"You've always known your spooky gelding is a bit of a scaredy-cat, but did you know he might be genetically wired to react to things the way he does? University of Florida researchers recently studied Quarter Horse weanlings to map the genes for spooking behavior.
'The initiation of a spook begins with a startle response, which is a neurologic reflex, not a conscious effort,...Some genetic changes result in an alteration in the neurologic pathway controlling the startle response.'
All study horses received uniform environmental training (e.g., they were halter-broke at the same time, etc.). All also experienced the same experimental setup: Once the weanlings were accustomed to being fed from a pan in a round pen, a researcher would pop open a brightly colored umbrella nearby while they ate. The team catalogued the responses-ear flick, increased heart rate, defecation, distance traveled, and the likelihood and speed of return to the feed pan. Some weanlings continued eating, some refused to return to the feed pan, and others exhibited behaviors across the spectrum. The researchers used a statistical model to score each individual's likelihood to startle.
'To map something, you must first be able to precisely measure it,...Now the researchers will investigate each weanling's genetic makeup and look for genomic markers that correlate with its score....A practical objective of this work is to create a genetic test for the tendency to spook, based on a population-wide average,...Recreational riders often want a quiet horse, whereas a show jumper may desire a horse with lightning-fast reflexes. A DNA sample submitted for genetic testing may help people decide if a young horse will be appropriate for their athletic endeavors.'..."