Psychological factors of horse performance probed

A strange environment on competition day can negatively affect a horse’s performance. © Mike Bain

The importance of matching a horse’s temperament to different equestrian disciplines has been stressed in a comprehensive review of psychological factors affecting equine performance.

A new article published in the open-access journal BMC Veterinary Research explores issues surrounding training, competition environment and practices, and how the psychology of horse mood, emotion and temperament can be used to enhance performance.

British researchers Dr Sebastian McBride, from the Royal Agricultural College, and Professor Daniel Mills, from the University of Lincoln, looked at how current behavioral research and already-established behavioral modification techniques could be applied to enhance the performance of competition horses.

This included matching a horse’s temperament to different equestrian disciplines. For example, flightiness can be good for racing but detrimental for dressage.

“Another important consideration is the horse’s mood and emotional reaction,” McBride said.

“Although all of these have an intrinsic baseline observable in the young, untrained horse, they can be influenced by training and they are also dependent on the interaction between rider and horse.

“Competition riders are well aware how a strange environment, and nerves on competition day, can affect their horse’s performance.”

Mills continued: “The increased competitiveness and performance level of equestrian sport means that for each horse and rider pair, physical and psychological behavior must be taken into consideration when designing training conditions and increasing motivation to perform at the optimum level of athletics.

“They must also be applied to reducing over-emotional reactions on competition day and, given the trained horse’s high motivation to succeed, to decrease any negative experiences at competitions which may otherwise impact on future events.”

The researchers noted that increased competitiveness and performance level in sport now required that individuals and teams must give over a substantial amount of time to their respective disciplines.

The pair identified areas within the current performance horse industry where known behavioral research and behavioral modification techniques could be applied to enhance the performance of those animals.

These included ensuring optimal environmental conditions for the horse, and using behavioral modification techniques to:

  • Sufficiently motivate the animal to perform the correct athletic behaviour.
  • Reduce overly reactive behaviour in anticipation of the competitive event.
  • Reduce emotionally reactive behaviour to novel stimuli associated with the competitive event.
  • Reduce motivated behaviors in response to stimuli associated with competition events that are a result of previous negative experiences linked to those stimuli.

They also also identified areas of further research that could potentially enhance the performance horse industry. These included:

  • The development of a behavioral screening tool to identify young horses that do not have the correct temperament in order to proceed to the top level of competition within a given equestrian discipline.
  • The integration of methods aimed at assessing the emotional state of the horse during training and competition in order to ensure that the horse is in an appropriate psychological state for competition.
  • The identification of optimal training regimes in terms of applying positive and/or negative reinforcement schedules, and also in terms of training duration and training interval with the primary aim of avoiding the equine equivalent of psychological “burn-out”.

They concluded that greater work was required on the rider-horse partnership to identify the factors that made up a winning team within a given discipline.

The pair noted that, despite its obvious importance, there was remarkably little research into any aspect of the psychology of equestrian performance.

They said psychological factors existed at three inter-related but separate levels: temperament, mood and emotional reaction.

Temperament existed as a relatively stable factor in adult life, they noted, having been shaped by genetic makeup and early experience, whilst mood described a more temporary psychological state.

Emotional reactions were the most tightly stimulus-bound affective states and the shortest lived temporally, describing the more immediate response to a situation.

“If mood is negative then there is a higher probability of negative emotional reactions to a given situation,” they wrote.

“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.

“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 their review of temperament, they said it was clear that more validation-type research was required to measure early temperament traits with a view to matching them with equestrian disciplines.

They said both mood and emotional state were crucial in determining how a horse perceived and reacted to its environment and thus how it would perform within a training and competition environment.

“Positive mood is essential for all disciplines, but the optimal emotional state leading to optimal emotional arousal can vary between disciplines and between horses, as in the case with humans,” they wrote.

The researchers say that more work is required on the rider-horse partnership to identify the factors that made up a winning team within a given discipline.
The researchers say that more work is required on the rider-horse partnership to identify the factors that made up a winning team within a given discipline. © Mike Bain

“Over-reaction as the result of high emotional arousal is detrimental to performance and is heavily influenced by prior training techniques and also the emotional state of the rider.

“More extensive research is required within both of these areas,” they said.

The pair said many horses may fail in competition because of the difference between the training and competition environments and thus the lack of training to generate appropriate emotional and behavioral responses to competition.

“It follows, therefore, that one of the most important factors at the outset of training is to ensure that the individual animal is sufficiently motivated to perform.

“Interestingly, in human sports performance psychology, this motivation either to succeed or to avoid failure is so enhanced in some individuals that it often develops clinically as obsessive-compulsive characteristics, referred to as perfectionism.”

Motivation to learn is also heavily affected by the learning environment, they said, in particular the duration of the training session and how frequently those sessions occur on a daily or weekly basis.

“The level of motivation to perform will be determined by the type of learning taking place (for example, negative versus positive reinforcement) and the complexity of the task.”

In this respect, much more research was needed to establish optimal training schedules for specific equestrian tasks, they said.

To compete successfully in competition, regardless of the discipline, it was important that the horse is highly motivated to perform the specific athletic activity at the outset of both training and competition.

“The performance horse also needs to be motivated at the time of competition, but not to the extent that any restriction of that motivated behavior has a negative effect on the animal’s physiological or psychological state.

“Highly motivated horses, however, can be exposed to behavioral modification techniques in order to attenuate specific unwanted behaviors, but the animal must be capable of responding to these techniques in a positive way.

“Modification techniques can also be applied to highly reactive horses that are responding to novel stimuli or previous negative experiences, but again those individuals need to be responsive to those techniques.”


The full study, Psychological factors affecting equine performance, published in BMC Veterinary Research, can be read online here.

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