How Does the Temperament Scale of a Horse Work?

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If you’ve perused sale ads in your quest for the perfect horse, odds are you’ve seen the box labeled “Temperament,” in which the seller has selected a number. The numerical assessment can lull some novice buyers into believing it’s an objective assessment; in reality, this scale is typically very subjective, but it does give prospective buyers a place to start.

Scale Basics

You may see a horse’s temperament measured on a scale of 1 to 10, or sometimes 1 to 5. In both cases, a rating of 1 indicates an extremely calm, cool demeanor, while the higher number indicates the opposite -- what horse people typically refer to as “hot.” On a 10-point scale, then, a rating of 1 to 4 would indicate a fairly calm horse, while 6 to10 would be a horse with a more excitable demeanor. A number 5 places the horse somewhere in the middle, or “warm.” On a 5-point scale, number 3 would be the mid-point indicator between the two extremes.

Lower Scale Traits

If you buy a horse rated at the lower end of the temperament scale, you should be able to anticipate the horse will be calm, dependable and somewhat unflappable. Some people refer to this type as a “steady Eddie.” He shouldn’t spook easily; for example, he may act mildly startled if a deer jumps out of the brush while trail riding, but he won’t bolt out from under you, rear or buck. He should also be relatively immune to loud or strange noises and objects. Horses at this end of the scale may also be lazy; you may need to apply a lot of leg pressure to get them to move forward and to keep them in a faster gait such as a trot or canter. Quarterhorses and some warmblood breeds, in general, possess calm personalities.

Higher Scale Traits

A horse with a higher temperament rating is typically more eager and quick. The quickness may be rooted in nervousness and anxiety, or simply a desire to go fast. He may be referred to as “high-strung,” implying an inability to stand still and unpredictability. Horses that spook easily are also often at this end of the temperament scale. Unlike his calmer, lazier counterparts, this horse is more likely to be very sensitive to leg pressure -- it won’t take much to get him going into a faster gait, and it may take more effort to stop. Higher temperament ratings are often associated with “hot” breeds, such as Arabians and thoroughbreds.

Desired Temperament

The temperament you select should fit your riding ability first, and your personality second. The inexperienced rider should start with a horse on the lower end of the temperament scale -- even if your heart appreciates more of a go-getter. Safety is paramount with beginners. As you advance in your skills, you can get a horse with a temperament you like and that suits your personality. This is important, because a Netherlands research study published in 2008 found that a dissonance between a rider’s personality and her horse’s can affect compatibility if the horse is very sensitive. Your tastes may also change as you get older.

Exceptions

Horses are individuals, so regardless of breed stereotypes, you will find exceptions. Bad experiences, such as being mistreated, can also cause behaviors that obscure a horse’s natural temperament. This may improve in time, but there are no guarantees. Also, if you want a very young horse that is not yet being ridden, it’s very hard to accurately assess his temperament -- young horses are typically active and playful. Breeders typically select parents with temperaments suited to a specific sport; for example, if someone wants to breed a jumper, they may look for parents at the higher end of the scale. There are no guarantees, but start with researching the breeding pedigree for parental personality and athletic traits.

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Author

Based in Central Texas, Karen S. Johnson is a marketing professional with more than 30 years' experience and specializes in business and equestrian topics. Her articles have appeared in several trade and business publications such as the Houston Chronicle. Johnson also co-authored a series of communications publications for the U.S. Agency for International Development. She holds a Bachelor of Science in speech from UT-Austin.