Horses Can Read Human Emotions, Study Shows

Horses Can Read Human Emotions, Study Shows

For the first time horses have been shown to be able to distinguish between angry and happy human facial expressions.

Photo: iStock

Researchers at the University of Sussex, in the United Kingdom, have confirmed that horses can read human facial expressions. For the first time horses have been shown to be able to distinguish between angry and happy human facial expressions.

Sussex psychologists studied how 28 horses reacted to seeing photographs of positive and negative human facial expressions. When viewing angry faces, horses looked more with their left eye, a behavior associated with perceiving negative stimuli. Their heart rate also increased more quickly and they showed more stress-related behaviors when looking at negative human expressions.

The researchers said this response indicates that the horses had a functionally relevant understanding of the angry faces they were seeing. The effect of facial expressions on heart rate has not been seen before in interactions between animals and humans.

“What’s really interesting about this research is that it shows that horses have the ability to read emotions across the species barrier,” said Amy Smith, BSc (Hons.), MSc, a doctoral student in the Mammal Vocal Communication and Cognition Research Group at Sussex, who co-led the research. “We have known for a long time that horses are a socially sophisticated species but this is the first time we have seen that they can distinguish between positive and negative human facial expressions.

“The reaction to the angry facial expressions was particularly clear—there was a quicker increase in their heart rate, and the horses moved their heads to look at the angry faces with their left eye.”

Research shows that many species view negative events with their left eye due to the right brain hemisphere’s specialization for processing threatening stimuli (information from the left eye is processed in the right hemisphere).

“It’s interesting to note that the horses had a strong reaction to the negative expressions but less so to the positive,” Smith said. “This may be because it is particularly important for animals to recognize threats in their environment. In this context, recognizing angry faces may act as a warning system, allowing horses to anticipate negative human behavior such as rough handling.”

A tendency for viewing negative human facial expressions with the left eye specifically has also been documented in dogs.

“There are several possible explanations for our findings,” added Karen McComb, BSc (Hons.), PhD, who also co-led the research. “Horses may have adapted an ancestral ability for reading emotional cues in other horses to respond appropriately to human facial expressions during their co-evolution.

"Alternatively, individual horses may have learned to interpret human expressions during their own lifetime,” she said. “What’s interesting is that accurate assessment of a negative emotion is possible across the species barrier despite the dramatic difference in facial morphology between horses and humans.

“Emotional awareness is likely to be very important in highly social species like horses—and our ongoing research is examining the relationship between a range of emotional skills and social behavior,” McComb relayed.

The horses were recruited from five riding or livery stables in Sussex and Surrey, U.K., from April 2014 to February 2015. They were shown happy and angry photographs of two unfamiliar male faces. The experimental tests examined the horses’ spontaneous reactions to the photos, with no prior training, and the experimenters were not able to see which photographs they were displaying so they could not inadvertently influence the horses.

Smith and McComb are based in the School of Psychology at Sussex. The study is co-authored by Sussex colleagues Leanne Proops, BSc. (Hons.), MSc, PhD; Kate Grounds; and Jennifer Wathan, BSc. (Hons.), MSc. This research is part of an ongoing project into emotional awareness in horses that is funded by the Leverhulme Trust and the University of Sussex.

The study, “Functionally relevant responses to human facial expressions of emotion in the domestic horse (Equus caballus),” was published in Biology Letters

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