Brave horses are most definitely made, not born. Falling squarely on the “flight” end of the fight-flight spectrum, horses are born not to be brave! Here, I will explore the horse’s evolutionary design for chicken-heartedness and their enormous capacity for lion-heartedness, when given the opportunity.


Often, I hear owners and trainers comment that their horse is “chicken,” “gutless,” “spineless,” “counterfeit” and other admonishments not fit for print in a family magazine. When cursing our horses for their lack of courage and focusing on what they are doing, not doing, or ought to be doing for us, we lose sight of the fact that almost everything we ask horses to do runs completely counter to their evolutionary design. In the days when horses roamed great ranges where food was sparse and predators plentiful, horses who hung around to find out if an unfamiliar object was truly dangerous were much less likely to survive, and pass on their genes to future generations, than those who got the heck out of Dodge.

Horse Senses

Horses’ natural tendency toward spookiness is better understood when looking inside their sensory world. Horses’ laterally placed eyes give them an almost a 360-degree perspective. This extensive peripheral range offers the advantage of detecting predators easily, but comes at the expense of visual acuity (the ability to clearly discriminate fine detail). Furthermore, their vision is best when their heads are on the ground, as it is when grazing. (When your horse puts his head down to have a look at things, this is a good thing; he is actually trying get a better picture of what is going on). In short, we have an animal that sees far more than we do, but much less clearly, combined with a hair trigger flight response to leave quickly when anything suspicious comes into their visual field.

The horse’s brain has extremely large olfactory bulbs with a huge number of receptor cells giving them a sense of smell that makes ours laughable. And, with the nostrils’ orientation on either side of the horse’s face, they are able to smell in stereo! When you think that your horse is “spooking at nothing” he may, in fact, know something that you do not.

Horses also have us trumped in the hearing department. Their large, upright, funnel shaped ears that can tilt, turn and twist independently, are infinitely more adept at hearing sounds than our small, flat, immovable ears tucked close against our heads. Their ability to localize brief, high-frequency, sounds, such as the snap of a branch or the snort of another horse, is limited, however. Much of a horse’s alarm about seemingly invisible boogey monsters may be attributed to his ability to hear sounds that we cannot, without always localizing the source.

When we combine horses’ sensory perspective (huge on information input, but poor on discriminating detail) with a hard-wired instinct to flee first and ask questions later, it is quite remarkable that we do not end up with our butts in the dirt a great deal more often than we do.

“The Big Five”

Also, there are individual personality differences with horses just as with people. Some thrill seekers search out terrifying events for the adrenaline high, while others crave an evening at home with a good pinot noir and Season 4 of Downton Abbey. Researchers have begun to use human self-report personality measures to assess animal personality (with owners or caretakers filling out the questionnaires), and find that animals vary along key personality dimensions much like humans do.

The Five Factor Model (FFM, Costa & McRae, 1992) describes five bipolar personality factors along which people can vary from low to high. “The Big Five” are N (Neuroticism, Nervousness, Negative affectivity), A (Agreeableness, Altruism, Affection), E (Extraversion, Energy, Enthusiasm), O (Openness, Originality, Open-Mindedness) and
C (Conscientiousness, Control, Constraint), and along with their subcategories are thought to encompass most human personality traits. In a review of a large number of animal personality studies, researchers Gosling and John found that three of the Big Five factors, Extraversion, Neuroticism and Agreeableness (and to a lesser degree Openness) could be used effectively in describing animal personality. Various animals (including pigs, dogs, donkeys, chimpanzees and even guppies and octopi) demonstrated that individual differences may be organized along these personality dimensions. Needless to say, the manifestation of these personality traits varies considerably by species. As Gosling notes, whereas a human scoring low on Extraversion tries to blend into the background at a crowded party, an octopus who is low on the same dimension tries to become invisible by changing colour or injecting ink into the water.

More recently, researchers have studied whether the Big Five can be used to describe equine personality. Morris and colleagues (2002) modified the original Five Factor inventory, to make items applicable to horses, and had owners rate the degree to which 60 statements corresponded to their horse’s personality. They found that the Big Five factors Neuroticism (anxiety, nervousness and reactivity), Agreeableness (being well-mannered), Extraversion (sociability with other horses), Openness (curiosity about new experiences) and Conscientiousness (reliability and dependability), as well as a factor they called Activity (energy), could reliably be applied to horses and showed variable individual differences.

