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Towards a more objective assessment of equine personality using behavioural and physiological observations from performance test training

By U. K. von Borstel, S. Pasing, M. Gauly

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Current definitions of horse personality traits are rather vague, lacking clear, universally accepted guidelines for evaluation in performance tests. Therefore, the aim of the present study was to screen behavioural and physiological measurements taken during riding for potential links with scores the same horses received in the official stallion performance test for rideability and personality traits. Behaviour, heart rate (HR) and HR variability from thirty-six stallions participating in a performance test were recorded repeatedly during their performance test training. Using the coefficient of determination, regression analysis revealed that about 1/3 of variation (ranging between r=0.26 ("constitution" (i.e. fitness, health)) and r=0.46 (rideability)) in the personality trait scores could be explained by selecting the three most influential behaviour patterns per trait. These behaviour patterns included stumbling (with all traits except character), head-tossing (temperament, rideability), tail-swishing (willingness to work), involuntary change in gait (character) and the rider's use of her/his hands (constitution, rideability), voice (temperament) or whip (constitution). Subsequent mixed model analysis revealed a significant (P<0.05) influence of the behaviour pattern "horse-induced change in gait" on character (-0.98+or-0.31 scores per additional occurrence of change in gaits), of head-tossing (-0.25+or-0.08 scores) and rider's use of voice (-0.51+or-0.25; P=0.0594) on temperament, and of stumbling on each of the following: willingness to work (-2.5+or-1.2), constitution (-2.5+or-1.2 scores; P=0.0516) and rideability scores (-3.3+or-1.4). In addition, constitution scores tended (P=0.0889) to increase with higher low frequency/high frequency heart rate variation ratios (LF/HF), indicating a shift towards sympathetic dominance and thus a higher stress load in horses with higher scores for constitution. Rideability scores from the training phase were also significantly influenced by head-tossing (-0.5+or-0.1), and in addition rideability scores from the final test were influenced by the training rider, ranging between average estimated rideability scores of 6.8+or-0.4 for one training rider and 8.36+or-0.3 scores for another training rider. Horses ridden with their nose-line predominantly behind the vertical received higher scores for rideability (8.3+or-0.3) than horses ridden with their nose-line at the vertical (7.7+or-0.2). These findings indicate that either judges perceive horses to have a better rideability when they readily offer a more extreme poll flexion, or that riders make use of horses' better rideability by imposing a more extreme poll flexion. Several of the above described associations, but also of the non-existing links (e.g. no association between shying or heart rate and temperament) between behaviour patterns and scores for personality traits are rather surprising, warranting further investigation regarding the underlying causes of these relationships. Some of these behaviour patterns should be considered when redesigning the current guidelines for evaluation of personality traits during breeding horse performance tests, ultimately leading to improved genetic selection for equine personality traits. However, ethical implication of defining aversive behaviour such as head-tossing as an indicator of, for example, poor temperament, should not be neglected when devising new guidelines: such aversive behaviour may in fact be an indication of inadequate training techniques rather than poor horse personality.

Date 2011
Publication Title Applied Animal Behaviour Science
Volume 135
Issue 4
Pages 277-285
ISBN/ISSN 0168-1591
DOI 10.1016/j.applanim.2011.10.007
Language English
Author Address Department of Animal Science, University of Goettingen, Albrecht-Thaer-Weg 3, 37075 Goettingen, Germany.
Cite this work

Researchers should cite this work as follows:

  1. Animal behavior
  2. Animal genetics
  3. Animal physiology
  4. Behavior and behavior mechanisms
  5. Dominance
  6. Education
  7. Ethics
  8. Evaluation
  9. Fitness
  10. Gait
  11. Guidelines
  12. Hands
  13. Health
  14. Heart
  15. Heart rate
  16. Horses
  17. Mammals
  18. Mathematics and statistics
  19. peer-reviewed
  20. performance testing
  21. performance traits
  22. ratios
  23. recommendations
  24. Regression Analysis
  25. Social psychology and social anthropology
  26. Techniques
  27. temperament
  28. training
  29. traits
  30. variation
  1. peer-reviewed