Horses are hardwired to scare easily. Whether it is a plastic bag floating harmlessly in the wind or an actual threat, horses cannot distinguish whether they are in imminent danger. Either is enough to startle them and result in rearing, bolting, or bucking to defend themselves. If a horse seems distracted or jumpy, it is usually because something has their attention and is causing them to feel anxious and worried.
Identifying specific genetic traits geared toward the horse's temperament can help us to understand horses better and breed for less startled horses. We would then be able to breed horses for different temperaments that fit our lifestyles better, or simply understand the temperaments we prefer. Samantha Brooks, associate professor of equine genetics, and her team experimented on several groups of young and old horses that are part of a breeding program.1 This program aims to understand the horses’ startle response and differentiate the genetic components that make up a horse's fear.
Throughout this experiment, blood and hair samples were taken from both the young and old horses to be able to know how genetics may weigh into behavior. Knowing this information can help owners determine the right horse for them. The experiment also included attaching wireless heart rate monitors on both sets of horses, while letting them run loose in a round playpen. The umbrella tactic is used in intervals as horses can see the umbrella in their line of sight. The umbrella is opened quickly within the intervals and a reading of both the young and old horses' heart rates is collected to gather as much varied data as possible. Brooks found that a horse's startle response could also adapt or be reduced through proper training and ownership. As the experiment continued, it could be seen that different groups of horses were eventually calming more quickly and not reacting to the umbrella tactic at all.
In general, horses may not be a threat or dangerous once we know their temperaments and how to properly train or breed them. An extremely energetic and high-strung horse may be better in a competition setting than one that doesn’t have the same energy, whereas a more calm horse is better off in a family setting or farm. Once we know the horses' temperaments, we will also know how to transport, handle, administer medical procedures, and provide proper welfare, such as hoof care, to them. Most horses are easily startled, so it’s important to learn and educate ourselves on how to properly understand the easily startled nature of horses and how to care for them.