Kristiansen and colleagues (2013) replicated Morris’ study and extracted eight factors (Neuroticism, Activity, Conscientiousness, Agreeableness, Openness, Social Extraversion, Temperamental and Disciplined). They also included a “don’t know” option to tease out items that may not be applicable to horses, arguing that personality variables need to relate to an observable behaviour that is available and detectable to the rater. Following this same reasoning, Ijichi and colleagues (2013) assessed whether personality factors gleaned from subjective owner-report personality questionnaires could predict actual behaviour during behavioural testing. Interestingly, only Extraversion and Neuroticism showed consistency between subjective measures and observable behaviours.

Equine personality research continues to produce varied results as to what personality factors can be applied to horses. However, Neuroticism (which captures nervousness, reactivity, and excitability) consistently shows reliable, measurable, individual differences. Some horses are just plain spookier than others. Period.


In spite of everything I have said, there is much we can do to build a horse’s tolerance for things that frighten him, regardless of where he may fall on the N factor spectrum.

The Buddy System

A straightforward method for exposing your horse to new and frightening events (and to old and frightening events) is to enlist a more experienced horse to pave the way. Many “phobias” can be avoided if a horse’s first exposure involves following an experienced horse. Foals who load on a trailer for the first time with their mothers generally do not have trailer “issues” later in life, unless a subsequent experience has put them off. Event riders often use a buddy when introducing horses to water, and thereby circumnavigate a troubling and potentially career ending issue.

You too can be a workable stand-in “buddy.” When your horse is afraid to approach something, get off and go first. Make this strategy a first line of defense; leading the way before things get alarming, rather than after the panic has taken hold, will be more effective.

Positive Reinforcement and Shaping

Positive reinforcement is a valuable tool for deconditioning responses we don’t want and building in the ones we do. Horses are good candidates for positive reinforcement because they are so easy to reinforce. For an animal that is designed for almost continual eating, food rewards never get old for horses!

Positive reinforcement means that behaviours that are followed by a reward are more likely to reoccur in the future. If you want to see more of a behaviour, reward it immediately after it occurs. The more opportunities we have to build up a reinforcement history, by repeatedly rewarding the desired behaviour, the more solid and reliable the behaviour will become.

Most of the behaviours we would like to see, however, do not occur spontaneously (jumping obstacles, dancing to music, suppressing an instinctive alarm reaction to terrifying stimuli), and so do not provide an opportunity for reward. In these cases, animal trainers (and clinical psychologists!) use “shaping,” a particular kind of positive reinforcement where we reward closer and closer approximations of the desired behaviour. For example, if I want to teach my horse to be brave about (i.e. stand quietly for) the clippers, which undoubtedly have been designed to dismember him, I turn on the clippers sufficiently far away so as to elicit no reaction, and reward him with a treat for standing quietly. Gradually, I move the clippers closer and continue to reward him for calm behaviour. If he tenses, I wait until he settles before rewarding. If he doesn’t settle, I move the clippers further away until he is calm and start again. The horse will learn more quickly and the behaviour will be more locked in when we can create more and more opportunities to reward the behaviour we want to see. Thus, there is no benefit to hurrying the progression and creating a tense horse. A tense horse gives us no opportunity to reward, nor any opportunity for learning. (See the May/June 2012 edition of Horse-Canada for a more on positive reinforcement or see

Dealing with Scary Things Generalizes

There is also evidence that learning generalizes. That is, if we teach our horse to tolerate the clippers, when we next teach him to deal with needles, shaping will likely move along faster. It seems that horses are able to generalize the process of learning. The more they know, the easier it is to learn new material. As you add new experiences to your horse’s repertoire, you are building a reinforcement history that new things mean that good things will follow.


We would do well to eliminate value laden terms like “brave,” “courageous,” “gutless,” or “chicken” from our equine vocabulary. For when we exalt horses for being brave, we can feel justified in punishing them when they are not. A horse that needs to inspect every new obstacle he encounters is doing precisely what he was evolutionarily designed to do, and what kept his ancestors alive such that he is here today to continue doing it. Yet, horses have an amazing capacity to learn to overcome their natural flight instinct, to leap over immense obstacles, work as riot control police agents, fly in planes, or perform in front of immense jumbotrons in packed stadiums. On the occasions where they fall back to the “I’m outa here” evolutionary default, we could afford them a little slack, and realize we have left a hole in their education.

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