If there’s one thing owners value more than a horse’s pedigree, gaits, and conformation, it’s his personality. That personality—what scientists call temperament—can determine how your horse learns, how suited he is for certain disciplines, how well he adapts to certain situations and environments, and how well he matches up to his rider or handler.

But how do you describe a horse’s personality? And more importantly, how do you quantify it? If you’re buying, selling, borrowing, training, showing, or breeding a horse, you’ll need to be able to communicate about that horse’s personality. And because research has shown that personality is fairly constant over time, it could be useful to determine equine temperaments at a young age.

That’s why Lea Lansade, PhD, of the French Horse and Riding Institute (IFCE) and the National Institute for Agricultural Research’s (INRA) behavior science department, in Tours, France, developed an equine personality test. Lansade’s Complete Temperament Test is designed to measure five dimensions of equine personality:

  • Fear/susceptibility to emotions;
  • Gregariousness (sociability with other horses);
  • Sensorial (tactile) sensitivity;
  • Reactivity to humans, and
  • Locomotor activity.

Now in its 10th year, Lansade’s test has become a solid analysis of and reliable reference for determining basic personality in horses as young as eight months of age.

The test consists of nine parts carried out in a closed testing area measuring 8.1 meters (26 feet) long and 2.7 meters (9 feet) wide. A friendly gelding should be stalled next to the testing area so the tested horse doesn’t feel alone and isolated. Researchers need 20 to 30 minutes to complete the full test for each horse, which includes:

  • Habituation to the testing area—The horse being tested is allowed to roam free in the testing area for five minutes to get used to the structure.
  • Fear/susceptibility to emotions—This portion has several aspects.

    A “novel object test” introduces an object unfamiliar to the horse into the testing area for three minutes; researchers record the horse’s frequency of contact (sniffing and nibbling) with the object. For the “novel surface test,” the observers teach the horse to cross a specified area to reach a bucket of food placed at one end of the testing area.

    Then, a surface unfamiliar to the horse (typically a tarp) is placed between the horse and the food bucket. The researcher records and scores from 1 to 100 the time it takes the horse to cross the surface with all four feet as well as his manner of crossing (calm, walking, trotting, jumping, dangerous behavior, refusal, etc.).

    Finally, in a “suddenness test,” a remote-controlled umbrella is placed above a bucket of feed. When the horse eats from the bucket, the researchers shake the umbrella and record the distance of the horse’s flight and the intensity of his jump. Once the horse comes back to eat from the bucket again, the umbrella is popped open. The researchers again record the flight and intensity of jump and assign decimal scores from 0 to 2 for each flight distance and each jump intensity. 

  • Gregariousness—For this trait, the researchers use a “social isolation test.” The testers remove the stalled gelding from the testing structure for 90 seconds and record the frequency of the test horse’s whinnying and sequences of bucking/leaping. 
  • Sensorial (tactile) sensitivity—Two tests are used to evaluate this trait. First, researchers perform the “Von Frey hair test,” in which specially designed masses of “hair”—flexible sticks calibrated to deliver a specific force—are pressed against the base of the horse’s withers. Then, the tester records the horse’s response as 0 (no trembling) or 1 (trembling) for four different masses.

    Then the researchers use a “hip-stifle axis stimulation test,” in which the tester stimulates the skin along the hip-stifle axis with four different instruments, all measuring 3 cm (1.2 inches) wide but with different levels of hardness. The experimenter runs the instrument rapidly up along the horse’s axis (where the barrel and the haunches meet), maintaining constant pressure. He or she scores the intensity of the muscular reaction to the stimulus from 0 to 2, with 0 being no reaction and 2 being the most severe reaction.

  • Reactivity to humans—This is measured using the “unknown passive human test.” An experimenter enters the testing area and remains immobile for three minutes while the researchers note the horse’s frequency of contacts (sniffing and nibbling) with the human.
  • Locomotor activity—Finally, researchers use the “general activity level test” to measure locomotor activity. The testing area is divided into six identically sized sectors. The researcher records the number of sectors the horse crosses during the habituation, passive human, and unknown object tests.

Once all the tests are completed, the researchers analyze and score totals according to a calculation they developed to yield specific results on each horse’s temperament.

“There is no good or bad temperament in horses,” said Lansade. “Just temperaments that are more or less suited to specific disciplines and situations.”