Study Confirms Horses Read Other Horses' Facial Expressions

Study Confirms Horses Read Other Horses' Facial Expressions

Researchers have just scientifically confirmed that horses do read other horses’ facial expressions without any other cues—body movements, vocal sounds, or odors.

Photo: iStock

What a charming look that sorrel just gave me. I think he wants to be my friend! But that dapple gray mare over there, whew! What did I do to set her off? Don’t worry, lady; I read your message loud and clear. I’m staying away!

If your horse could talk, these might be things he’d say when he’s around other horses. Though many owners have observed for years that their horses can communicate with each other through body language, researchers have just scientifically confirmed that horses do read other horses’ facial expressions. And that’s without any other cues—body movements, vocal sounds, or odors. Purely speaking, horses can pick up messages in facial expressions alone. And that, scientists say, is exciting news.

“Although (we know) horses produce clear facial expressions, we’ve never proven, until now, that the other horses around them actually pay attention to those expressions and use them to inform their own behavior,” said Leanne Proops, PhD, of the University of Sussex Mammal Vocal Communication and Cognition Research group, in the United Kingdom.

To take out any risk of influence from other factors like movements, sounds, and smells, Proops and her fellow researchers tested 48 horses’ responses to photographs alone. They presented the mares and geldings, individually, with two headshots of the same unfamiliar horse. There were three different pairs of photos that the researchers used, each pair representing different states of mind: positive attention/agonistic, relaxed/agonistic, and positive attention/relaxed. (The researchers defined these expressions and their related emotions according to previous EquiFACS research on equine facial expressions.)

When left alone in an arena with the two photographs, the horses generally tended to approach the positive attention photos more than the agonistic photos, Proops said. They also approached the relaxed expression photo more than the agonistic photo. However, when they had the choice of either relaxed or positive attention, they didn’t seem to show any particular preferences, approaching both photos more or less equally.

“We were surprised by the strength of the results, how clearly the horses discriminated between facial cues that were presented in photographs, and how motivated they were to approach the ‘positive’ photographs when freely allowed to do so,” she said. “After all, these were photographic stimuli, not real animals. They often approached the faces and ‘greeted’ the unknown horse nose-to-nose, as they would a real horse.”

Part of a larger study on individual responses to emotional signals in horses, the experiment is a “first step” in understanding how such signals relate to social behavior among horses generally, said Proops.

“We may well find reliable differences in the way in which different horses respond to these facial expressions,” she said. “It may be of use for owners and handlers to appreciate the different ways in which horses process social signals and how that may relate, for example, to how well they get along with other horses in a social setting. This work is ongoing!”

In the meantime, owners can actually try running this test on their own. “It’s a very simple set-up and just requires owners to put up photographs in an arena and let their horses freely choose to interact with the stimuli (or not),” Proops said. “They may find that how their horses interact with the stimuli relates to their horse’s personality. This is something we are currently looking in to.”

The study, “Horses discriminate between facial expressions of conspecifics,” was published in Scientific Reports

About the Author

Christa Lesté-Lasserre, MA

Christa Lesté-Lasserre is a freelance writer based in France. A native of Dallas, Texas, Lesté-Lasserre grew up riding Quarter Horses, Appaloosas, and Shetland Ponies. She holds a master’s degree in English, specializing in creative writing, from the University of Mississippi in Oxford and earned a bachelor's in journalism and creative writing with a minor in sciences from Baylor University in Waco, Texas. She currently keeps her two Trakehners at home near Paris. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

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