Does a Horse's Work Affect His Personality?

Horses are generally suited to a particular job based on breeding, conformation, and the individual differences in temperament that we think of as "personality." For example, a sleek, long-legged Thoroughbred is more suited to flat racing than a rotund Shetland pony. But what about the other way around? Does a horse's daily job affect his or her personality?

To answer the question, a group of French researchers recently used ethology methods (the scientific study of animal behavior) to test "emotionality" of 119 geldings used for a specific kind of work. Emotionality is the measure of emotional reactivity to a stimulus.

"We know from a previous study that work can be associated with chronic behavioral disorders," says Martine Hausberger, PhD, director of the Department of Ethology at the University of Rennes. "We wanted to see if there were changes in the emotional reactivity of horses when exposed to different types of work."

The horses (89 French Saddlebreds and 30 Anglo Arabs, all housed at the National Riding School at Saumur) were divided into six groups according to discipline: eventing, show jumping, advanced riding school, dressage, high school (i.e., more advanced, technical training; includes the movements performed by the Lipizzan Stallions), and voltige (vaulting). All were geldings from 4 to 20 years old, were ridden for one hour per day in the designated discipline, and had been in the current discipline for at least one year.

"Subjects lived under the same conditions (same housing, same food), were of the same sex, (were) one of two breeds, and had not been genetically selected for their current type of work," Hausberger noted in the study.

Following a workday at the assigned job, the researchers measured each horse's emotional reactivity by observing his responses to three increasingly challenging tests:

  • The "arena test," during which the horse was released alone into a familiar arena;
  • The "novel object test," in which the horse is placed in an area with a new object to investigate; and
  • The "bridge test," where the horse was led over an unknown object built with a foam mattress.

After reviewing the collected data, the researchers determined that the horses' type of work seemed to affect their responses to emotional challenges.

In both the arena test and the novel object test, the dressage and the high school horses "showed more high locomotive and excited behavioral patterns, such as snorting, tail raised, or vigilance." The latter quality was defined in the study as when "the horse stands still and holds its neck high, with intently oriented head and ears," and indicated that they were more reactive to the tests. Conversely, the jumping horses were most prone to approach and touch the novel object.

In the bridge test, jumping horses and vaulting horses crossed the bridge in the least amount of time, followed by eventers, advanced school horses, high school, and dressage horses.

Cumulatively, the team noted that the vaulting horses "showed the quietest profiles (e.g. slow walk and rolling in the dirt) when released," and the dressage and high school horses showed the greatest emotional response.

According to the researchers, "The fact that dressage riders expect their horses to react quickly to their orders might develop their 'sensitiveness' to the point that can easily lead to nervousness, and by repetition in the long term, become an integral part of the horse's personality."

Conversely, they continued, "jumping and vaulting horses have more chances to express locomotion needs ... which might explain their quieter responses to the tests in a handling fear situation."

On average, the eventing horses and advanced school horses were more sensitive (emotionally reactive) than the jumpers and vaulters, but less sensitive than the dressage and high school horses, the researchers noted. No explanation was given as to the possible reason.

The study, "Does Work Affect Personality? A Study in Horses," was published in the open access Public Library of Science Journal, PLoS One, and is available online.

About the Author

Nancy Zacks, MS

Nancy Zacks holds an M.S. in Science Journalism from the Boston University College of Communication. She grew up in suburban Philadelphia where she learned to ride over fields and fences in nearby Malvern, Pa. When not writing, she enjoys riding at an eventing barn, drawing and painting horses, volunteering at a therapeutic riding program, and walking with Lilly, her black Labrador Retriever.

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