Phrenology for Horses?

When’s the last time you talked to someone about phrenology? Probably not very recently. Phrenology was a 19th century scientific philosophy for determining human personality traits based on reading bumps and fissures on the skull. Although this concept has been dismissed as pseudoscience, a small number of people believe that techniques such as these can be useful, particularly for other animals such as horses. One proponent for this idea is Linda Tellington-Jones (of Tellington TTouch Training), who believes that a horse’s conformation, particularly of the head, is an accurate way to assess personality. 

Here’s the description of her book Getting In TTouch: Understand and Influence Your Horse’s Personality from her website:
“By analyzing the shape of your horse’s head, eyes, ears, chin, jowl, and profile, you can learn the innate personality of a horse and understand how to improve your horses’s performance. Actual case histories are explored with 21 horses in over 200 photos and 136 drawings.”

The skeptic in me automatically smells something fishy upon reading this. To what extent horses have innate personality characteristics versus environmentally learned behavior patterns, I’m not sure. However, reading a horse’s personality from head characteristics just sounds like modern day phrenology to me.

I recently got into a discussion with someone about what Tellington-Jones calls “quirk bumps.”

Here’s an excerpt from page 23 of the previously mentioned book:

Bumps and Bulges

1. A bulge between the eyes:
These horses are usually unpredictable, often slow learners. Lessons must be repeated often for the message to sink in. Require patience.

2. A bump (which is rather broad), just below the eyes:
Horses with the manifestation may be somewhat inflexible and resistant under pressure.

3. “Quirk bump” (a small bump several inches below the eyes):
May indicate a horse who is predictable most of the time buy who may be given to sudden and inexplicable shifts of behavior. These horses often have trouble with submissive training. With understanding, patience and clear commands, you can overcome their unpredictability.

The person who brought this concept to my attention had a horse who had a “quirk bump.” I am quite skeptical about things of this nature. How many horses don’t have bumps that fit that description? And how many do have bumps that don’t? I think there’s probably an observer bias that if a person is looking for a correlation between personality and bumps and thinks a relationship might exist, it’s much easier to believe that it does.

As well, it’s interesting to consider how broad the definition is.

“a horse who is predictable most of the time but who may be given to sudden and inexplainable shifts of behavior”

Yet with training…

“With understanding, patience and clear commands, you can overcome their unpredictability.”

Depending on how you define words like predictable, sudden, clear commands, and overcome, the description of this horse could apply to nearly any horse. Most horses (even the most calm, easy-going types) tend to be less predictable and act more like prey animals when they have had less training and handling or when they are in unfamiliar situations. Many sudden or spooky reactions look sudden and inexplainable if you are not reading the horse perfectly.

However, with good solid training and exposure to lots of different situations, almost all horses get to a point where they will be calmer and relaxed in most situations. So should every horse have a quirk bump, then?

The most important problem here is the prophecy is self-fulfilling and the definition of a quirk bump is always correct. If the horse has a quirk bump and has “sudden and inexplainable shifts of behavior” it’s easy to say that the behavior shifts are a result of the quirk bump. If the horse has a quirk bump and is a calm, gentle, dependable and without behavior problems, it’s easy to say that the horse “overcome their unpredictability” through “patience and clear commands.”

So, while an interesting approach, making sweeping generalizations about personality based on head bumps and conformation is probably not a reliable way to evaluate a horse.

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  • Thanks for visiting my blog. I’ll take another look at clicker training. We probably live pretty close to each other. I live north of Denton & Sanger, south of Gainesville. My address says Valley View, but I live in Mountain Springs.

  • Mary H.

    We are pretty close!

    I think clicker training tends to work well with most horses, but it helps to know somewhat what your doing. Alexandra Kurland has some great resources for clicker training with horses.

  • I’ve been thinking for days about how to respond to this post without getting myself in trouble in many arenas. So I”m just going to go ahead and jump in. I’ll look where I’m going to land later.

    Your post made me giggle at first because it’s exactly the way I, as someone trained in science, would approach anything presented to me in the way this book is presented. Way too touchy-feely. Not enough research to back up the pseudoscience.

    In fact, my first few trainings with Linda filled me with an uncomfortable desire to interrupt every few minutes with objections based on the lack of scientific proof for what she was saying.

    If I’d bothered to listen, the beginning so that proof are everywhere, with only a few exceptions. You happened upon one of the exceptions, and to this day, I cringe a little bit when people point this out.

    The second half of the book you reference is very valuable. And in a way it helps to validate some of the data from the first half. Pointing out ways in which conformation affects behavior is very helpful. A horse whose eyes are set so widely apart that he can’t see in front of him will spook at things ahead. We have to accept h=this and handle him accordingly.

    A high-headed horse whose legs sit behind the vertical may have significant difficulty cantering rounded and collected, and may act out because of discomfort, It will pay to know why and not force the issue.

    I think that, while it contains some questionable material, this book is very valuable in two ways:
    1. it stresses conformational suitability of the horse to the task, and
    2. it asks people to look more closely at their horses to verify the reasons behind possibly behavioral issues. They might learn that those issues are due to conformational mismatches or problems that they cannot help.

    In terms of observational and intuitive understanding of the horse, you can’t beat Linda Tellington-Jones. What you do with the information is up to the reader. But take a look at the second half of the book. Dismiss the quirk bumps if you like, but there’s more to the rest of the material than that.

    OK, I think I’ve said my piece.

    Blast away! :)

  • oooh, a typo in paragraph 4. SOrry for being a sloppy typist and making my meaning hard to understand.
    “the beginnings of…”

  • Mary H.

    Hi Kim,

    Thank you for your thorough reply.

    I think one of the biggest problems I have with using conformation to judge personality is that it assumes causality.

    There sometimes are noticeable correlations between conformation and personality traits. For instance, arabs usually have dished-noses and arabs are usually high-spirited. But just because two traits are often seen together does not mean that one causes the other. Having a dished-face does not mean that a horse will automatically be high spirited.

    I think my main complaint with the quirk bumps (and some of LTJs other theories) is that it cannot be scientific because it is not falsifiable. Depending on how you interpret your quirk bump horse, any horse with a quirk bump could fit that description.

    I have not actually read the entire book. I’ve only glanced through it and discussed it with friends. I will see if I can’t get my hands on it, and then do a thorough, proper review of the whole book.

  • Interesting, I have not heard about this