Look Him in the Eye

When evaluating a horse, Hawaiian horseman Lester Buckley focuses on its eyes and expression. By accurately reading a horse’s disposition through its eyes, riders can select the type of horse best suited for them.

by Kate Bradley

Look Him in the EyeMost horse owners are looking for a horse that is a pleasure to ride and work around, and that will not be too complicated.

An old English proverb says that “the eyes are the window to the soul,” and Hawaiian horseman Lester Buckley puts the expression to work every time he evaluates a horse.

“Horses’ eyes are built pretty much the same, except the pigmentation varies,” says Buckley. “It is the tissue around the eye that expresses the emotions, like the frame on a picture. The bridge of the [horse’s] nose and the tissue around the eye are indicators of its attitude and the refinement in the horse’s bloodline; therefore, they indicate what kind of leader or rider the horse needs.”

With more than 45 years of experience starting colts—including working on the King Ranch in Texas and the Parker Ranch in Hawaii—Buckley has seen his fair share of horses. The first impression he gets from a horse usually tells him what kind of rider that horse will need to be successful at its job, whether on the ranch or in the show arena.

“There are two [types] of horses that need a seasoned rider. The first is highly insecure but talented, and it needs to be ‘held together’ by the rider,” he says. “The other is highly confident and talented, and it needs a confident and skilled leader because it will take advantage of situations. For different reasons, those kinds of horses need strong leadership.

“The non-complicated horses can handle a rider that isn’t as strong a leader, but kind of points the horse in the right direction and then lets the horse go from there. Most people need the soft, easy horse that isn’t going to challenge the rider.”

Here, Buckley sorts horses into four personality types based on the clues he sees in their eyes.

The Open Book
From reined cow horse competitors to weekend pleasure riders, most horse owners want a partner that is easy to work with. The perfect horse for an inexperienced rider has an “Elsie the Cow” type of eye: round, open and kind.

Buckley says that the non-complicated horse advertises its willing attitude.

Look Him in the EyeLEFT: The “Elsie the Cow” look on this gelding’s face is that of a horse willing to please its rider. RIGHT: The tissue around this horse’s eye is not excessively wrinkled, and therefore does not indicate worry or concern. The round, wide eye is soft and expressive.

“This light chestnut with the flaxen mane displays my ideal horse eye if I wanted a horse that was a pleasure to ride and be around. The expression is warm, friendly and trusting, as well as confident,” he says of the horse pictured on this page. “His eye displays the type of horse people gravitate toward.”

The round, open eye, with little or no wrinkle around it, is an example of a horse that doesn’t worry a lot. The horse is receptive to what is going on, doesn’t show much fear, and accepts any challenge the rider puts forth.

“There is no filter or concealment with this horse,” he says. “He will do anything for you because he automatically wants to please you and get along.”

This type of horse might not be a high-caliber show horse, Buckley adds, but is ideal for many riders.

“Most horses bred to compete are the type that the rider needs to be smart in deciding how much pressure is put on the horse, and when to ease up. It is kind of like driving a sports car as opposed to a truck—it is more sensitive,” he explains. “With a more open horse like this one, you can keep going or stop, and within reason the horse is going to be good with it.

“If you’re looking for something to trail ride on or to instill confidence in a new or inexperienced rider, you want a confident horse but not one that will walk right over you. Look for a horse that will walk up to you in the pasture, but not too close, and one that carries its head level and not up in ‘alert mode’ when walking.”

Buckley says that because of specialized performance horse breeding, few horses fit this bill, so finding a kind yet confident horse can be like mining for gold. While this horse may not have the athleticism to make it to the final round at the National Cutting Horse Association Futurity, it will keep a rider safe on the trail and in the arena.

The Work Horse
Most horses Buckley has seen fit into his middle-of-the-road category. The horse is semi-confident but looking for secure leadership. Often, this horse has more wrinkles around the eye and its shape is more oval than the round, open look of the “open book” horse. Buckley says this horse is suited for a more experienced rider.

Look Him in the EyeLEFT: The buckskin’s face is refined, but still shows the stoic influence of ranch breeding. He is alert but not startled. RIGHT: The eye is round, but tissue above the eye indicates this horse is looking for a leader so that it doesn’t have to decide what to worry about.

“The middle-of-the-road eye is one that is often seen on good working horses,” he says. “They are intelligent, not overconfident, but not overly worried, either. It is a normal horse eye as far as expressing emotions. Often, this type of horse becomes a nice horse to bond with because it doesn’t challenge fair leadership.

“The horse is a little more concerned about things it is unsure of, but willing to follow the rider. This buckskin [pictured here] is like a country kid that you take to the city: he looks around and is worried about what he sees. He is a little shocked and shows innocent naiveté. The horse wants you to show him what to do to be safe.”

A more oval-shaped eye, with refinement through the nose bone, indicates a horse that will perform for the rider once it is shown how to do the work. This personality trait shows up when the horse is caught from the pasture.

“When I catch this buckskin, you can see the horse’s attitude change,” Buckley says. “He is confident in the pasture, walking up to me, but when I catch him and he’s around people, he expresses worry through his eye.”

With a horse that displays both confidence and worry, the rider should be the leader and be able to show the horse what is expected of it. Once this type of horse understands its job, Buckley says it becomes a good working horse.

The Flight Risk
Buckley says recent breeding trends have produced a higher number of hot but delicate horses, and they fit into his “flight risk” classification.

