Last December, I lost Lago, my part-lease horse, to colic. Part of working through this loss was identifying what I liked about this goofy, personable, and sometimes aloof Quarter Horse/Thoroughbred gelding. In May I found Robin, a Thoroughbred/Percheron cross. Robin is interested in people, a little fearful of new things, and enthusiastic about work. Two different horses: two distinct personalities. Thinking about the differences between Lago and Robin, I started to wonder if there is a scientific basis to my intuitive ideas about their personalities. Here is what I found out:
Personality can be defined as an animal’s basic stance toward environmental stimuli that is expressed by behavior patterns and remains relatively stable across time and situations. To measure this, scientists use a combination of qualitative and quantitative methods to reach a conclusion, or test a hypothesis about how a horse behaves and reacts to the world.
For example, the behavior coding method uses trained observers to record behavior of one animal at a time under controlled circumstances. In this study, researchers observed and recorded 13 behaviors (e.g. “aggressive” “alarmed” “fearful” “curious” “friendly” etc.) when horses were exposed to unknown humans in two controlled tests. First, the observers stood outside the stall, observed the horse for 30 seconds and rated the horses to establish a basic score. Then, they rated the horses on the same behaviors when approached outside the stall from a short distance, and inside the stall with touching. Results were consistent across observers and horses; the authors concluded that the test successfully measured personality.
In the trait rating method, observers rate specific, commonly understood traits. This study examined the occurrence of specific breed traits to see if anecdotal knowledge about breed temperament was supported by testing. 1223 horses representing 8 different breeds were assessed by experienced horse people and rated according to 25 traits. Horses were rated on a scale that indicates levels of agreement about a trait (e.g. Strongly disagree | Disagree | Neither agree nor disagree | Agree | Strongly agree). In this study, anxiousness and excitability showed the highest variation between breeds.
Thoroughbreds, Arabs, Welsh cobs were ranked at the top of this list with Irish Draught and Highland ponies at the low end of the scale. Sociability and inquisitiveness showed low variability between breeds, with the Arab and Thoroughbred ranking highest, the Irish Draught and American Quarter Horse ranking lowest. These results align with anecdotal evidence of breed temperaments.
Personality studies are not perfect. There is no one model for describing personality, and there are many methods for measuring it. A horse’s reactions to different stimuli may be different on different days, and human observations can be subjective. Also, horses can become habituated to even the most upsetting noises and situations.
Despite the difficulty of measuring and characterizing equine personality, these studies are useful because they can inform suitability of an individual horse for a job or discipline. This can only be good for both horses and people.