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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