Put on a Happy Face for Your Horse

It’s been a bad day and the anger is written all over your face. You walk into the barn and your friends scatter. Even your coach steps back. You head to the field to collect your horse….and guess what? Chances are your equine partner sees it too. That’s what a new study out of the University of Sussex reveals.

For the first time, researchers have shown that horses can read the emotional messages in human faces.

In the study, twenty-eight horses were presented with two sets of photographs – one with an angry face, and one with a happy face.

emotion_faces
Courtesy: University of Sussex

 

The handlers were unable to see the photos, so they couldn’t influence the horses in any way.

Horses read facial emotion in a study by the University of Sussex
Courtesy: Mammal Vocal Communication and Cognition research group, University of Sussex

 

Heart rate and behavior were monitored.

When horses saw the angry face their heart rates increased noticeably faster and they tended to look at the photo with their left eyes. Previous research has shown that a horse looks at scary things through the left eye. The visual information is then processed in the right hemisphere of the brain where fight or flight decisions are made. This “lateralized” viewing behavior is seen in other animals like dogs and sheep.

All the horses responded to the angry face – although some were more reactive than others and personality type may have affected the strength of the response. Researchers were unable to identify a significant difference in response between breeds, possibly because the number of horses participating in the study was so small, although warmbloods did seem more sensitive.

The fact that horses can read our faces – even from a two dimensional picture, without body stance, or odor cues, raises intriguing questions about interspecies communication. Whether horses evolved to recognize human facial expressions because we have lived together for so many thousands of years, or if the horses in the study are responding to early learned behavior, the results certainly show how observant and perceptive horses are. “As a prey species, it is important they understand the danger around them,” explained co-lead author of the study, Amy Smith. “So it’s not surprising they look for clues everywhere in their environment. What we are realizing is how sophisticated horse communication skills are, so as riders and handlers we have to recognize the impact our emotions, especially negative ones, can have on our horses.”

So remember, no matter what kind of day it’s been, take a deep breath and put on that happy face – your horse is watching.

 

Amy Victoria Smith, Leanne Proops, Kate Grounds, Jennifer Wathan and Karen McComb. Functionally relevant responses to human facial expressions of emotion in the domestic horse (Equus caballus). Biology Letters, 2016 DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2015.0907

 

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