Temperament testing


What is Temperament?

 “ A behavioural characteristic stable across situations and over time”

(Lansade, et al., 2008)


Theories of Temperament

Trait theory

This theory is based upon an exploration of the use of the English language and its use in describing the behaviour of individuals (Allport, 1936). Whilst this initial exploration was based from a human perspective, and includes many descriptors that would now be considered old-fashioned and difficult to assess, the basic idea can, and has by a variety of studies, been adapted for use in animals.

Some examples of such traits include:

Fearful, excitable, friendly, aggressive.



Methods of Testing Temperament

Test and analyse response

This method of testing is most commonly used to test fear or reactivity in horses.

The consistency of behaviours must be considered, traits that have been proven for consistency as the horse ages (between 8 months and 2.5 years) include fearfulness (measured as flight distance and latency to approach a novel object) (Lansade, et al., 2008a), reactivity to humans (exploration of a passive human and ease of handling) (Lansade & Bouissou, 2008), and reactions to isolation and separation (Lansade, et al., 2008b).

Consistency may also be noted in the agitation levels of cattle undergoing restraint (Grandin, 1993). Similarly pigs show individually consistent behaviour patterns during open field testing, however it is debated as to if the same behaviours are presented when the context of the situation is varied (Spoolder, et al., 1996).

Interestingly, the responses of horses to this type of artificial temperament tests were not consistent with the behaviours displayed by the horses during open-field testing (Seaman, et al., 2002). This testing method has the potential for habituation if the same testing method is repeated (Grandin, 1993).

Open field

These tests are based upon the animal entering an experimental area with no human influences – one study of cattle noted that the behaviours displayed during these tests may not fully correlate with those found during artificial behavioural tests (Boivin, et al., 1992).


This method involves questioning the owners or handlers of a horse – particularly those that have day-to-day contact with the animal. It has been found that this method has good reliability when the results are compared to artificial reactivity tests (Momozawa, et al., 2003).

When three riding instructors were asked to assess the temperament of horses in a therapy environment, only around 8% agreement in responses was noted between all 3, suggesting that individual interpretations of temperament can vary significantly (Anderson, et al., 1999). Often misinterpretation of behaviour can lead to scrutiny  particularly where the animal is no longer suitable for their role as a result of undesirable behaviour – therefore when assessing an animal the ‘feelings’ of the assessor need to stay neutral.

In an attempt to validate temperament testing (Foyer et al 2014)  conducted a study involving military dogs. For the most part the temperament tests were accurate, however a few surprising results occurred during this study.  Dogs that were more “hyperactive” and had an inability to “settle down” when young turned out to be more successful during the temperament test.  For a guide dog these may be associated as problem behaviours however, for a military working dog the German Shepard’s that had these traits were more compulsive during tasks and performed as well as those who were fearless.

In addition to this, (Valsecchi et al 2011)  looked at the efficiency and accuracy of temperament testing in 4 Italian re-homing centers for dogs. 163 dogs were tested at the shelter twice; the first time was 20 days after arrival and the second was 60 days. The reason for not assessing the dogs upon arrival was to ensure that stress-induced cortisol levels were not high as this could affect their behaviour. Phase 2 involved retesting the dogs once they had settled in their new home; for the most part consistency was found along all 3 temperament tests. Showing how temperament testing could aid with the re-homing of abandoned dogs, however the authors take an ethological approach and stress that no behavioural test could guarantee certainty of future behaviour patterns in animals with a complex nervous system.

Terminology is often a problem within questionnaires as there is not a universal definition of certain characteristics. It was found that the language meaning varied between regions for example, “bolshy” vs “pushy” (Mills, 1998).

Less Formal

Parelli’s Horsenality Chart


Figure 2: The Parelli Horsenality chart (www.parelli.com/horsenality.html)

Physical Temperament Indicators

(Deesing & Grandin, 2014) have put forward a theory that hair whorls and their positioning on a horse are indicators of temperament in a horse. Hair whorls located below the center of the eyes predict a calm temperament, whilst those that are located high on the forehead suggest a flighty temperament. Those on either the left of right side of the head indicate handedness, and according to Deesing the side in which the hair whorl is on, is the side that is hardest to attend to when shoeing a horse!

Mark Deesing looked at his own horses:-

  • Murphy a 10 year old appaloosa, hair whorl below the eyes, he was calm.
  • Dell a Appaloosa gelding, opposite to Murphy, whorl was well above the eyes, flighty, big and strong, but timid and reactive.
  • Jenny a Race-bred Quarter horse, two high side by side whorls, similar to Dell but less nervous, curious to surroundings, confident, leader of herd and she only had to pin her ears back to get other mares to back off.

