Boldness and independence in horses: Only one tends to change with age, researchers find

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"Older horses were bolder than younger horses, but horses started under saddle at an older age were less bold and independent than those started at a younger age."
“Older horses were bolder than younger horses, but horses started under saddle at an older age were less bold and independent than those started at a younger age.” Image by Rebecca Schönbrodt-Rühl

Horses tend to become bolder as they age, but not necessarily more independent, fresh research suggests.

The findings indicate that boldness and independence are separate traits, Bibiana Burattini and her fellow researchers reported in the open-access journal Animals.

The study team based their conclusions on 1940 responses by horse owners to the Equine Behaviour Assessment and Research Questionnaire (E-BARQ), a 97-question online research tool.

The creators of E-BARQ aim to develop an ongoing global database of horse behaviour. Riders who participate are able to use the tool to benchmark their horses against thousands of others in terms of welfare, training and behaviour.

The University of Sydney study team noted that, since domestication, horses have been deployed in transport, agriculture and military contexts. Today, they are regularly used in competition, leisure riding and in companionship roles.

“The ability of an individual domestic horse to navigate its environment and respond to novel stimuli with confidence influences its economic value to trainers and owners,” they said.

“Thus, horses with low confidence that impairs trainability or renders them problematic to handle may be of less commercial value than those that are easier to handle and train.”

Horses that are problematic to handle, train and ride are often sold repeatedly. “In the process, they can be subjected to increasingly harsher training methods as they change hands,” the authors said, noting that some methods can worsen undesirable behaviours and increase stress.

Some treatments for common problem behaviours in horses can compromise welfare, they said.

“Such behaviours can be the manifestation of pain, confusion and conflict.

“In contrast, among the desirable attributes in horses, boldness and independence are two important behavioural traits that affect the fearfulness, assertiveness and sociability of horses.

“Shy and socially dependent horses are generally more difficult to manage and train than their bold and independent counterparts.”

Previous studies, they noted, have shown how certain basic temperament traits predict the behavioural output of horses, but few have investigated how the age of the horse, and the age it was when training under saddle started, affect behaviour.

For their study, the researchers used the E-BARQ responses to explore the behavioural evidence of boldness and independence in horses and how these related to the age of the horse. The 1940 respondents came from 33 different countries and reported on 78 different breeds, comprising 58% geldings, 38% mares, with the remainder being stallions.

The authors delved into 20 E-BARQ behaviours and traits from the database selected to reflect boldness and independence.

The results revealed age-related effects on boldness and independence.

“Older horses were bolder than younger horses, but horses started under saddle at an older age were less bold and independent than those started at a younger age,” Burattini and her colleagues reported.

The latter effect was expected, they said. “Fundamentally, bolder horses may be started earlier than shy horses that may have been left until later in the hope that they may be calmer (and therefore safer) as they mature.”

Significant differences in boldness and independence relating to specific breeds and primary equestrian disciplines also emerged.

Australian Stock Horses were found to be bolder and more independent than crossbreed horses.

Horses used for showing, working equitation, eventing, as well as traditional working horses, were bolder than those used for other disciplines.
Horses used for showing, working equitation, eventing, as well as traditional working horses, were bolder than those used for other disciplines. Photo by Daphne

Horses used for showing, working equitation, eventing, as well as traditional working horses, were bolder than those used for other disciplines.

Dressage and therapy horses tended to be less bold than those used for other disciplines.

Stallions were bolder than geldings, while brown and chestnut horses were less bold than bay horses.

Compared to crossbreed horses, Thoroughbreds and companion horses were less bold, whilst heavy horses and ponies tended to be bolder.

Compared to pleasure horses, mounted games horses were less independent, whereas working equitation horses were more independent.

Riders with more than eight years’ experience reported more independence in their horses than those who were lifelong riders.

“The study findings suggest that boldness and independence are separate traits and only boldness was associated with the age of the horse,” they said.

Discussing their findings, the authors described boldness as a super-trait that is reported in many other species, including dogs and livestock.

“In equids, it is generally used as an umbrella term to describe individuals that are not shy, nervous or easily spooked.”

Independence, on the other hand, is less commonly reported in scientific literature than boldness. It centres on an individual’s ability to function without the social support of other horses.

They suggested the increase in boldness with age may relate to accumulated exposure to various events and stimuli that come with time.

“Horses generally become more habituated to novel stimuli and new environments, and amass more life experiences than their younger counterparts.

“Likewise, such horses have undergone more training, exposing them to more stimuli from both riders and the immediate environment.”

Independence, unlike boldness, was not significantly associated with age, they said. “However, the results revealed that horses that had been started late were less independent than those started younger.

“Several factors could explain this,” they said, “including the housing environment prior to starting under saddle that may have involved social isolation.”

Decreased independence in the current study was associated with a late start in Thoroughbreds when compared to crossbreed horses.

The authors noted that research by University of Sydney animal welfare specialist Paul McGreevy and others showed that Thoroughbreds were at high risk for stereotypic behaviour associated with social isolation from other horses, implying that Thoroughbreds either did not cope well when separated from other horses, or were isolated more than other breeds.

The study team said that understanding how age affects behavioural traits can improve horse-rider matching and help in projecting how young horses will mature behaviourally.

“Strategic use of this information has the potential to improve horse welfare.”

The study team comprised Burattini, Kate Fenner, Ashley Anzulewicz, Nicole Romness, Jessica McKenzie, Bethany Wilson and McGreevy, all with the University of Sydney.

Burattini, B.; Fenner, K.; Anzulewicz, A.; Romness, N.; McKenzie, J.; Wilson, B.; McGreevy, P. Age-Related Changes in the Behaviour of Domestic Horses as Reported by Owners. Animals 2020, 10, 2321.

The study, published under a Creative Commons License, can be read here.

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