Look Him in the EyeLEFT: In the pasture or in the stall, this gelding has a slightly alarmed look. His outlook on the world is one of concern, even though he is a superior athlete. RIGHT: The angular shape of the horse’s eye and the excessive wrinkles above it indicate this horse is often worried and on the lookout for predators. It takes a skilled rider to overcome this horse’s mental obstacles.

“We now have horses that are so talented, but careful and cautious,” he says. “We have lost some of the stoicism and courage that was in the more cold-bred horses years back.

“This gelding [shown above] is the most worried horse I have, and also, by far, the most talented. But I also have to hold him together. He is highly insecure, and that shows in anxiety and how he is overly attentive to anything—a bird flying or tree swaying. His eye is very expressive and always has the startled look. It is wrinkled on top and bottom, showing his worry.”

This gelding displays inconsistent behavior when Buckley catches him in the pasture. One day, the insecurity will be displayed through the horse’s overeager attempt to get as close to Buckley as possible. The next day, the horse may hang back out of timidity. This type of horse needs a strong rider to give him support.

“A confident rider, one that knows how to control the flight instinct through calmness and not force, is needed for this type of horse,” says Buckley. “He wants to be secure, and he is looking for that security from everyone around him. He is timid and worried. If you buy a horse that is borderline flight mode, you have to be a seasoned, highly confident rider to keep it together. This horse is not everybody’s cup of tea.”

Buyers often purchase a talented horse in anticipation of competing at a high level, but then find it hard to hold this horse’s attention and keep a consistent training regimen, Buckley says. The horse can be mislabeled as a troublemaker because of its lack of courage.

“This is not a good horse for someone who is just getting into riding or looking for a horse to do everything,” he says. “A seasoned rider will keep this horse on track and not give it a lot of free time to go on autopilot, because that is when this type of horse can get into trouble. This timid horse needs its hand held.”

Buckley cautions a prospective performance-horse buyer against focusing only on the horse’s physical attributes. Look deeper at how the horse acts when it is alone, and get an initial impression of the horse’s eye when it is at ease. The worried, fearful look is easy to spot.

The Herd Leader
The majority of horse people can recognize what many term an “old campaigner.” Such a horse, typically an older one, carries an expression that says, “Been there, done that.” However, Buckley says that a confident, stoic horse that is recognized as a leader exhibits some of those traits at an early age.

“My first instinct with this horse is that he is highly intelligent but not mean, a leader and not a follower,” Buckley says of a liver chestnut he’s picked out. “He is totally aware of everything that is going on and doesn’t worry about it.

Buckley says this is his own “ideal horse,” but he had to work to earn the horse’s respect.

“This gelding had no interest in what I wanted him to do until I established myself as the herd leader. Then, he worked with me but not for me. The shape of his eye—not round, but more shuttered—forebodes that he will challenge any type of forced leadership.”

There is not an overabundance of tissue above the eye, and the few wrinkles are due to age, not worry.

Look Him in the EyeThough his head is as not as refined as that of many performance horses, this gelding’s eyes display his intelligence.

“This horse is the leader in any band, but never calls attention to himself,” says Buckley. “In the pasture, he is passive when others are causing drama. The other horses look to him for security and leadership. He only looks to me, and that is only because I’ve earned it.

“This is not a horse for beginners. Each stride, he tests the rider for authority. He may be good at first, but after about 10 or 15 minutes without leadership he respects, he’ll get rid of you. Maybe he won’t get rid of you by being a bronc, but by scraping you off on a fence or under a branch. This horse is super-intelligent and highly confident.”

Though best suited for experienced riders, a horse like this will not respond to force. Only by gaining respect correctly can the rider establish a leadership role.

“The challenge when looking for a horse is to find a horse with courage, like this one, but the talent and skill set of the more modern horse,” says Buckley. “It is a balancing act. When buying your first horse, or buying a new horse in general, be aware of the bloodline as well as the horse’s attitude. Today’s horses are high-quality athletes, but many lack the courage needed to be a good, confident mount for a new rider.”

Armed with Buckley’s expert guidance on judging a horse’s attitude through eye expression, horse buyers and owners can better understand how to connect with their mounts. The goal, Buckley says, is to work with the horse and become a team.

“A horse hangs its emotions out through the eyes, and the eye tissue is the frame,” he says. “Is the frame more closed on life, or wide open? Does the horse hang back in the pasture or walk over and on top of you? Being aware of these signs can help take the guesswork out of working with a horse, and keep the horse and rider on track to success.”

Meet Lester Buckley
Lester Buckley grew up in rural Texas. As a student at Sul Ross State University in Alpine, Texas, Buckley attended many Ray Hunt clinics, returning to the school to teach Hunt’s lessons to other riders. After graduating in 1985 with a bachelor’s degree in equine science, Buckley apprenticed with National Cutting Horse Association Hall of Fame trainer Willie Richardson before starting colts for the King Ranch. By 1992, he was traveling between the South Texas ranch and the Parker Ranch on the island of Hawaii. Eventually, Buckley became the horse manager on the Parker Ranch. Today, Buckley and his wife, Mary, reside in Hawaii. Buckley now works with Western and English horses, often traveling to the United States and Europe to present clinics and aid people with problem horses. For more on his teaching methods, visit buckleysporthorses.com.

KATE BRADLEY is a Texas-based freelance writer. Send comments on this story to edit@westernhorseman.com.