Researchers Put Science Behind 'Willingness to Work'

Researchers Put Science Behind 'Willingness to Work'

König von Borstel said that the judge evaluations of horses' willingness to work seemed mostly related to three specific, objective criteria, all in the cross-country test: refusals, jumping manner, and the intensity of the rider's aids.

Photo: Erica Larson, News Editor

Willingness to work is typically considered a valuable trait in riding horses. Whether it's for a presale assessment, a decision about which horse is suitable for a rider, or a breeding evaluation for stallions and mares, many individuals strive to recognize a willingness to work on a regular basis.

Judging whether a horse is "willing" to work is usually a subjective task, according to a group of German equitation scientists. Recently, however, that group has made progress in developing an objective test based on physiological and behavioral criteria in horses.

"We really need an improved way of assessing the 'personality' of a horse," said Uta König von Borstel, PhD, researcher at the University of Göttingen. "Selected, concrete behavior patterns may make this evaluation more impartial and reliable."

König von Borstel and her team studied 16 stallions undergoing testing for breeding in which experienced judges specifically score the horses' "willingness to work" in a pre-established evaluation. While the judges made their subjective scores, König von Borstel and her colleagues identified specific behavioral and physiological criteria during the three events that made up the evaluation: a cross-country test (the second phase of a three-day eventing competition), a dressage test, and the temperament test (a sort of indoor "trail" test where the horse is faced with unknown objects).

The criteria the team evaluated included heart rate, rein tension, the intensity of the rider's aids, and recognizable behaviors (such as refusals, shying, stopping, tail-swishing, head-tossing, acting afraid, or bucking). The researchers also examined horses' jumping manner with an objective evaluation of the method of jumping (i.e., how straight the horse approaches the jump; how much the horse's legs are tucked in; and how it rounds its body coming over the jump, on a scale of one to 10).

König von Borstel said that the judge evaluations of horses' willingness to work seemed mostly related to three specific, objective criteria, all in the cross-country test: refusals, jumping manner, and the intensity of the rider's aids. Interestingly, she noted, none of these criteria were physiological--all related to the horse's behavior (or the effect of the horse behavior on the rider actions).

"Cross-country training appears to be more useful than dressage training or a specifically designed temperament test for evaluating the equine personality trait of 'willingness to work,' " she said during her presentation at the 2012 International Society for Equitation Science conference.

However, she cautioned, more research is needed to come up with "repeatable behavior parameters"--meaning more reliable criteria that test consistently with the same horse again and again--before a truly objective test can be available.

König von Borstel's study is part of a larger research project aiming to take the bias and subjectivity out of equine assessments, including willingness to work, rideability, temperament, character, and constitution.

About the Author

Christa Lesté-Lasserre, MA

Christa Lesté-Lasserre is a freelance writer based in France. A native of Dallas, Texas, Lesté-Lasserre grew up riding Quarter Horses, Appaloosas, and Shetland Ponies. She holds a master’s degree in English, specializing in creative writing, from the University of Mississippi in Oxford and earned a bachelor's in journalism and creative writing with a minor in sciences from Baylor University in Waco, Texas. She currently keeps her two Trakehners at home near Paris. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

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