Horses’ learning performances are under the influence of several temperamental dimensions

Publication Type:
Journal Article
Year of Publication:
Léa Lansade, Faustine Simon
Applied Animal Behaviour Science
, , , , ,

Learning performances are influenced by many factors, not only breed, age and sex, but also temperament. The purpose of this study was to understand how different temperamental dimensions affect the learning performance of horses, Equus caballus. First, we carried out a series of behavioural tests on 36 Welsh ponies aged 5–7 years to measure five temperamental dimensions: fearfulness (novel area test and surprise test), gregariousness (social isolation test), reactivity to humans (passive human test), tactile sensitivity (von Frey filament test) and activity level (evaluation of locomotor activity during all the tests). We
then presented them with two learning tasks (avoidance and backwards–forwards tasks). In the avoidance task they had to learn to jump over a fence when they heard a sound associated with an aversive stimulus (puff of air). In the backwards–forwards task they had to walk forwards or move backwards in response to a tactile or vocal command to obtain a food reward. There was no correlation between performances on the two learning tasks, indicating that learning ability is task-dependent. However, correlations were found between temperamental data and learning performance (Spearman correlations). The ponies that performed the avoidance task best were the most fearful and the most active ones. For instance, the number of trials required to perform 5 consecutive correct responses (learning criterion) was correlated with the variables aimed at measuring fearfulness (way of crossing a novel area: rs =−0.41, P = 0.01 and time to start eating again after a surprise effect: rs =−0.33, P = 0.05) and activity level (frequency of trotting during all the tests: rs =−0.40, P = 0.02). The animals that performed the backwards–forwards task best were the ones that were the least fearful and the most sensitive. For instance, the learning criterion (corresponding to the number of trials taken to achieve five consecutive correct responses) was correlated with the variables aimed at measuring fearfulness (latency to put one foot on the area: rs = 0.43, P = 0.01; way of crossing a novel area: rs = 0.31, P = 0.06; and time to start eating again after a surprise effect: rs = 0.43, P = 0.009) and tactile sensitivity (response to von Frey filaments: rs =−0.44, P = 0.008). This study revealed significant links between temperament and learning abilities that are highly task-dependent.


Back to Resources