Anatomical features in Lipizzaner horses linked to personality traits

Findings suggest that anatomical characteristics in Lipizzans give a reliable and objective measure to define personality traits.
Photo by Bob Haarmans

Certain body characteristics in Lipizzaner horses provide a reliable and objective measure of some personality traits, study findings suggest.

Nataša Debeljak and her fellow researchers, writing in the journal Scientific Reports, said equine caregivers frequently provide anecdotal evidence supporting the existence of family trends in behaviour and temperament.

“Although horse personality assessment protocols have been developed, progress on assessing their reliability and optimizing their use has been slow.”

Horse breeders, they said, rely on selecting horses that are trustworthy, explorative, easy to handle, relaxed and do not show fearful responses or panic. There is evidence, they added, that personality traits can be used to select suitable pursuits for horses.

However, to their knowledge, the role of conformation – the shape or structure of the horse – on personality has not been investigated.

In their study, the researchers subjected 35 ridden and healthy Lipizzan horses aged over five to three behavioural tests, which focused on handling, fear-reaction and trainability. Heart rate and heart-rate variability were also monitored, and a series of anatomical measurements were collected from each animal.

The authors classified the horses into one of four groups – those with a low fear response, those assessed as having low cooperation, a small number found with low trainability, and an intermediate group, where horses did not stand out in their responses.

Anatomical measurements with only coefficient of determination for predicting behaviours and heart rate.
Anatomical measurements with only coefficient of determination for predicting behaviours and heart rate. Black line—all horses, green line—intermediate group, red line—low trainability group, blue line—low fearful group (C3) and low cooperation group (C4), purple line—relates to heart rate. ↓ ↑— relationship between measures and behaviours or heart rate if the anatomical measurement increases. Image: Debeljak et al.

Correlation analysis found four body characteristics and five head characteristics to be indicative of certain behaviours and heart rate during the tests.

Shorter horses – those less than 75.9cm at the withers, with a wider muzzle (more than 10.5cm) were found to be trustworthy, less fearful and easier to handle and train.

Horses with longer chests showed more emotional responses in the fear-reaction assessment. “We do not rule out the possibility that horses with longer backs experienced higher levels of discomfort or even pain because of their anatomic characteristics.”

Horses with stronger legs and a wider base of the head had a lower heart rate when exposed to the second part of the handling test. “The results suggest that the size of body and head may affect or even predispose personality traits, which to our knowledge has never been scientifically shown in an animal species.”

Further studies involving more horses are needed to confirm or disprove these relationships, they said. “By using a larger sample size, a connection between physiological characteristics and the behaviour types could be confirmed.”

Their findings, they said, provide initial evidence that supports anecdotal beliefs of an association between personality traits and specific body and head measures, as well as cardiovascular activity.

There is a clear need for research into approaches for complex evaluation of horse personality, they said. “The development of more objective methods is necessary.”

The authors said their findings suggest that anatomical characteristics in Lipizzan horses give a reliable and objective measure to define personality traits.

“Our conclusions are based on a small number of animals, therefore it is important to conduct more work to ensure the reliability of the method and to generalise the interpretation of the results to a wider cohort of Lipizzan horses.

“We believe that our study serves as a foundation for future research on physio-anatomical characteristics of horse personality in order to find individuals best suited for a specific use and thus improve handler safety and horse welfare.”

The study team comprised Debeljak and Manja Zupan Šemrov, with the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia; Aljaž Košmerlj, with the Jozef Stefan Institute in Slovenia; and Jordi Altimiras, with Linköping University in Sweden.

Debeljak, N., Košmerlj, A., Altimiras, J. et al. Relationship between anatomical characteristics and personality traits in Lipizzan horses. Sci Rep 12, 12618 (2022).

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

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