The Tennessee Walking Horse is best known for its unique gait. It is one of the few horse breeds in the world today that has a four-beat running walk that can be used for high speed movement. That means three hooves are always on the ground during this gate. It makes for a very smooth ride when mounted, eliminating much of the bounce that is experienced with other breeds and their gallop or fast gait.
Tennessee Walking Horses have a temperament that can be put into two different categories. The first are horses that are called “performance individuals.” The other are “flat-shod” and trained for different movements and tasks. The training that each discipline requires creates a different overall personality and temperament, but both are based on the common ground of the overall breed characteristics.
History of the Tennessee Walking Horse Temperament
This breed was developed in the late 18th century by bringing together local Pacers in Kentucky with Spanish Mustangs that were brought from Texas. The Mustangs all had the unique running walk gait, which was then brought into this new breed of horse. This allowed local farmers to work more effectively in their limestone pastures, offering a better “pace” of life.
In the early days of the breed, they were actually called “Tennessee Pacers.”
There is a certain stubbornness that is built into the temperament of the Tennessee Walking Horse. They demand to have their pacing and will resist any training that attempts to hamper it. That is why you’ll see the two general types of temperament within this breed, based on the training that it goes through.
Competition horses within this breed tend to be taught exaggerated movements to show off the unique pacing. Flat-shod horses, on the other hand, tend to emphasize the natural movements of the running walk gait. For this reason, completion Tennessee Walking Horses tend to be a little more stubborn and agitated compared to their counterparts.
Because this is a true warm-blooded breed, you’ll also see the usual traits of such lineage. These horses prefer to be active, enjoy being social, and love a good competition. They serve well as a family horse, but some individuals within the breed may find that pace of life to be a little too slow for them.
The Sensitivities of the Tennessee Walking Horse Temperament
Tennessee Walking Horses have a very sensitive personality. They enjoy companionship and love a good workout, but they also like having some time dedicated to them every day for a social encounter. Owners and handlers will find that if they don’t spend a regular amount of time with their horse to foster their relationship, their horse will begin to stop listening to directions or develop other negative habits.
When there is a strong relationship with a Tennessee Walking Horse, most will find that the individual is quite adaptable to changing circumstances. They don’t mind Western or English gear, though changing between the two regularly can cause some irritation with the horse. This breed tends to be calm and usually docile, creating a dependable experience for riders, owners, and handlers whenever they are around the horse.
The sensitivity of the breed tends to be a positive aspect of this breed’s temperament, but it can also be a challenge with some individuals. If the horse feels like the relationship isn’t being fostered, then the “hurt” that the horse feels can translate into negative behaviors over time. You could spend 3 hours per day with some Tennessee Walkers and they would feel like it isn’t enough attention, so they’d start lashing out.
You’ll see this begin by having the ears lay back or having the horse snip at you as you approach. You may also see more aggressive behaviors within the herd as the individual tries to dominate others to make sure they have the amount of human attention that they believe is necessary.
Attempting to correct these behaviors with discipline may cause them to increase. That is why there are some individuals within this breed that can be a challenge to own. For the average Tennessee Walking Horse, however, the temperament is one that is friendly, outgoing, and willing.
Soring and How It Affects the Tennessee Walking Horse Temperament
Competition horses with the Tennessee Walking Horse breed are encouraged to have exaggerated movements within their gait. Some owners and handlers, to obtain this movement, may engage in a practice that is called “soring.”
Soring is the intentional abuse of the horse to exaggerate the gait. The bottom of the foot is purposely injured so that the horse experiences pain every time they place their foot on the ground. Their reaction to the pain causes them to lift the leg higher, creating the desired gait for competition.
To create the sore, a combination of chains and caustic chemicals are typically used. Some may even shove objects between the hoof and the shoe to avoid evidence of injury when the horse is inspected for competition.
The practice of soring has been outlawed since 1970 in the United States, but the practice is difficult to regulate for many breeds. Beginning in 2017, The Tennessean reports that the USDA will begin banning the gear that is used for soring, including the chains that may be placed around the hooves and ankles of the horses.
Sometimes metal bands might be strapped across the hooves and then tightened to create the discomfort “needed” to encourage the higher gait.
The unfortunate fact in this practice is that with a little extra time, most Tennessee Walkers would love to learn the skill of the new gait on their own.
New regulations will also require inspectors to become trained, then licensed, through the USDA Inspection Service. This will take away the common tools that are still used for soring, which should hopefully create happier horses.
As one can imagine, living in a world of chronic pain will cause many negative changes to the temperament of a Tennessee Walking Horse – or any other breed, for that matter. If the horse fails to perform as expected after the soring has occurred, continued abuse may be used to “teach” skills to the horse, such as using a chainsaw bit.
The bottom line is this: soring creates negative behaviors that are often passive aggressive. Their response creates a negative spiral that usually results in something happening to the horse when it was the trust of the horse that was violated in the first place.
The Tennessee Walking Horse temperament is generally willing and docile, making it a good family breed. They may be a warm-blooded breed, but there are several personality traits that are more reflective of the larger cold-blooded breeds. They are strong, athletic, and love having attention. When they are happy, they will be playful, and this creates a fun relationship to explore for anyone who loves horses.