SAM_0732 SAM_0736 SAM_0737


Assessment for Purpose

Species Choices

Bomb detection – Dogs vs. African Giant Pouched Rats (https://www.apopo.org/en/mine-action/projects/tanzania)

Therapy horses – horses (http://www.rda.org.uk/), miniature horses (http://www.horse-therapy.org/), therapy donkeys (http://www.thedonkeysanctuary.org.uk/donkey-assisted-therapy)

Recreational use – dressage mule, driving donkeys, extreme mules.

In Horses

Formal temperament tests to assess suitability for purpose is not typically done. Tests of horses in therapeutic riding schools suggested that there were not significant tendencies towards particular traits – indeed some of the most reactive horses were found to be within the therapeutic riding school (Anderson, et al., 1999). Even a confined, domesticated horse is still instinctively a horse therefore, any horse could suddenly become unruly (Lavender, 2006).

 In Other Animals

Conversely, formal temperament testing is being employed by some dog shelters to enable the best re-homing for their charges.

One study looked at predicting potential problem behaviour that is likely to be presented by dogs waiting for rehoming, and it was concluded that testing predicted almost 75% of all problems that were later noted by the new owners. Conversely, opinions from staff (which were mainly based upon limited daily contact and information from the previous owners) were only able to predict 1/3 of the problems that occurred (van der Borg, et al., 1991).

Consideration for methodology must be considered – during assessment of rescue dogs for future service training, little correlation between temperament and performance was found, but the issue of habituation proved to be a vital one. For instance, certain tests (such as rapid approach by an unfamiliar person) reflect what the dog is already habituated to (children running up to a dog in a kennel) (Weiss & Greenberg, 1997).

(Marder & Dowling-Guyer, 2010) assessed dogs from a shelter for their suitability to become mediators between the police and the victims of crime. None of the dogs assessed were unconditionally suitable and all would need to undergo some form of training in order to fulfil the requirements of the role.

Influencing Factors

Age, Experience and Breed

It has been found that responses to different tests are not always consistent as the horse ages – of flightiness and sensitivity, patience and willingness, only flightiness was found to be consistent as horses aged between 1 and 2 years (Visser, et al., 2001).

Additionally in cattle, those that experienced more human contact throughout their upbringing showed better reactions to humans during handling tests, whilst those with very little human experience were likely to show aggression (Boivin, et al., 1992).. This study also noted differences during open-field tests, with the older cattle spending less time exploring the experimental area.

In a survey-based study of 1223 horses from 8 different breeds, breed influences on temperament have been found. The strongest variation was noted in excitable and anxious traits, these being high in Thoroughbreds, Arabians and Welsh cobs, and low in Irish Draught and Highland ponies. Dominance and protection showed the least variability between breeds, highest in TB & Welsh, lowest in Shetland & ID. Sociability and Inquisitiveness were also assessed, low variability, highest Arab TB, lowest in ID and AQH – results all compared well with breed society descriptions (Lloyd, et al., 2008).

In a study involving 33 well-handled horses above the height 15.3hh, from varying backgrounds it was found that the younger horses of the group had a smaller latency of approach towards a person or a novel object (Seaman, et al., 2002). On separate occasions a person or a novel object was placed at the centre of the arena, with an outline of a circle around it. The horse was let loose in the arena and the time for the horse to approach the person or the novel object was recorded. Figure 2 outlines how the study was set out.

A diagram of the set up of the temperament testing study conducted by Seaman 2002

Figure 2: A diagram of the set up of the temperament testing study conducted by (Seaman, et al., 2002)


Why is Understanding Temperament Important? 

Questionnaire evaluation by owners alongside veterinary assessment noted that the more ‘neurotic’ horses tended to be perceived by their handlers as having a lower pain tolerance, and additionally they were found to have less severe injuries, than more stoic horses. It is suggested that these qualities make a horse more effective at eliciting early treatment, leaving less time for injury degeneration (Ijichi, et al., 2013).

(Valenchon, et al., 2013)  – horses tested for short term memory by witnessing a handler placing feed in one of two buckets, held for a delay then released. Trials were performed under normal conditions, then trials with a stressor were added – stressors being the rattling of a tarpaulin, loud noises (dog barks/bells/voices) or an unfamiliar item such as balloon or colourful box, during the delay period, before the horses were released to make their choice. Those that scored more highly in formal fear-tests, displayed poorer short term memory when stressed, but also showed better performance than the less fearful group during basic control conditions.

Murray et al 2009 conducted a study that involved the use of the ‘isolation box’ test on ewes. Visual isolation from flock mates highlighted those individuals who were calm in comparison to those who were reactive. Following this, each group of individuals (either calm or reactive) were milked, and it was found that calm ewes identified from the isolation box test were easier to milk and produced a higher milk yield.

