Friday, January 9, 2015

How Does the Icelandic Horse Personality Compare to Other Breeds

Icelandic horse and Irish Sports Horse
Horse owners have long debated about variations in personality among the different horse breeds.  Arabs may be described as flighty, draft horses as stoic, and ponies as stubborn.  Others may counter that Arabs are responsive, draft horses are obedient, and ponies are smart.   Scientists have just started studying variations in personality between breeds.

In a preliminary study, Lloyd, et al (2007) developed a Horse Personality Questionnaire based on 25 personality attributes that were found to reliably rate horse personality.  These 25 attributes were further grouped into 6 underlying personality components--Dominance, Anxiousness, Excitability, Protection, Sociability and Inquisitiveness shown below:

  • Dominance—Reliable, Subordinate, Equable, Eccentric, Effective, Stubborn, Aggressive, Irritable
  • Anxiousness—Suspicious, Insecure, Tense, Apprehensive, Fearful
  • Excitability—Active, Slow, Excitable, Intelligent
  • Protection—Understanding, Motherly, Protective
  • Sociability-- Sociable, Playful, Popular
  • Inquisitiveness—Curious, Opportunistic
In a follow up study, Lloyd, et al (2008) contacted breed societies and used other communication methods to ask owners to rate their purebred horses on a scale from 1 to 7 across these 25 behaviorally defined objectives in the Horse Personality Questionnaire.  They received responses about 1223 horses representing the following breeds: Irish draught horses, thoroughbreds, Shetland ponies, Arabs, Highland ponies, Welsh ponies and cobs, American Quarter Horses, and Appaloosas.  The researchers deliberately included heavy, light, and pony breeds.  The horses had to be purebred, at least one year old, and handled by the owner for at least six months to be included.  Stallions, mares, and geldings were represented. 

Supporting earlier studies, Lloyd et al (2008) found statistically significant differences in personality between breeds.  The original table in the study provides average component scores for each breed.  To better enable comparison and discussion by you the readers, I have redrawn the table by showing Lloyd et al’s ranking of the breeds from high to low.  Note by doing so I may have inadvertently biased reader interpretation by camouflaging variability shown by the numeric scores. In reality, Anxiousness and Excitability exhibit great variability and Dominance and Protection,  low variability.  The reader is advised to go to the original study to see actual results.  I also rearranged the breeds to more clearly highlight breed relationships such as the Arabian horse having a great genetic input into the Welsh cob breed.  And, of course, I added my own estimate of where the Icelandic horse may fall in this ranking.   I also admit that I may be unconsciously biased since I have owned an Icelandic horse for 11 years.

Do you agree with my ranking of the Icelandic horse?  Do you think the researchers skewed the results by including intelligence with excitability?  Can a horse be intelligent and calm?

As Lloyd, et al (2008) observed, “…the temperament, and therefore the personality, of a horse is considered to be an important attribute and was considered a key issue in horse health and performance. Therefore a greater understanding of the typical behaviour and personality of specific horse breeds may aid the selection of horses for specific equine disciplines, including use for leisure by amateur riders. More informed selection of horses should lead to improved horse welfare, as horses are more likely to be selected for appropriate functions and rider capabilities” (pp. 371-372).


Lloyd, A.S., Martin, J.E., Bornett-Gauci, H.L.I.,Wilkinson, R.G., 2007. Evaluation of a novel method of horse personality assessment: rater agreement and links to behaviour. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 105, 205–222. 

Lloyd, A., Martin, J., Bornett-Gauci, H., Wilkinson, R.  (2008).  Horse personality: Variation between breeds, Applied Animal Behaviour Science 112 (2008) 369–383

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