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From the moment a foal is born, we begin to notice aspects of his personality — whether he appears confident and quick to learn, and how friendly he is. While it is interesting to speculate on how these early traits might manifest themselves in later years, what do we really know about personality in young horses?

Indeed, when purchasing a horse for a riding school or a less experienced rider, his personality is often considered more important than his conformation or even the price asked. If we could reliably test horse personality at a young age, it may help us to determine their suitability for a particular purpose. We could breed horses for specific personality traits and even match horses with riders for optimum performance.

So far, we know that tactile sensitivity, fearfulness and learning ability are heritable, meaning that these traits may be passed on to a horse’s offspring. This is not surprising, considering the differences between breeds that have been genetically selected for certain temperament traits over many generations. But what can scientific studies tell us about an individual foal’s behaviour and how it might shape his future?

Mum’s the word

First, we should understand the difference between personality and temperament.

Personality refers to the general character of an individual, in this case a horse, based on what we already know about the overall equine population. Descriptions of personality include extroversion, neuroticism and dominance. As personality is influenced by life experiences, it is fluid over time.

Temperament is a sub-trait of personality, describing a behavioural response to a specific context, and so is easier to measure. As temperament has a heritable component, it tends to be the focus of scientific studies.

Many aspects of a horse’s personality are innate, yet they are also shaped by experience and influenced by his dam.

In one study, foals observed, during the first five days of life, their dams being groomed and fed. These foals were less fearful of people than a control group whose dams remained unhandled, even up to a year later. A similar but less pronounced effect was seen in the same experiment carried out on a group of six-month-old foals.

Fearfulness in horses is a trait that may contribute to the risk of accidents when they are ridden. Danish researchers investigated if young foals could learn to be less fearful by observing their dam’s behaviour. They habituated 22 mares in the late stage of pregnancy to five initially scary stimuli: walking across plastic sheeting and between 70cm-high green plastic baskets; feeding next to a blanket draped over a 1.5m high tripod, being stroked all over with a plastic bag and observing an umbrella being opened.

Their newborn foals were randomly assigned to either a treatment or control group. The foals in the treatment group entered a test arena once a week for the first eight weeks of life, running loose beside their dams, and observed their mothers undergoing the tests. The foals in the control group also entered the arena with their dams for a similar time period, where the mares were handled — but none of the “scary stimuli” were present.

At eight weeks old, each foal had to follow his dam past the objects used in the mare habituation — passing within one metre of the plastic sheet and basket, before doing the same with new objects, such as traffic cones.

An umbrella was then opened in front of each foal and he was touched with a plastic bag. These tests were repeated when the foals were five months old.

The foals in the treatment group, who had witnessed their dams negotiating scary stimuli, were more confident at both eight weeks and five months old. They had lower heart rates during testing, showing they were less fearful. They also were more likely to investigate novel objects they had not previously encountered.

A separate study by the same research group demonstrated that the foals more willing to investigate a novel object were also faster to learn, suggesting that boldness at an early age may be a desirable trait.

Performance links

Researchers in France devised an equine temperament test for young showjumping horses that gives values to five personality traits: fearfulness, gregariousness, locomotor (movement) activity, response to humans and sensitivity to touch and sound. The test evaluates a young horse’s temperament and how this might influence his subsequent performance.

Because many owners are unwilling to travel their youngstock to the research centre and leave them there for the test, a simplified test has been developed (see box, above) that can be undertaken at breeding shows for two- and three-year-olds. Hundreds of horses have been tested at the centre and at breed shows, allowing a database of both genetic and environmental factors that influence temperament to be developed.

After undergoing the complete test, a subset of 24 horses was ridden over the following month by eight different riders. They were filmed on several occasions and the riders were asked to assign a rideability score to each.

Horses scoring more highly for fearfulness and tactile sensitivity in the tests were assigned lower rideability scores as they were perceived as more difficult to ride. A review of the video footage of their training revealed they were also more likely to spook, have unwanted head movements or require slowing down by the rider.

More than 650 horses underwent testing at the breed shows and many were followed up at showjumping competitions as four-year-olds. The horses that scored higher for fearfulness and activity levels were more likely to refuse fences or run out. But because they were less likely to knock poles, they had fewer faults.

So, is the bolder foal more likely to be fearless across country, or will the shy youngster turn into a particularly careful showjumper?

While we may not yet be at the stage of foreseeing a horse’s future with such precision, we know that all young horses have an innate personality and that this is influenced by experience. Early-life experiences seem especially significant, emphasising the need for competent handling right from birth and through early foalhood onward.

Ref Horse & Hound; 14 June 2018