Equine Performance and Psychological Factors Linked

Ever feel like your horse is in a bad mood? Well, according to a British equine behavior research team, you could be right. In fact, team members said, paying attention to all of horses' main psychological factors--temperament, moods, and emotional reactions--is key to ensuring their mental well-being and their success.

"To attain optimal individual performance within any equestrian discipline, horses must be in peak physical fitness and have the correct psychological state," said Daniel S. Mills, BVSc, PhD, MRCVS, Dipl. ECVBM-CA, European and RCVS Recognized Specialist in Veterinary and Behavioral Medicine at the University of Lincoln in the United Kingdom. Mills and Sebastian McBride, PhD, associate lecturer in equine science at the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences at Aberystwyth University in Wales (U.K.), recently published a paper on the topic.

"Psychological state" is made up primarily of three psychological factors: temperament, mood, and emotional reaction, the team said. Temperament is a basic, long-term attitude. Developed from genetic factors and life experiences, a horse's temperament usually remains essentially consistent throughout his life.

Mood, on the other hand, is a short-term attitude. Just like people, they said, horses can have good moods and bad moods, motivation and grumpiness. And as for emotional reactions, these are the most immediate kind of attitude. They are the way a horse reacts to a specific situation, whether it's an open umbrella or a separation from his pasture buddies.

Although emotional reactions are primed by the kind of temperament and mood a horse has, but they are still considered individual psychological factors, they added.

What the "correct psychological state" is for each horse varies, however, according to the kind of work that horse does, they said. For example, a dressage horse should be cool and calm so as not to be distracted by his environment, but "flightiness" in a racehorse can be a good thing.

Likewise, the barrel horse and cutting horse need to have significantly different psychological states than the endurance horse and carriage horse. Each discipline has its precise "preferences" for the psychological state of the equid doing the work, they said.

"Just as a Shetland will never win the Derby, so a horse of inappropriate temperament will generally never succeed within a certain discipline," Mills and McBride stated.

While some researchers have developed behavioral testing to identify which horses are good for which kinds of work, these tests fall short of addressing specific psychological factors, they said. Ideally, scientists will be able to come up with psychological testing for horses that will help place them in the right careers, which will help prevent economic losses and improve horse welfare.

Mood testing could also be useful during training and competition days, to assess what the horse is realistically capable of at that moment. And while some breeders are taking temperament into consideration when matching stallions and mares, it's far from being a priority on a whole.

Research is currently lacking in these critical areas, Mills said. "Whilst there is a growing literature on temperament in horses, there is still very little scientific work on the emotional reactions of horses and almost none on the assessment of moods," the team stated in its paper. "It is nonetheless important to appreciate that although it is difficult to study these phenomena, this does not mean that they are not important and certainly that they do not exist."

In the meantime, however, owners will have to wait. Said Mills, guessing a horse's mood or temperament isn't reliable without scientific grounds. "A bad test can be worse than no test since it leads to false expectations," he said.

"People need to recognize that it's not about getting a good horse but about getting the right partnership--in other words, the right horse for them," Mills told The Horse. "What works for one may not work for another, so always try out and feel how the horse goes for you."

The study, "Psychological factors affecting equine performance," appeared in the journal BMC Veterinary Research in September. The abstract is available online.

Disclaimer: Seek the advice of a qualified veterinarian before proceeding with any diagnosis, treatment, or therapy.