Breeding Temperament


Friendly Willowtrail youngstock

I’ve recently interviewed a number of people in the horse industry, and I was surprised by a recurring theme.  Several people volunteered that it’s common practice to make a mare into a broodmare if her temperament isn’t suitable for using.  The thinking seemed to be that if she can’t be worked, at least she can still do something useful, like raise offspring.  While I appreciate the desire to find useful work for a horse, I am a bit dumbfounded by the logic of breeding a mare with temperament issues.


Temperament for me is so important.  I spend a good part of my day and my energy taking care of my ponies, and interacting with them is one of the paybacks for my effort.  I derive great pleasure from ponies coming up to me wanting to say hello and get a good scratch.  Ponies that aren’t interested in interacting give me less pleasure and less return on the work I put into them.  As a breeder, I want to produce ponies with temperaments that I like and that I find easy to train, so I’ve spent a lot of time over the past decade listening to what other Fell Pony people have to say about the temperaments of their ponies.


I recently read about some research done in France on how equines react to humans.  The study involved Anglo-Arabs and Welsh Ponies.  Researchers observed the animals interacting with humans from 8 months to two-and-a-half years of age.  The two primary outcomes of the study were:  

1)      “…individual horses and ponies varied in how they reacted to people.” 

2)      “Those horses and ponies with people-friendly personalities as weanlings continued to be more approachable as yearlings and two-year-olds.” 

The study’s authors concluded that “an innate temperament trait influences how a horse interacts with people.”  Another interpretation of the results states that ‘people friendly horses are born that way.’ (1)


Part of me wanted to say ‘duh’ when I read this conclusion.  Since I’ve been breeding, it’s been obvious to me that temperament is a heritable trait that can and should be selected for by breeders.  In my many conversations with Fell Pony owners and breeders, there are definite patterns in how temperaments pass from parents to offspring.  Sometimes temperament traits skip generations.  Often the stallion plays a bigger role than the mare.  Mares that are standoffish often have offspring that are similar.  In my own herd, I’ve culled breeding stock for reasons of temperament.


While I personally felt like the research findings were old news, the results of my recent interviews made me think twice.  Apparently the idea that temperament can be inherited isn’t commonly understood by everyone.  If a mare doesn’t have a temperament suitable for work, then in my mind she shouldn’t be bred because she might pass her poor temperament.  But the people I interviewed said it’s common:  if a mare can’t be worked because of temperament issues, make her a broodmare.  Unfortunately, the breeder is likely propagating the problem they were bothered by in the first place. 


In the most recent newsletter from the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy there is an article on the importance of culling.  “Breeders must always consider whether the animals they are breeding will help or hurt the overall breed population.”  (2)  In any breed, selecting for temperament seems to me to be a way of helping an overall breed population, and putting mares in foal with temperament problems hurts a population.  Perhaps the research that found an innate trait about temperament will help influence future breeding decisions for the better of horses, horse breeds, and their humans.


(1) People-Friendly Horses Are Born That Way – Horse Science News.  re:  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

(2)    Shirley, Elaine.  “Culling – Sometimes Difficult, Always Necessary,” ALBC News, Volume 28, Issue 3 (May-June, 2011), p. 7.

(c) Jenifer Morrissey 2011


About workponies

Breeder of Fell Ponies, teamster of work ponies, and author of Feather Notes, Fell Pony News, and A Humbling Experience: My First Few Years with Fell Ponies. Distributor of Dynamite Specialty Products for the health of our planet and the beings I share it with.
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