘quieter’ mount. I do appreciate a horse with good ground manners but also appreciate not worrying about dying when I get on said horse.

    Disclaimer: if Bikes, Mopeds, Amish Carriages or anything completely out of the norm comes upon me and Remus then said quiet mount turns into raving lunatic either on him or or on the ground!


  3. i chose my horse for his disposition and brain. for me, it’s critical that i enjoy spending time with the horse – that the horse is pleasant for me to be around. tho, oddly enough, charlie is kinda two-faced on the ground – he has a “very grumpy” written warning on his stall door for very real reasons, and barn staff cross tie him to blanket him (tho i don’t).

    i didn’t ride him before buying him (nobody had) so i kinda just crossed my fingers that the horse’s rideability would align more or less with my skill set. bc i agree that rideability is just as, if not more, important. ultimately i want to go *do* things with the horse (let’s be real, if that weren’t the case i’d still be doing dressage and trail riding isabel).

    such a tricky balance finding the right combination of both. i sometimes wonder why many adult ammies gravitate towards pleasant horses on the ground – while simultaneously sacrificing rideability for things like “talent” or “athleticism” or “fancy” or whatever.

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    1. Emma I am always so amazed by you guys buying OTTBs! I mean it really is a crap shoot since most of you do not ride them before you buy them! Kudos to all of you who do so as I think it is great but dont think I would ever be brave enough to do so. (However, saying that some of the best horses I know and follow are OTTB!s)

      ha ha charlie has that staff bamboozled 🙂 Course he is ginormous!


  4. Francis is too dumb to be bad. He can be a little pushy simply because he doesn’t realize he’s so big (because he really is that dumb), but I can trust anyone to handle him safely in any situation. He likes people, he likes hanging out, he’s happy to chill on the lead/crossties/loose rein/nearby as long as you’d like him to. And for him, he definitely has that same attitude under saddle. He definitely perks up and gives more “oomph” to a rider who knows how to ask, but we’ve swung novices on him to flat around and he loves that job too. I think he’s just too thick in the skull to realize that being naughty is a possibility. When we tried him, I definitely made a point to handle him on the ground for a while to see if we could get along there- I’ve had a horse with bad ground manners before and have no desire to ever deal with that again.


    1. I feel like most ground manners, for better or for worse, are created. Get a smart, sometimes pushy horse, with a pushover, not very smart owner/handler… tada, grounddemon. Yet with another owner/handler they could potentially be perfectly fine. I am pretty alpha, so I don’t mind one that needs a little bit of “charm school” on the ground… as long as they are agreeable under saddle! 😉

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  5. Horses are full of surprises! I’ve had two sight unseen horses though that are pretty similar to me. They weren’t hard to ride per se, but they both liked to give me the proverbial equine finger if they thought I was asking them to work too hard. On the ground, they also were both seeking dominance, and just not all that pleasant. Ducky was abused, so I’m not sure if he was born that way. But you had to keep an eye on him because he could bite and kick. Similar to Sadie, if he knew you were in charge, you’d be ok, usually. But every so often he’s pull the angry duck even at the alpha.
    Romey is pretty similar to Ducky. I don’t really think he was abused, he’s not afraid. But he loves to show his teeth and bite at everyone. Alpha included.
    My others, who I got to meet first, are really sweet on the ground and 99% of the time under saddle as well. (Hey, we all have bad days, right?) So I feel like there can be some correlation there. But I also wonder if it’s a little bit of a mare vs gelding kind of thing too maybe? Mine are all boys currently. But I’ve known quite a few angry mares that are so wonderful and easy to ride. Where as angry boys seem to be full time angry.