Potential Areas for Application

Future applications for temperament testing within the equine industry can be varied – including selection of horses for police work (to minimize wastage of horses that prove unsuited during the training program), for therapeutic purposes (varying from miniature horses which visit homes, to larger horses for riding or driving), to more formal testing on dealer or sales yards (to ensure temperament and reactions to a wide variety of situations can be tested).

Temperament and breeding in Arabian Horses – http://www.waho.org/Conference/Emma-Maxwell-talk-WAHO-Conference2011.pdf







Allport, G. W., 1936. Trait-names: A psycholexical study. Psychological Monographs, Volume 47.

Anderson, M. K., Friend, T. H., Evans, J. W. & Bushong, D. M., 1999. Behavioural assessment of horses in theraputic riding programs. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, Volume 63, pp. 11-24.

Boivin, X. et al., 1992. Influence of breed and early management on ease of handling and open-field behaviour of cattle. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, Volume 32, pp. 313-323.

Deesing, M. J. & Grandin, T., 2014. Behavior Genetics of the Horse (Equus caballus). In: Genetics and the Behavior of Domestic Animals . 2nd ed. s.l.:s.n., pp. 237-290.

Lavender, D., 2006. The Horse, The Person, The Journey. In: equine~utilised psychotherapy. London: Mrunalini Press Limited, pp. 22-23.

Foyer, P., Bjällerhag, N., Wilsson, E. & Jensen, P., 2014. Behaviour and experiences of dogs during the first year of life predict the outcome in a later temperament test. Applied Behaviour Science, Volume 155, pp. 93-100.

Grandin, T., 1993. Behavioural agitation during handling of cattle is persistent over time. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, Volume 36, pp. 1-9.

Lansade, L. & Bouissou, M., 2008. Reactivity to humans: A temperament trait of horses which is stable across time and situations. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, Volume 114, pp. 492-508.

Lansade, L., Bouissou, M. & Erhard, H. W., 2008a. Fearfulness in horses: A temperament trait stable across time and situations. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, Volume 115, pp. 182-200.

Lansade, L., Bouissou, M. & Erhard, H. W., 2008b. Reactivity to isolation and association with conspecifics: A temperament trait stable across time and situations. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, Volume 109, pp. 355-373.

Lansade, L., Pichard, G. & Leconte, M., 2008. Sensory sensitivities: Components of a horse’s temperament dimension. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 114(3-4), pp. 534-553.

Ijichi, C., Collins, L. M. & Elwood, R. W., 2013. Pain expression is linked to personality in horses. Applied Animal Behaviour Science.

Lloyd, A. S., Martin, J. E., Bornett-Gauci, H. L. I. & Wilkinson, R. G., 2008. Horse personality: Variation between breeds. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, Volume 112, pp. 369-383.

Mills, D. S., 1998. Personality and individual differences in the horse, their significance, use and measurement. Equine Clinical Behaviour, Volume 27, pp. 10-13.

Momozawa, Y. et al., 2003. Assessment of equine temperament by a questionnaire survey of caretakers and evaluation of its reliability by simultaneous behaviour test. Applied Animal Beaviour Science, Volume 84, pp. 127-138.

Murray, T. L., Blache, D. B. & Bencini, R., 2009. The selection of dairy sheep on calm temperament before milking and its effect on management and milk production. Small Ruminant Research, Volume 87, pp. 45-49.

Seaman, S. C., Davidson, H. P. B. & Waran, N. K., 2002. How reliable is temperament assessment in the domestic horse (Equus caballus). Applied Animal Behaviour Science, Volume 78, pp. 175-191.

Spoolder, H. A. M. et al., 1996. Individual behavioural differences in pigs: intra- and inter-test consistency. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, Volume 49, pp. 185-198.

Valenchon, M. et al., 2013. Stress and temperament affect working memory performance for disappearing food in horses, Equus caballus. Animal Behaviour, Volume 86, pp. 1233-1240.

Valsecchi, P., Barnard, S., Stefanini, C. & Normando, S., 2011. Temperament tes for re-homed dogs validated through direct behaviour observation in shelter and home environment. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, Volume 6, pp. 161-177.

van der Borg, J. A. M., Netto, W. J. & Planta, D. J. U., 1991. Behavioural testing of dogs in animal shelters to predict problem behaviour. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, Volume 32, pp. 237-251.

Visser, E. K. et al., 2001. Quantifying aspects of young horses’ temperament: consistency of behavioural variables. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, Volume 74, pp. 241-258.

Weiss, E. & Greenberg, G., 1997. Service dog selection tests: effectiveness for dogs from animal shelters. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, Volume 53, pp. 297-308.



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