Horse personalities affected by careers – study

Analysis of a French study has revealed that dressage horses appear to be the stress bunnies of the horse world.
Analysis of a French study has revealed that dressage horses appear to be the stress bunnies of the horse world. © Kit Houghton/FEI

Does the type of work a horse undertake affect its personality?

A study in France explored the question, subjecting more than 100 adult horses from different careers to standardised behavourial tests.

The researchers found that dressage and high-school horses showed higher levels of anxiousness than those taking part in other disciplines, confirming earlier research indicating that dressage horses are the stress bunnies of the equine world.

The findings have implications for people. It suggests that the type of work people do may be an important factor in the development of their personalities.

The horse study was able to eliminate many of the environmental factors that could cloud research into humans.

The horses used for the study lived at the Ecole Nationale d’Equitation, at Saumur, in France.

The horses lived under the same conditions – the same housing and same food – and were all geldings. Most were one of two breeds and had not been genetically selected for their current type of work.

The study, led by Martine Hauberger, from the University of Rennes 1, said each horse’s type of work had been decided by the riding school’s stall managers, mostly on their jumping abilities.

However, she noted that an unconscious choice based on individual behavioural characteristics of each horse could not be totally excluded in the findings.

The reseasrchers found that the horses from different types of work differed not so much in their overall emotional levels as in the ways they express emotions.

However, dressage horses showed “the highest excitation components”, while vaulting horses were the quietest.

Hausberger and her colleagues said it has been repeatedly hypothesised that job characteristics are related to changes in personality in humans, but often personality models omit the effects of life experience.

“Demonstrating reciprocal relationships between personality and work remains a challenge though, as in humans, many other influential factors may interfere,” the authors noted.

The study, published in the open-access journal PLoS ONE, investigated the relationship by comparing the emotional reactivity of horses that differed only by their type of work.

“Horses are remarkable animal models to investigate this question as they share with humans working activities and their potential difficulties, such as ‘interpersonal’ conflicts or ‘suppressed emotions’,” Hausberger and her colleagues wrote.

They pointed to an earlier study that revealed that the type of work for which a horse was used could lead to chronic behavioural disorders outside the work situation.

In the study, vaulting horses showed the quietest profiles when released and were less fearful when led over an unknown obstacle.
In the study, vaulting horses showed the quietest profiles when released and were less fearful when led over an unknown obstacle. © im|press|ions – Pascal Duran/Daniel Kaiser

“Thus, dressage horses, trained to obey to precise orders – that is, to suppress any kind of emotional expression – presented stereotypic behaviours more frequently and ‘stronger’ forms of stereotypies than did horses from other disciplines.

“Clearly, if work characteristics can induce chronic behavioural problems in horses, it could also affect their personality, as it does in humans.”

Studies of horses’ personality use behavioural tests, questionnaires, or both.

Previous studies have shown high levels of individual variations in traits such as fearfulness or gregariousness. Factors such as paternal origin, breed or environmental conditions were found to influence temperament and/or personality traits.

In all, 119 horses were tested at the Ecole Nationale d’Equitation between October and December 1994. They were geldings aged 4-20 and were all housed under the same conditions, in single boxes, and ridden for one hour every day.

They were fed pellets four times a day and hay twice a day. Diets or quantities of food did not differ according to type of work.

The horses were either French Saddlebreds (89 horses) or Anglo-arabs (30).

They were divided into six groups according to type of work the did, ranging from eventing, to showjumping, dressage, high school and vaulting.

All hoses had been working in their type of work for at least a year and all had arrived at the riding school when they were 4 to 5 years old.

Hausberger and her colleagues said the tests undertaken on the horses are commonly used to assess emotionality and learning abilities in equines.

The “Arena test” involved observations of the horse after it was released alone in a familiar arena in which is it regularly ridden.

The “Novel object” test involved watching each horse’s reactions to a novel object placed in the arena, while the “Bridge” test involved observing the reactions of each horse being led with a halter over an unknown obstacle built with a foam mattress, planks and concrete blocks.

“Behavioural tests evaluating personality traits of adult horses revealed that type of work influenced their emotional level when facing a challenge.

“Despite having been accustomed to the test arena, some of the experienced horses could react strongly when released alone in the arena or when it included a novel object.

“More than their overall emotional level … horses from different types of work differed in their interest in the object (voltige or jumping horses) or their tendency to perform more locomotion and excited behaviour such as passage, tail raised, vigilance, characteristic of high arousal/alarm levels].

“Voltige [vaulting] horses showed the quietest profiles (for example, slow walk and rolling) when released and were less fearful when led over an unknown obstacle.

“Slight differences were observed between the two breeds …

“Differences observed according to type of work confirm earlier reports showing that dressage horses are overall emotionally more reactive.

“Dressage and high school horses showed similar behavioural tendencies, further confirming that work characteristics are implied, high school being a more elaborate form of dressage.

“Previous observations showed that frequency and type of stereotypic behaviour performed by adult dressage and high school horses in their box were similar (and high).

“Potential impact of type of work on the daily life of horses is thus further confirmed, as no other (genetic or environmental) factor could account for the differences observed.

“As manipulation of type of work was out of the question, the possibility that stall managers unconsciously took behavioural characteristics into account when allocating horses to different types of work cannot be excluded.

“If this is the case, intrinsic characteristics and work particularities may well have additive effects that could explain further some of the important differences observed.”

The horses expressed similar behavioural profiles in the arena and the novel object test, the authors noted.

“Such similarities in the reactions to these two tests confirms other studies in adults, but not in younger horses.

“This could be explained by the fact that these horses lived in single boxes with little social contact and were used to working alone.

“They were therefore not reacting strongly to social separation (no whinnies … contrary to young horses living in groups or to riding-centre horses used to working with others.

“The reactions of our subjects were therefore related more probably to the strange (for them) situation of being released in the arena, a situation which never occurs otherwise, and being confronted with a novel object.”

Jessica von Bredow-Werndl and the stallion Unee B were third World Cup dressage final.
The study found that dressage horses were more “anxious” than the other horses. © Hippo Foto – Dirk aremans

The authors found that the dressage and high school horses were clearly more “anxious” than the other horses.

“Interestingly, both higher levels of ‘anxiety’ and increased occurrence of stereotypies occur for the same type of work.

“Remember that dressage/high school horses, because they are maintained strongly under control and their pace restrained, may experience at times conflicting relationships with their riders (eg, through bit pressure) and are not allowed to express any kind of emotion, a source of stress in humans.

“On the other hand, the fact that dressage riders expect their horses to react quickly to their orders may develop their ‘sensitiveness’ to the point that it can easily lead to nervousness, and by repetition and in the long term become an integral part of the horse’s personality …

“Probably the more recent selection of bloodlines for dressage may increase even more this impact of type of work on behaviour.

“Jumping and voltige horses have more chances to express locomotion needs at least, which may explain their quieter responses to the tests and in a handling/fear situation.

“This is, to our knowledge, the first evidence of a clear relationship between type of work and personality, in a context where type of work was the only factor that varied, potentially adding to intrinsic individual characteristics.

“Our results support reports suggesting that type of work may be an important factor in the development of humans’ personalities.”

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