Crazy comes in all species, shapes, sizes, and colors. And when it comes to horses, all eyes are on the chestnuts.
Chestnuts have always had something of a reputation as the hot heads of the horse world, though exactly where and how this stereotype originated is unknown. There's even an old adage among horse people something along the lines of "chestnut mare, beware!" But it looks like "crazy" chestnuts have finally been vindicated.
Professor of Veterinary Science Claire Wade, of the University of Sydney, suspects the reputation is an analog of the human world's regard for redheads.
"I guess it comes from the general notion that redheads are a little bit fiery; it's not uncommon to hear about people talking about a fiery redhead, so chestnuts are just a red-headed horse."
Brandon Velie, a researcher in the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences Department of Animal Breeding and Genetics, set out to test the long-standing myth about crazy chestnuts. Velie used questionnaires to survey the owners, trainers, and handlers of 477 bay and chestnut horses about the horses' behaviors. The horses ranged in age, sex, breed, and training background.
"Assuming that 'crazy' refers to behaviors such as rearing, kicking, and other conflicts, we found no evidence that chestnut horses were any crazier than bay horses," said Velie.
What the researchers did find, however, was that chestnuts showed a greater inclination toward bold behaviors, such as a greater willingness to approach and explore new objects and animals in their surroundings. And while "crazy" is a decidedly undesirable characteristic in a horse, a horse's boldness can prove highly beneficial to riders and trainers.
Besides wanting to examine the stereotype of crazy chestnuts critically and objectively, another of Velie's motives for undertaking this study was a desire to emphasize the importance of good horsemanship practices in all circumstances.
"From a welfare perspective, my concern is that instead of re-evaluating equipment, fit training practices, stabling practices, etc., people will continue to assume a chestnut horse is kicking and rearing and so forth because 'that's just what they do.'"
This research is an important first-step in changing the horse world's perception of chestnuts. However, there's more work to be done, and future studies would need to examine larger numbers of horses more comprehensively to confirm these findings. Velie also says he hopes to continue research into the physiological underpinnings of the relationship between a horse's coat color and that animal's reaction to stimuli.
Want to learn more? Check out the official study here.