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Foal tests may define future champion horses

January 9, 2007

The suitability of a young horse to a particular discipline can be determined at a young age, a French study has found. © Horsetalk

A French study over the last four years has identified nine simple tests on young horses that can determine their likely temperament as an adult.

Each horse can then be directed toward the discipline for which it is best suited.

While there is little doubt that experienced horsemen and women will be able to assess the temperament of their own young horses, the tests are likely to be useful for those needing to assess a young horse they are only meeting for the first time.

The National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA) found that the temperament of horses can be predicted reliably from just eight months of age.

This, said the INRA, is significant, as a recent survey revealed that temperament was the most important requirement among people buying a horse.

The INRA developed its tests by studying 350 horses over several years at Tours, in central France.

During this period, more than 30 tests were developed to measure different aspects of temperament such as fear, social motivation, reactions to humans, and general levels of activity.

Just a third of these tests were retained because of the ease in which they can be carried out, and their reliability across scores of animals tested.

The developed tests are divided into two categories: passive and active.

This study also found that genetic factors could influence behavioural developments. Depending on their father, some horses were more fearful, more socially motivated or more reactive towards humans than others.

A gender effect was also evidenced: for example, geldings were more fearful, more reactive towards humans, less socially motivated and less active than females.

Scientists say that a young horse's reactions to the following tests will paint a clear picture of its temperament:

  1. Open an umbrella in front of the foal and watch how far it retreats.
  2. Put a sheet on the ground between the foal and its dinner. Does the animal go around or over it?
  3. Touch the foal around its wither with a fine filament and see how much the muscles quiver. Some horses will always quiver, while others will not react at all.
  4. Put two foals together, then remove one for 80 seconds. Analyse the other's reaction.
  5. Stand still in front of the foal for 90 seconds and observe its behaviour.
  6. Assess how easy it is to put on a halter. Is it moving around, biting, or sniffing?
  7. Touch the foal's hind quarters and watch whether its stomach muscles contract.
  8. Measure the foal's reaction when put in an unknown stable.
  9. Assess the foal's general activity levels throughout the tests.
A link was sought between the different temperament aspects identified and the aptitude of the 350 horses to being broken in (handling, lunging, jumping, walking outside).

From this, two profiles were identified.

The first profile corresponded to less fearful horses which reacted little to humans, and were not very socially motivated and active. These horses proved to be the easiest to handle and were better suited to leisure riding.

The second profile corresponded to more fearful horses, reacting more to humans and more socially motivated and active. These horses proved to be more difficult to handle, but were more successful over jumps and at dressage. They would therefore be better suited to experienced horsemen for sports riding.

The research was undertaken at the request of the French National Stud Farm, which is eager to develop leisure-riding horses, with 95 per cent of French riders doing so for fun.

Foals that went through the tests without showing much fear or reactivity were more likely to be good leisure-riding horses.



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