Eventing Nation: Encouraging good temperaments
Is temperament inherent, or is it something we can shape and improve? Kate Samuels weighs in.
Top: The old “snort-n-spook” move
“Oh, he’s just got the best temperament!” We’ve all heard this before, but what exactly does that mean? How do we define good temperaments? Does it mean that he’s a horse that puts up with all sorts of idiocy and tunes you out while you ride him (aka: “bombproof”) or does it mean that he’s a willing and generous learner despite the situation? Is it simply based on personality around the barn? Can you create a horse with a good temperament, or are you just stuck with the genetics available?
A new study from the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals suggests that one of the most consistent and effective indicators of equine temperament is the horse’s “novelty response.” A novelty response is how the horse handles new objects or situations, and what kind of reactions he has. The horse may do any of the following in response to a scary new object: he may startle and flee, avoid it, ignore it, or approach it. Some horses even do a fair combination of those reactions. The most interesting discovery of this study was the “novelty paradox.” It has been shown that the horses that startle the most at new objects are also the ones most likely to approach and explore the same object if they are not forced.
So what does this tell us, as horse riders and trainers? To me, it means that temperament can be influenced and improved heavily by early training. If for months or years you encourage your slightly spooky horse to approach and conquer the demons living inside the scary new objects, one could assume that you would be able to change the horse’s initial novelty response into something calmer and more confident. Could this mean that you could train a better temperament into your horse?
If you are out riding around and you are confronted with say, a trash can in an unusual place, and your horse has a good spook at it. Your options are to a) encourage the horse to go forward and check it out, b) be patient and wait for the horse to realize in his own time that it isn’t scary or c) avoid the risk and turn around, looking for a different way past it. What should you choose? Of course there is some inherent risk in this situation, as there is always the chance that your horse will react badly and you could fall off. However, regular habituation to new objects has been shown to reduce future risk of accidents.
If you constantly choose C, your horse is allowed to escape the object, and their avoidance behavior gets reinforced, thereby ensuring that they are more likely to repeat the spook and spin movement. However, prevention of the natural flight instinct can also create increased stress levels, so which decision is better for your horse? Studies have shown that choosing A consistently leads to temporarily increased stress in the horse, but in the long term creates horses with better novelty responses, and thereby better temperaments.
As a rider, I find that encouraging a horse to confront a fearful new item with a firm, but confident and rewarding manner not only helps them eliminate their fear for that object, but also for future situations. Every moment that you are on your horse, you are training him to do something. If you regularly avoid new situations because they bring about fear in you, then you are summarily training your horse to think the same way, and feeding into the vicious cycle of “I can’t”. In short, I believe that we as riders must take more responsibility for the way that our horses behave, and how their temperaments reflect back upon us.
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