Foals’ initial expressions of their developing personalities are clear signs of the horse’s adult personality—and even learning capacity—to come, researchers found. | Photo: iStock
With foals, you never quite know what you’re going to get. Some of them stick like glue to Mom day and night, suckling every five minutes or less, it seems. Others gallop off from Mom so far you worry you’ll lose them. Some spend hours jumping around and playing with everyone and everything possible. Still others tend to pass their days just standing there observing their world like a future philosopher.

What we’re seeing in these baby horses are the initial expressions of a developing personality. And French equine behaviorists have learned that those are clear signs of the horse’s adult personality—and even learning capacity—to come.

“Young foals present behavioral differences in terms of the use of their time and of their relationships with their dams,” said Séverine Henry, PhD, lecturer of animal behavior at the University of Rennes, in France, speaking at the 2017 French Equine Research Day.

“These differences are indicators of certain adult personality traits such as susceptibility to emotions (fearfulness) and gregariousness (sociability with other horses), as well as of the capacity to learn a new task and to memorize it,” she said. “As such, it seems possible to predict some adult characteristics by at least three months of age.”

In their research, Henry and Martine Hausberger, PhD, studied 19 foals from the same breeding farm at two different time periods: 3 months old and at 3 years old. The foals, all French Saddlebred horses from similar breeding lines, grew up in identical management conditions. They observed the 3-month-olds for a total of six and a half hours each in 15-minute increments. During this time the researchers recorded how the foals spent their time (suckling, lying down, playing, running, watchfully observing, etc.). They also noted the distances the foals kept from their mares.

For the 3-year-olds, the researchers set up a series of temperament and learning tests. They evaluated the horses in five situations:

  • Left alone in an arena, separated from other horses;
  • Exposed to a novel object;
  • Led by an unfamiliar handler across a makeshift bridge (mattress covered by a tarp);
  • Presented with a covered food box that’s tricky to open; and
  • Presented with the same box the next day.

In the first three tests, they recorded the horse’s reactions and, in the case of the bridge, how long it took the horse to cross the bridge (if at all). In the box tests, they noted the time and the number of tries it took for the horse to figure out how to open the box (if at all), with a maximum of three tries or three minutes. The second test was intended to show how well the horse remembered what it had learned the day before.

They found that foals could be clearly divided into specific profiles based on the way they spent their time and the distances they kept from their mothers. They also found that, as 3-year-olds, the horses could also be clearly divided into specific profiles based on their reactions and their learning capacities. Interestingly, they said, the horses that fell into a specific category as 3-year-olds were the same horses that had fallen into a specific category as foals.

For example, they found that the foals that were very active and independent, spent more time away from their mothers at a greater average distance (10 meters/30 feet or more), suckled less, and grazed more were the same horses that later showed little reaction to social separation and novel objects, Henry said.

But the foals that stayed close to their mothers most of the time (less than one meter/three feet away), suckled frequently, and grazed less were the horses that as 3-year-olds had strong negative reactions to social separation and had greater difficulty learning and memorizing, she said.

In between were two intermediate profiles, including horses that showed strong emotions with the unfamiliar human and the bridge but were good at instrumental learning, and those with few fearful reactions regardless of the test and with very good memorization skills.

“Our methodology appears to be appropriate for examining precocious indicators of adult temperament and learning capacity,” Henry said.