A world-first equine study spearheaded by University of New England (Australia) Professor of Animal Behavior Paul McGreevy in collaboration with Colorado State University Professor of Animal Sciences Temple Grandin, a renowned animal behavior expert, seeks the genetic clues to equine temperament.
According to news releases on the UNE and CSU websites, the two professors aim to establish a scientific foundation for breeding horses that are temperamentally suited for their specific type of work. They hope to do this by identifying the genes that make horses prone to behaving in certain ways under specific conditions.
The idea is to better match individual horses with their assigned roles by using genetic selection that is enhanced by both research and technology. Though such an approach is nothing new in other livestock industries, it is still considered a “novelty” in horse breeding.
Quarter Horse owners to provide data
For the necessary data, McGreevy is turning to one of the world’s “largest, most diverse” group of equestrians: American Quarter Horse owners. Owners across disciplines will be asked to respond on a volunteer basis to a carefully curated set of questions about their horses’ behavior. The study will also hinge on genetic information from the tail hair that respondents will be asked to submit. This data will be used to try and identify “relevant, highly heritable differences” in the behavior of Quarter Horses.
As Grandin observes, honing the ability to predict behavior could dramatically enhance breeding programs and have profound advantages for horses and people alike. “This project will give Quarter Horse breeders–and horse breeders everywhere–a proven path to improving horse performance while advancing horse welfare and reducing behavioral issues,” she says in the UNE release.
Behavioral mismatches can lead to chronically stressed horses and injured people, McGreevy notes–especially since people often don’t realize that a horse is ill-suited to a chosen role until well into training. With this project, he says they will be using a recent innovation in collecting and analyzing equine behavior “… to understand and celebrate the genetic differences that optimize the matching of ‘horses for courses.'”
That innovation is the Equine Behaviour Assessment and Research Questionnaire (E-BARQ), which “enables researchers to collect detailed owner-reported data on observed horse behaviors while eliminating subjective judgements about what those behaviors represent,” according to the UNE news release.
E-BARQ is the outgrowth of a similar instrument for canine behavior, the development of which was led by the University of Pennsylvania.