Determining Personality

Determining Personality


Q. My new horse–my first–is a 12-year-old Thoroughbred. I do not know all of her history, but I understand it has had its rough patches. She was one of a group of underfed broodmares rescued from an abusive owner. Fortunately, she was in two good homes before she came to me. She was very quiet and withdrawn when I purchased her, but now she is blossoming into a more complex character–sweeter, yet more stubborn, with a strong tendency to spook. As far as she is concerned, "unfamiliar" is a four-letter word! The question is this: How can a horse purchaser check out elements of a horse's character at the purchase exam? Then, when the horse is ours, how can we read the horse's character as it develops and reveals itself, especially during that first year of ownership?

A. While most mature horses don't have such seemingly big changes in character over time, some--like your horse--change considerably in new environments. Your question and others like it come up often, not only regarding adult animals, but also regarding the selection of a young prospect.

How can you predict adult temperament? There is no established battery of tests of character and temperament for horses yet. Many savvy trainers will take a horse, work with him, and get a good idea.

This past summer and fall, the students in our lab have been trying to develop a battery of tests for temperament and for general learning ability of horses. Working with horses in some standard learning tests, we see that horses vary considerably on quantifiable measures of temperament and learning ability. We all agree that it will take years of focused research to develop a scientifically based battery of tests.

Of course, many people talk about this concept of prepurchase personality testing in puppies--known as puppy tests. It turns out that puppy tests as they now exist are not based on scientific development, and in fact there is considerable controversy on their value as predictors of adult behavior and temperament. We've spoken to many behavior experts who say they have almost no predictive value.

Another way to look at this is why did your horse's temperament change? Probably the three biggest factors in temperament change are husbandry (nutrition and exercise), social factors (dominance/submission issues and social contentment of the barn or pasture group), and human-animal interaction. With the information you provided, it's tough to comment on your specific horse, but I can give some examples in general.

The most common example of effects of nutrition on temperament is that horses raised on high roughage/low grain diets often have a sudden change from mellow to short-tempered and aggressive when they are fed a lot of grain. Horses which were underfed for a while seem to be particularly at risk of becoming fairly difficult when fattened up--more aggressive, more feisty, and less predictable. Similarly, we all know that most horses which get plenty of exercise or work tend to be more mellow and compliant than horses which get very little exercise and work. I've known individual horses which can go back and forth with simple changes in management.

About the Author

Sue McDonnell, PhD, Certified AAB

Sue M. McDonnell, PhD, is a certified applied animal behaviorist and the founding head of the equine behavior program at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine. She is also the author of numerous books and articles about horse behavior and management.

Stay on top of the most recent Horse Health news with FREE weekly newsletters from Learn More