When your horse responds to your cues, is it because he knows a reward is coming afterward (like a treat or a release of pressure)? Or is it because he recognizes the cue and knows that when he gets that cue, he’s just supposed to respond with a certain action?

This might sound like cognition nit-picking, but it’s actually a very important question when it comes to the way your horse learns. The first case is what scientists call “goal-directed” learning—it means horses will adjust their actions according to whether that reward keeps coming regularly. The second case is called “habit-directed” learning. Horses that tend toward habit-directed learning are more likely to just keep doing what they’ve been taught to do, regardless of whether that reward keeps coming.

For the first time, thanks to an advanced scientific protocol, scientists have confirmed a link between a horse’s personality and his cognition style. Specifically, they say, fearful horses tend to be more habit-forming. And being equipped with that knowledge can play an important role in how you train, work, use, and manage your horse.

“Fearful horses are going to be more difficult to ride, but at the same time, they’re going to develop more automatic mechanisms in response to aids,” said Léa Lansade, PhD, of the French Horse and Riding Institute and the National Institute for Agricultural Research’s behavior science department, in Tours.

“That’s exactly what we’re looking for in equitation, for the horse to respond quickly, almost regardless of what happens, and with very subtle cues,” she continued. “It’s by repeating the same exercise numerous times that we finally obtain this result. But a habit-forming horse also has to be watched and managed carefully. Because of his greater tendency to form habituation strategies, he will be more inclined to develop stereotypies like crib-biting and weaving.”

In a recent study, Lansade and her fellow researchers conducted the Lansade personality test on 29 Welsh pony mares. Afterward, they taught the ponies to touch a specific object on cue, using positive reinforcement (a food reward). They then gave the ponies the opportunity to learn that the speed of their object-touching could affect the rewards they received.

In a second step, the researchers put the ponies through a “degradation protocol” in which the rewards were no longer necessarily associated with the correct response. The goal was to see how long the ponies would continue to touch the object without having a clear connection between the action and the reward, and to compare those results to their personalities.

They found that the ponies identified as more fearful via the personality test took more time to learn the task, Lansade said. But, they also were the ones that kept performing the task even through the degradation sessions.

Interestingly, she said, this study confirmed that it’s not the emotional state of the horse during the learning session that leads to habit-forming, but the horse’s personality.

“We thought that since fearful horses are inclined to be more stressed and that stressed horses are more inclined to automate their responses, this could explain how being fearful could lead to faster habit-forming,” Lansade said. “But in our very calm testing conditions, the fearful horses were not stressed. We therefore concluded that the emotional state (stress) doesn’t explain the phenomenon. But this is a topic that’s still up for a lot of debate among researchers.”

Just as importantly, the experiment shed significant light on horses’ very complex cognitive processes, she added.

“What I really liked about this study was that it seems to reveal cognitive abilities that are pretty elaborate,” said Lansade. “The horse creates a very precise mental representation of the consequences of his actions. And he’s also capable of precisely adjusting his rate of touching an object according to the rewards that he can obtain. That requires him to do some true planning and anticipation of the future. And that’s really something!”

The study, “Personality and predisposition to form habit behaviours during instrumental conditioning in horses (Equus caballus),” was published in PLoS One.