Anatomical features in Lipizzaner horses correlate with personality traits

Photography by Bob Harmans

The results of the study indicate that certain body characteristics in Lipizzaner horses provide a reliable and objective measure of certain personality traits.

Writing in the journal Natasha Dipljak and her fellow researchers, Scientific ReportsEquine caregivers often provide anecdotal evidence to support the existence of family trends in behavior and temperament, he said.

“Although protocols for assessing horse personality have been developed, progress in evaluating their reliability and improving their use has been slow.”

They said that breeders rely on selecting horses that are trustworthy, exploratory, easy to handle, relaxed and do not show fearful or panic reactions. They added that there is evidence that personality traits can be used to select suitable pursuits for horses.

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

In their study, the researchers conducted 35 healthy, compounded Lipizzan horses over the age of five to three behavioral tests, which focused on handling and reaction to fear and training ability. Heart rate and heart rate fluctuations were also monitored, and a series of anatomical measurements were collected from each animal.

The authors classified 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 a medium group, in which horses did not stand out in their responses.

Anatomical measurements with a coefficient determined only to predict behaviors and heart rate.
Anatomical measurements with a coefficient determined only to predict behaviors and heart rate. Black line – all horses, green line – medium group, red line – low trainability group, blue line – low fearlessness group (C3) and low cooperation group (C4), purple line – related to heart rate. ↓ ↑ – relationship between measurements and behaviors or heart rate if the anatomical measurement is increased. Photo: Debeljak et al.

Correlation analysis found that four characteristics of the body and five characteristics of the head indicated specific behaviors and heart rate during the tests.

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

Horses with taller chests showed more emotional responses in the fear response assessment. “We do not rule out the possibility that horses with longer backs may have experienced higher levels of discomfort or even pain due to their anatomical features.”

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

They said more studies involving more horses are needed to confirm or refute these relationships. “By using a larger sample size, the relationship between physiological characteristics and types of behavior can be confirmed.”

They said their findings provide preliminary evidence supporting anecdotal beliefs for the association between personality traits and specific body and head measures, as well as cardiovascular activity.

They said there was a clear need to research methods for the complex assessment of the horse’s personality. “Development of more objective methods is essential.”

The authors said that their findings indicate that anatomical characteristics in Lipizzan horses provide a reliable and objective measure of personality traits.

“Our conclusions are based on a small number of animals, so it is important that further work be done to ensure the reliability of the method and generalizability of interpretation of the results to a broader group of Lipizzan horses.

“We believe that our study serves as a basis for future research on the physico-anatomical characteristics of the horse’s personality in order to find individuals best suited for a particular use, thereby improving handler safety and equine welfare.”

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

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

The study published under CC licensecan be read over here.

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