People-Friendly Horses Are Born That Way

Inborn temperament shapes how comfortable a horse is with being touched by people, recent research confirms. Whether or not a horse has a people-oriented nature becomes evident within its first year.

Scientists in Nouzilly, France detected horse personalities when they made detailed observations of how Welsh ponies and Anglo-Arab horses reacted to familiar and unfamiliar people. In one test, a familiar person remained in a pen with the horse, but didn't move. Researchers documented how often the horse approached the person and sniffed, licked or nibbled them.

Other tests involved people attempting to touch or halter the horse. In some situations the horse knew the person, while in others it did not. In these tests, a horse's comfort level was assessed by measuring how long it took to be touched or haltered.

girl pets her horse

Some horses naturally want to be with people.

To see whether the horses and ponies changed their behavior as they matured, the tests were repeated in following years. Researchers first collected data when the animals were eight months old, and then again at 1.5 years and 2.5 years of age.

The results clearly showed that individual horses and ponies varied in how they reacted to people. Those horses and ponies with people-friendly personalities as weanlings continued to be more approachable as yearlings and two-year-olds.

Over the two years, individual equines were consistent in how often they licked or nibbled the motionless person in their pen. Each horse was also consistent throughout the study in how long it took to being touched or haltered, regardless of whether the person involved was familiar. Horses that took the least amount of time to accept handling at eight months of age, were also the quickest to be touched in later years.

Furthermore, all these interactions with people were linked. Horses that more often sniffed, licked or nibbled someone standing in their pen were also the ones who most readily allowed touching and haltering.

The consistency of individual horse's reactions to people throughout the two years and among the different situations leads the study's authors to conclude that an innate temperament trait influences how a horse interacts with people. The researchers label this personality characteristic as "reactivity-to-humans".


Léa Lansade and Marie-France Bouissou. 2008. Reactivity to humans: A temperament trait of horses which is stable across time and situations. Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 114(3-4): 492-508.

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