It's common knowledge that horses' individual personalities play a role in how they behave. Scientists have even developed various equine personality tests—most of which use objective criteria in a scoring system—to determine personality type. But researchers have recently developed a new subjective personality test designed to help us better understand horse behavior.
“Subjective testing for horses allows us to accurately predict their behavior, which has the potential to reduce human-horse accidents,” said Carrie Ijichi, MSc, researcher at the School of Biological Sciences at Queen’s University, in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Ijichi and colleagues developed their subjective personality test—a list of questions similar to a quiz in a magazine—based on current equine behavior research, and had the handlers of 146 horses fill out the questionnaire. Then, the team put the horses through a battery of behavior tests to see how the handlers' personality scores lined up with the way the horses actually behaved.
The team found that the more “neurotic”—meaning anxious, rather than crazy—a horse, based on the handler's test responses, the more reactive he would be to something appearing suddenly in front of him in the behavior tests. It did not, however, predict how long the horse took to recover from the shock of the surprise.
The team also determined that introverted and extroverted horses handled fearful or unpleasant situations differently. For instance, if an extroverted horse was forced to be near an unpleasant object (e.g., because he's held by a lead rope), he would resist and try to escape. Introverted horses, on the other hand, “froze” and became totally unresponsive. These behaviors, however, do not necessarily correlate with fear: When unrestrained, introverted horses avoided such objects, whereas extroverted horses were “bold” and curious, approaching new objects to explore them.
“While neuroticism determines how frightened horses are, extroversion affects how they behave,” Ijichi said.
How “agreeable” a horse is, however, has no predictive quality about the way he will behave, she added.
“The behavior testing and personality questionnaire have highlighted that behaviors such as rearing, which often lead to horses being described as ‘bad’ or ‘dangerous,’ are in fact a result of the horse coping with stress in the only way it knows how,” she said. “By the same token, ‘stubborn’ and ‘unwilling’ horses have frozen up and withdrawn as a means of minimizing the stress being placed on them. It would be more productive to identify the source of the stress, reduce it, and retrain the horse ethically through methods such as those described in equitation science (learning theory) than to label the horse, stigmatize it, and blame it for its behavior."
The test's behavior predictions aren’t always what handlers expect from a horse, Ijichi said. People seem to be better at judging personality descriptions of their horses than predicting how their horses will behave.
“I frequently heard, ‘There’s no way you’ll get my horse to walk over that tarpaulin,’ and then the horse went straight across it with no problem,” she said. “So even though the handlers know their horses really well, the questionnaire was able to predict things that they themselves were not able to.”
Of course, for the test to be reliable, it has to be completed by someone who knows the horse well already, Ijichi added.
But having this subjective test doesn’t mean objective behavior and personality tests are no longer necessary, she said. “Neither objective behavior testing nor subjective rating is without faults, so for that reason, using both of them together can give scientists a more complete picture,” she said.
Unlike objective testing, however, subjective testing takes advantage of something that scientists can’t otherwise really qualify: feeling.
“Good horse trainers absolutely have a ‘feeling’ about the horses they work with,” Ijichi said. “One of the uses of this questionnaire is to let scientists and behaviorists tap into this wealth of knowledge from the people who really know the animal.”
Regardless of test results, Ijichi advised that humans need to avoid stereotyping equine personalities into “good” or “bad.”
“It's important to realize that, just like in people, there is no perfect personality type," she said. "For example, a neurotic horse will be more prone to stress and will be more likely to spook, which may be difficult to work with. On the other hand, their sensitivity means that they are incredibly responsive and can thus appear 'in tune' with their handler. If you're a good, calm handler, you can get amazing results by putting this to good use.”
The study, "Harnessing the power of personality assessment: subjective assessment predicts behaviour in horses," will appear in an upcoming issue of Behavioural Processes.
Disclaimer: Seek the advice of a qualified veterinarian before proceeding with any diagnosis, treatment, or therapy.