Can a horse be born bad?

Some riders interpret fear as a horse being 'bad.' Other recognise fear as a horse's natural reaction to being an animal of prey.

Some riders interpret fear as a horse being ‘bad.’ Other recognise fear as a horse’s natural reaction to being an animal of prey.

Does your horse have a natural tendency towards specific types of behaviour, or are his responses moulded by influences in his lifetime? Can the right handling cure the ‘bad’ horse or are some destined to be difficult forever? Understanding is key to successful partnerships. HQ looks at current research and different views on personality typing and leaves it to you to match yourself with the temperament that you are best able to cope with.

Research and science

Whether you call it temperament or personality, it determines how your horse learns and his ability to adapt to situations, as well as rider suitability.

About five years ago Lea Lansade, PhD, of the French Horse and Riding Institute (IFCE) and the National Institute for Agricultural Research’s (INRA) behaviour science department in Tours, France, developed an equine personality test. Lansade’s Complete Temperament Test [1] is designed to measure five areas of equine personality at a young age (as young as eight months):

  • Fear/susceptibility to emotions
  • Gregariousness (sociability with other horses)
  • Sensorial (tactile) sensitivity
  • Reactivity to humans
  • Locomotor activity

The Complete Temperament Test was very time-consuming and expensive to conduct so as recently as March 2015, she released information on her new, shorter Simplified Temperament Test [2]. It may not be as thorough as the Complete Test but it is proving to be accurate, reliable and more time efficient to conduct. “There is no good or bad temperament in horses,” said Lansade. “Just temperaments that are more or less suited to specific disciplines and situations.”

Once all the tests are completed, the researchers analyse the scores and results according to a specific calculation to develop specific results on each horse’s temperament. Unlike the complete test, the simplified test can be carried out in-hand with a halter.

The steps of the simplified test included:

  • Tactile stimulus test – where the horse is touched at the whither with a special type of flexible stick.
  • Unknown object test – the horse is asked to approach a red and grey plastic canvas.
  • Unknown surface test – the horse is asked to cross a plastic sheet.
  • Suddenness test – the horse is exposed to an umbrella opened quickly.
  • Behaviour test – the horse’s behaviour is observed while his height is measured with a measuring stick.

After extensive testing, the team concluded that the Simplified Test is as good as the Complete Test although limited to three aspects of equine personality:

  • Susceptibility to emotions
  • Sensorial sensitivity
  • Locomotor activity

It was also decided though that these three aspects are sufficient to provide a basic view of the horse’s personality.

Jumping temperament

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There is an interesting correlation between temperament parameters and jumping performance

Lansade determined that horses who were more emotional, and to a certain extent more active, were much more difficult to manage, although they were also the horses with the fewest penalties in jumping competitions.

“This paradox might be explained by the fact that highly emotional horses, even if they’re more challenging to ride, are also more respectful of the bars (jump poles), making greater efforts to avoid touching them,” Lansade said.

Psychological factors

In their research paper Psychological factors affecting equine performance [3], co-authors Sebastian D McBride and Daniel S Mills examine some very interesting points of view. They state that psychological factors exist at three separate but inter-related levels:

  • Temperament – shaped by genetics and early life experience
  • Mood – a temporary psychological state which affects behavioural choices in specific environments
  • Emotional reaction – the most severely affected by outside stimuli and tends to be affected by mood

Temperament tactics

If a horse who has always been willing to work suddenly becomes tricky and unreliable, it becomes the rider’s and trainer’s responsibility to identify why. It could be because the training regime is applying too much pressure to the horse, or it could be a warning that physically something is a bit off. Horses have no way to tell us that something is wrong except to object to doing that which hurts them.

Conformation limitations

Croup high horses can still compete at higher level with the correct training

Croup high horses can still compete at higher level with the correct training

Conformation can also be a contributory factor to temperament. A good example is a horse who is built croup high being put under tremendous pressure to sit and lower his croup to the extent required for high level dressage. His conformation makes doing this more difficult, which in turn puts more pressure on him psychologically, which could lead to outbursts of temperament or emotion. That is not to say that a croup high horse can’t do high level dressage, it just means that possibly the training approach has to be innovative.

Success competitively

One of the reasons that professional riders are so successful is their inherent understanding of the ‘type’ of horse that works well for them. They have over the years worked out what horse personality and type work well with their own temperament and riding style; their power also lies in their ability to let go when the match isn’t a good one. At the opposite end of the spectrum is the rider who loves their one special horse, no matter how unsuitable he may be, who through sheer determination finds tools to create an understanding and a working relationship with their chosen partner.

Text: Mandy Schroder

The full article appears in the October issue of HQ.