Researchers know that a horse’s personality traits can explain some of the differences we see in horses’ behavior and learning. Of these traits, fearfulness seems to be the most significant, and that, a French research team said, isn’t such a bad thing.

The team of equine behavior researchers recently discovered that while fearfulness might seem like a negative personality trait in a horse, it actually turns out to be quite beneficial. Léa Lansade, PhD, and fellow researchers, including Mathilde Valenchon, PhD, at the French institute for Horse and Riding and the French National Institute for Agricultural Research, in Tours-Nouzilly, have spent the last 10 years developing personality tests for horses.

“Being fearful is not always a disadvantage,” said research team member Marianne Vidament, DVM, at the 2014 International Society for Equitation Science conference, held August 6-9 in Bredsten, Denmark. “These horses often perform better when there is no stress or if the stress is linked to the task (they’re expected to perform). The fear dimension is always involved.”

When a horse with a high fearfulness level is learning a new task in a calm environment—and if the task itself is “frightful” (for example, using negative reinforcement)—he’ll probably learn that task better than a horse with a lower fearfulness factor, Vidament said.

“It also appears that fearful horses have superior working memory performance (i.e., short-term memory) in nonstressful conditions, suggesting a higher state of arousal,” she said.

However, if the horse is stressed by something other than the task—for example, separation from stablemates, a new environment, or a scary nearby noise—he’s likely to learn worse than nonfearful horses.

Fearful horses are more likely to develop automatic habits (“habitual behaviors,” for good and for bad), she said. So a fearful horse might have certain routines, and he might perform his trained tasks more reliably over the long term, out of reinforcement. But he might also have bad habits that are hard to break. Other authors have suggested that stereotypies like cribbing could be automatic habits, she added.

The researchers did not identify any other personality characteristic that appeared to have so much effect on learning ability, said Vidament.

“Overall, this work helps us determine the advantages and drawbacks of each horse and to suggest tailor-made training programs for each individual,” she said.