    1. Either a mare vs gelding correlation or a smart vs… less smart correlation. Sadie is very very very smart. Henry… kinda dumb. In the saddle though, Henry is WAY more marish! lol

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  6. Sterling is generally a pain in the butt on the ground. You have to go about everything in a very kind way and NOT be confrontational. He is always skeptical of your motivation to make him do anything and his feelings get hurt pretty easily. However, he is a dream to ride. He loves to jump and is generally easy under saddle. Easy lead changes. Goes around a course nicely. He’s very forgiving of my myriad mistakes. I agree, though. The temperament on the ground doesn’t always translate to how they are to ride.


  7. My old mare is 34. I have owned her for 30 of those years. She has always been a dream in the cross ties. Never moved, would have her foot up for you as soon as you bent drown to clean it… Well, let’s just say that her nickname became Miss NASCAR. She was quick, easily exciteable and wanted to jump everything as high and as fast as she could. I NEVER got her to top speed before slowing her back because neck breaking was as close to death as I could muster. (This was back in my late teens-early 20 during our death defying feats of trail rides along the banks of a huge lake). That being said, she was totally fearless and NEVER spooked at anything. If she wasn’t sure of it, she would stop, look at it and then proceed towards it, ready to kill it before it could kill us! One time, she decided an extension cord curled up on the ground by the barn was in fact a snake. She drug me over to it and took one strike at it, before I could pull her away. I almost owed the barn owner a new cord! Anyway, quiet as a mouse on the ground (except when rogue cords are threatening us)… totally fly by the seat of your pants when on her back…. it has been at least 12 years since I rode her last due to a bowed tendon injury. After that, she got life off (Her name is now the Welfare Queen because she has the best stall in the barn and the hard working school horses have to earn her keep! Lol)…who knew she was going to possibly outlive us all!


  8. I completely agree with this! I worked with this stallion that could be a bit dangerous on the ground: wanting to bite at you or rear. But the moment you hopped on him he was all business and there was nothing less than a “yes, ma’am” all the time. Amber….I have to admit I’ve let her ground manners go a bit. She’s a scratch monster and loves attention to the point where she’ll pin her ears at other horses if she thinks they’re getting more attention. But she’ll never bite or kick or even run anyone over if she spooks a bit so I can really let anyone handle her. She’s also “yes, ma’am” all the time when I ride. However, she knows when it’s not me riding her. Then she half-asses everything for that person LOL

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  9. This is really neat!

    My long time horse can be a bit of a pain on the ground. He likes to try and smack you with his head sometimes. Or if he can tell you’re timid just walk away from you, or on top of you depending on his mood. But like your mare, easy peasy to ride. Just, super uncomplicated. He’d be a kick ride if I hadn’t worked my ass off to sensitize him to the leg enough that he’s responsive (but not overly reactive). He’s not real fussy with his head. Not spooky. But nicely not too lazy either. He wasn’t quite so straightforward as a 12yro (versus now at 24), but even then it was basically A) he was herdbound about being left behind, but not leaving a group B) Bugs. Omg. bugs. C) Riding at a show or clinic freaked him out for awhile, made him bucky. But bending lines fixes that.

    Although I’ve been offered a very sweet* but VERY sensitive mare. If I can afford her care after my job change I’ll probably take her. Easy to handle on the ground most of the time (her ticklishness during grooming hints at her rideability, tho). She’s interesting. She’s willing but green (so green!) and sensitive. Luckily, she doesn’t appear to take after her grandsire Storm Cat. Phew!

    *others think she’s aloof, but I think I see something else. Time will tell. They’ve had her since Sept. I’ve known her since Nov. Started riding her last week. I think she’s a little scared and defensive still. And with confidence building will blossom. We had an EXCELLENT ride the other day and I saw a really happy and relaxed horse afterward.


  10. This is really interesting. My horses in the past have been consistently the same personality on the ground as they are under saddle. Now I’m wondering if it’s just that I expect them to be so they fulfill that–some sort of placebo effect?

