Researcher: Breed and Housing Impact Riding Horses' Temperaments

Finding great riding school horses is a perpetual challenge for instructors. There isn't a formula for selecting the ideal school horse--sometimes the perfect mount just comes along, and other times management methods dictate whether a school horse is a success. But a group of French researchers recently put some parameters to school horse selection and management, determining that riding horses that spend more time turned out than confined to a stall display better behavior and are easier to handle, particularly those breeds known for having calm, quiet temperaments.

Clémence Lesimple, MSc, a PhD candidate at the University of Rennes in France, and colleagues set out to determine how breed and housing condition could impact equine behavior during handling.

The study involved 184 horses at 22 French riding schools. All the horses were stabled in individual stalls and spent zero to 12+ hours in turnout daily. Breeds tested included Camargues, Connemaras, Haflingers, Mérens, Thoroughbreds, and French Saddlebreds, among others.

The researchers used three emotional tests and one learning test--all used regularly in equine behavioral studies--to evaluate whether breed and housing affected the horses' behavior:

  • An arena test (an emotional test in which the horse is released into an indoor arena that he is familiar with and investigators observe his behavior and reactions for 10 minutes);
  • A novel object test (an emotional test in which the horse is released in the same arena, but is faced with a novel object for five minutes);
  • A bridge test (an emotional test in which the horse is led, using a halter and a rope, by an unfamiliar experimenter over an unknown obstacle); and
  • A chest test (a learning test during which the horse must figure out how to open a wooden chest to find food).

A researcher familiar with equine behavior and temperament--but not familiar with the case horses--evaluated and reported on the horses' reactions to the four tests.

After Lesimple and colleagues evaluated each horse's breed, housing arrangement (i.e., time spent in confinement vs. turned out), and reactions to each test, they determined that "the more time horses spent in paddocks, the less reactive they were in emotionality tests." She noted that the "more reactive" horses (typically those stalled for longer periods of time) displayed more locomotive behaviors associated with nervousness during the tests, including passagelike movements. Conversely, the "less reactive" horses (typically those who spent more time in turnout) handled the tests with a calmer and quieter demeanor.

"The horses kept in boxes (stalls) were more emotive when released in an arena, and could, therefore, be more prone to react dangerously in working situations."

In addition, the researchers noted that certain breeds seemed more or less reactive than others.

"In our study, Camargue or Mérens horses were quieter and calmer than others and might be the type of horses that riding schools dealing with inexperienced riders may be looking for," Lesimple said, adding that gender did not play a statistical role in the reactivity of the horses.

The Camargue is a French breed that shares similar characteristics (such as temperament and traditional uses) as Quarter Horses in the United States. The Mérens is a French breed that stands a tad shorter than the Morgan horse, but possesses many of the same characteristics as an old-style Morgan (slightly stocky, good temperament, generally easy to handle, and versatile).

"Each breed has its own characteristics and some of them, such as the French Saddlebreds and Haflingers (in this particular study), (tended to be) more emotive," said Lesimple. "More emotive horses might be prone to react dangerously when being handled."

Owners must consider each horse's individual characteristics, she stressed, but they should also consider the effects of housing on horses' behavior to help keep riders and handlers out of harm's way.

"By combining environmental conditions and choice of breed, it may be possible to reach the best compromises to ensure security on one hand and work needs on another," she said.

The study "Housing conditions and breed are associated with emotionality and cognitive abilities in riding school horses," was published in January Applied Animal Behavior Science. The abstract is available online.

About the Author

Marie Rosenthal, MS

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