A Layperson's Look At Temperament

by Ginny Smith in collaboration with Amanda Bliss

Horses on range

On the Track of those Elusive Temperament Genes .....

This article was inspired by the reflections of a relatively recent breeder on the two foals that I have bred so far out of an Irish Sport Horse mare, and the extreme difference in their temperaments.

Foal no. 1 is by Caretino Glory (Cheenook x Glorieux x Calypso I) and almost from the moment of birth had that indefinable “look at me” quality; he is very people focused and affectionate, and demands attention and stroking. He has a lot of natural presence, and carries himself with an awareness of his surroundings and any on-lookers. If he was human, he would be described as having an extrovert temperament. Whilst he is keen to please, he is wary of unusual situations, reluctant to try new experiences such as being led through water without totally trusting his handler, and has the usual 2 year old’s capacity to spook at objects that have been moved or that he considers “odd”. He can resist having uncomfortable or painful things done to him – for instance, his legs treated with bacterial cream to remove mud fever scabs – and will not hesitate to protest!

Foal no. 2 is by Amiro Z (Amigo TossXX x Ramiro Z x Alme) and has had an entirely different character from birth. He was very nippy for the first few months of his life, and had to be constantly tapped to try to stop him biting anyone in sight! But apart from this irritating tendency, he has always been extremely laid-back and matter-of-fact about anything that he is asked to do. When first led alongside his dam, he refused to go forward with a lead rope around his hindquarters, but started leading straight away from his foal slip alongside his handler. He accepts his feet being picked up and trimmed, having antibiotic paste syringed down his throat, injections, and anything else that you care to throw at him, with total equanimity. He has never been known to spook, even when his dam is dancing about next to him! But his attitude to people is best described as “detached”; he shows no signs of his sibling’s affection or interest in receiving attention. If he was described in human personality terms, he would definitely be classed as an introvert.
Both foals had no companions of their own age before weaning, and whereas foal no. 1 was playful with his dam, and would often be seen exercising himself, galloping around the field – foal no. 2 is very sedate. He’s rarely seen playing out in the field, and tends to concentrate on grazing!

So how much were these “personality differences” attributable to the different sires, I wondered, and how much to some indefinable environmental factor? Could other variables like the diet of the broodmare have had an influence? Could the need to distract/respond to the biting of foal no 2 have served to “desensitise” him?

Temperament is something on which all of us who breed and compete horses place significant emphasis. Mare owners, in choosing a stallion, will often look carefully for a horse that will complement their mare’s temperament - “She’s a bit sharp, so I need a very calm and laid-back stallion for her”. Many of us will pick up stories on the grapevine about particular stallions – “I’ve heard that he will lunge at and attack anyone going past his box”; “He looked almost unrideable in the parade” etc. This information is more often about the negative aspects of a stallion’s temperament than the positive .... and who knows how much of the aggressive behaviour shown by a particular stallion is down to inherited temperament, and how much to environment and the treatment that he has received in his adult life? In fact, we have to make judgements on the basis of what we see in front of us, naturally enough, with little or no idea of what the genetic versus environmental influence on that observable temperament might be.

Researching the extent to which temperament is heritable turns up some fascinating evidence, although it quickly becomes evident that the formal study of the genetic components of temperament in horses is very much in its infancy. Temperament is described by the Animal Sciences Group Interstallion Seminar as “the individual’s basic stance towards continuing changes and challenges in its environment”, but there is disagreement about what the actual components of temperament might be, which makes any scientific study of the heritability of temperament tricky! The traits that make up temperament are often described as “Stubborn, Calm, Attentive, Curious, Eager, Shy, Bold, Flighty”. The influences on temperament in the adult horse can be genetic, environmental, due to rider and to early production and training experiences. For breeders, the Holy Grail would be an understanding of the genetic components of temperament, to guide us in the choice of “Which stallion to which mare?”