    My youth horses put up with all of my shit on the ground and under saddle like perfect gentlemen/women (I had a mare and a gelding who both had very ‘lesson horse’ mentalities at different points in my younger years). My first OTTB was a shit for everything and fully took advantage of my inexperience and eventual fear of him. I do admit for this one that it very much may have been me filling in bad personality as we clearly didn’t get along well. My current boy is a big-man-boss horse who couldn’t be more offended by just about everything until you (or another horse) calls his bluff and he settles into being a gentle boy–both on the ground and under saddle.

    I had one horse who was very calm on the ground and very ‘up’ under saddle, but I think both things stemmed from his desire to please more than a personality change. He would be ‘up’ when we were working but would stand mounted on a loose rein and trail rode like a champ.

    I’ve ridden a ton of other horses, but none of them for more than 8-9 months, so it’s probably unfair to judge them as in-depth as horses who I have actually owned.


  11. Sooooo true! Ben is a doll on the ground and a moron in the saddle. Haha
    But you’re right. I’d take Sadie and her attitude all day if she’s great to ride. I also like mares so…call me crazy.


  12. For rideability, as long as I can find the “go” button & the horse doesn’t have a much of a stop, I’m happy. For temperament … I don’t think I’d want to go through what I went through with Eli again, although he is much easier now. I had no idea how much stock I put in ground manners until I had a horse who didn’t have them.


  13. Our gelding is an idiot on the ground. Scared of his own shadow. Afraid you’ll beat him at any minute. He has demons from his past. Nobody ever wants to ride him. It is a shame though because he is amazing under saddle. He hadn’t been ridden in over a year but my mare was injured so I grabbed him and went to a hunter pace. He acted like he had been doing it every day. He will go over anything you poin him at.


    1. When I worked with rent-string horses a lot were like that. They’d cow kick anyone trying to ground mount, but once the kid was thrown up there, they’d pack them like a champ and were often great rides.


  14. Love this post, especially for all he comments. Holly similar on ground and saddle, she wants a leader. She is very sweet on ground but needs her human to sometimes remind her of boundaries when she’s distracted or antsy. Even if she’s a nut in crossties (because wind, OMG) she will still give you her hoof. She wants to please. Someone put some good time into her manners when she was young and I strongly reinforce them. She’s the same in the saddle, she tells you what she’s feeling and asks your advice (unless it’s changes, she thinks knows what she’s doing better then us)

    I found a half sister to her for sale and after watching the price drop AND drop the ad finally revealed the mare was so sensitive and difficult she was being sold as a broodmare. I think Holly would have been the same without good training.


  15. Haha. Henry and Pig really are quite similar in some ways. I’ll let small children handle Pig on the ground, pick his feet, hold him, feed him treats, graze him, anything. He knows his manners, and I regularly ensure they are still installed. I will not let small children ride him, unless I’m sure their parents won’t sue me if he kills them AND I don’t have a show coming up. He is NOT tolerant under saddle. He’s a hot potato and nobody better forget it.

    I don’t know that I’ve had a horse where the opposite was true, so hearing about Sadie is really interesting. Then again, all I’ve known is OTTBs and horses in various stages of “pretty much a lesson horse”. I feel like all of them had pretty good manners put on, and if they didn’t they also had pretty subpar under saddle training to match.


    1. Henry really isn’t hot or difficult, he’s just sensitive. So I couldn’t throw a total beginner up there and expect that to work out beyond a walk, but someone who is at least a marginal rider (mainly with HAND control, bad hands are what will get you murdered by Henry) will be fine. Hillary hopped on him and thought he was easy too, so I think anyone used to a kinda sensitive horse is fine with him. And he’s legit the easiest horse on XC. Dressage, well… let’s not discuss that. 😉


  16. So very true! My horses are almost the opposite of how you described Henny and Sadie. Z is the easiest horse on the ground: quiet, respectful, one of the chillest horses I’ve seen. In a fit of holy-hell-I’m-the-luckiest-person-alive, I once asked her to back out of the trailer while she was still tied. She politely tried, stopped, tried again as I kept pulling on her tail, stopped, tried again, etc. Never freaked, never pulled back….never broke the turtle tie that would have released had any real pressure been put on it. Get on her back and if you really want to work…you better be able to prove to her that she should respect you or things will go south over time. (Sadly, something I have learned the hard way).