In search of that Holy Grail, a number of studies have attempted to measure the consistency of behavioural traits, and have assessed the impact of temperament on trainability. So, as we all know, you may have a young horse with perfect conformation for a particular discipline, but without the necessary behavioural traits and temperament to enable it to succeed in that discipline. A key area appears to be what a number of researchers have called “Emotionality” (the capacity to perceive and react to (potentially) dangerous situations). In a test cited by the Animal Sciences Group, horses were measured for Flightiness and Focussing – the response to an alien object (a white umbrella!) in the arena would invariably begin with the horse focussing – standing and viewing the object from a distance, snorting, tail up, stamping – to the subsequent reaction. This reaction was sometimes “Fleeing” – bolting away from the object; sometimes “Not Focussing” (turning away from the object and freezing), to a more curious and investigative approach ... Of course in the wild the focussing and flight responses can be a key to survival. For the domesticated horse, over centuries of breeding of both Thoroughbreds, leisure and work horses the aim has been to breed out, as far as possible, the over-sensitive flight reaction. Nobody wants a horse that takes off every time it views a scrap of paper! It could also be argued that the individual showing the greatest curiosity might possess the boldest and most desirable temperament for the competition horse.

The physiological reaction was measured in the horses tested, who were given another task of being led over a tarpaulin bridge. Of the 41 horses in the handling test, 28 followed the handler crossing the bridge immediately. 7 needed 1 or 2 attempts. 6 horses refused multiple attempts to cross the bridge. In both tests, the heart rate of some horses was significantly raised during the experience, suggesting high levels of anxiety. Others showed a small change in heart rate when taken out of the box and introduced to an alien object in the arena, quickly returning to the normal pattern. Either due to inherited traits or to early experience, some horses seemed to be inherently more anxious than others. Another study of Dutch Warmblood immature horses which explored “emotionality” through measuring heart rate and heart rate variability during a novel object test and handling test attempted to separate out the level of inherent emotionality from the influence of handling and training. Half the group received additional training from the age of 5 months, whilst the other half did not. Training certainly seemed to have an impact on the heart rate variable measure, as one would expect, but allowing for this there were also consistencies over the years for individuals in their responses, again pointing clearly to the heritability of certain aspects of temperament. A further study by Anja Wolff (Université de Rennes) cites similar behaviours between half-siblings subjected to novel object and handling tests, pointing to the genetic basis of some characteristics.
The correlations between emotionality, fearfulness and nervousness in ground handling and riding tests appear to extend to general learning ability. Not rocket science this, but it confirms what any horse owner knows – that a spooky, flighty horse is likely to be more difficult to train and to take longer to learn a task than one who is rather bolder, focussed and more curious. But a fascinating article by Temple Grandin at Colorado State University on genetic reactivity in cattle and horses describes highly reactive animals as being more likely to revisit fear memories stored in the amygdala, a centre in the lower brain. So that if a highly flighty, excitable horse has had an initial experience that has caused it to form a fear memory, that message needs to be constantly overlaid by override messages from the cortex (the higher brain centres). This should have a significant impact on training approaches, where it is critical to try and avoid negative experiences with highly reactive animals, to work at gradually introducing new and difficult experiences, and to reinforce the positive aspects of the learning. They are much more likely to be significantly damaged by being forced into new experiences than a more placid less reactive horse. But Temple Grandin* describes excitable animals as being more aware of their environment, and that often contributes to the belief that they are more intelligent and that they learn more quickly if the conditions are right.

Coming full circle, and returning to the two foals ... a very shallow dip into the deep and dark waters of research into the heritability of temperament has served to convince me that foal no. 1 would probably be described as “Focussed and Flighty” on the above measures. Foal no. 2 currently seems to demonstrate a much more placid and calm approach to new objects – lower on focus and reactivity. They certainly do not demonstrate the similar characteristics between half-siblings cited in some of the research. And who knows which of the two will eventually turn out to be the more talented under saddle?
Given the very embryonic state of the research into the heritability of temperament in horses, and the amazing number of variables that can influence temperament in the adult horse ... I guess that I’m just going to have to return to the tried and trusted method of asking on the grapevine, and judging what is front of me, when choosing the next stallion for my (formerly flighty, now very dozy and unfocussed) broodmare!

* Temple Grandin has also written fascinating articles linking her autism and visual (vs. verbal) patterns of thinking to the ways that horses and other animals “think”. For more information about Dr. Grandin’s work, visit www.templegrandin.com .

References :
“Experimental Tests to Assess Emotionality in Horses”, Anja Wolff et al, Etholgie Evolution Ecologie, Universite de Rennes 1998
“Acclimate, Don’t Agitate”, Temple Grandin, Colorado State University, Beef, June 1999
“Heart Rate and Heart Rate Variability during a Novel Object Test”, E.K Visser et al, Physiology and Behaviour June 2002
“Assessing Temperament in Young Horses” Animal Science Group, Interstallion Seminar 2008

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