    E is a lot more sensitive on the ground…big movements freak him out, if your energy is high he will feed off it and get wide eyed. If he had been the horse in the trailer scenario above? All hell would have broken loose. But, under saddle he is so obedient and tries his heart out to do the right thing. He’s still sensitive but he doesn’t test, he tries.


  17. Great topic! I rode a horse for many years that was TERRIBLE on the ground – as in, he’d start out by greeting you with ears back and snapping teeth, would run you over/knock you down while leading if you didn’t carry a dressage whip, cow-kicked, kneed people, etc. Never stopped needing FIRM leadership and the occasional CTJ. This was especially important because he was a 17.1/1400 lb. Warmblood.

    However, get your butt in the saddle and he was practically perfect. As long as you had riding experience – if you were a rank beginner he’d know all about it and get sassy (drag people, playfully canter instead of trot and so on). I watched him do that to my son and oh, did he have a gleam in his eye! Knew EXACTLY what he was doing.

    At any rate, I was somewhat afraid of this horse in the barn but LOVED riding him because he was beautifully trained in dressage. Quite the schoolmaster, in fact! If you had a clue he could absolutely go like a dream. So yeah, I have firsthand experience with there being a very big difference between temperament and rideability… it always fascinated me with this horse. .


  18. Griffin is a large amicable dog on the ground. In the saddle, so long as you’re quiet with your aids, he’s reliable, but as time goes on, anyone who isn’t balanced and quiet gets a big middle finger! It’s funny because he wasn’t like this until we amped up our eventing training. He likes his one job and clearly says “F*ck off” to any newbie packing these days.


  19. I think there’s a correlation. It sounds like Sadie is fine with people on the ground if they’re alpha. The horses I’ve known who are actually crazy on the ground tend to be lazy under saddle too. But I totally agree that just because they’re easy on the ground doesn’t make them easy to ride. Dijon has had medical procedures done without any sedation. His ground manners are flawless, but he’s a nut to ride.


      1. Sorry I wasn’t very clear there. I mistyped lazy. So this sentence should read: “The horses I’ve known who are actually crazy on the ground tend to be crazy under saddle too.” The ones that are kites when you’re walking them around tend to be flighty and spooky to ride as well. I’ve yet to meet a horse that’s a spaz on the ground, but easy to ride. But I agree with you that good ground manners won’t guarantee a good riding horse.


  20. I definitley agree to pretty much all of the above. My current mount is kinda stand offish and anti-affection (but peppermints! OMG!!) on the ground. Really couldn’t care less what you do until you go to tack up. He grinds his teeth and will turn his face to you. He hasn’t tried to bite yet, but normally a good verbal threat stops him in his tracks. Complete proverbial QH under saddle. He won’t fix your riding mistakes, but he won’t hinder you either. Kinda just does whatever is asked of him. A very solid horse for someone getting back into jumping and needing some mistake-based learning.

    My prior horse was pretty much your solid been there, done that, got a t-shirt type. Only purebred Egyptian Arabian I’ve known to be so level headed and calm all the time. Beginner friendly for kids, SO, friends, etc. But the moment you ask for real work like rollbacks, walk/canter transitions, collection.. BIG ole middle finger unless you asked perfectly. Only thing that ever scared him was a spinning turkey decoy from a local Extreme Cowboy race. This poor guy even got himself caught between his lead rope and the barn (scratching ear with hoof I assume) and just waited until I walked around the corner with a “please help me” look. Probably the best horse I’ll ever own.


  21. And THIS is one of the big reasons I don’t want to breed or have a baby. I know what I’m comfortable working with and riding, and if baby turned out to be anything else, they’d have to go and I would be HEARTBROKEN.


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