Horses are capable of telling if we're happy or angry
For the first time psychologists from Sussex University have shown that horses are able to distinguish human facial expressions showing different emotions.
Sussex University researchers compiled a dictionary of horse expressions last year. They identified 17 distinct facial movements in horses which may be manipulated by the horse to represent different emotions and intentions. The raising of eyelids, the pull of mouth corners — all these small gestures can be indicative of underlying mental states, just as they are in humans.
More recently the researchers have decided to turn their project on its head. While it's likely that humans may be able to gain an understanding of how horses feel based on their expressions, researchers wanted to see the opposite: can horses read the expressions of humans?
It turns out that this is likely too. The study, published in the journal, Biology Letters, presented the first evidence of horses' ability to distinguish between positive (happy) and negative (angry) expressions on human faces.
The researchers made high-quality prints of the same man, both smiling happily and frowning angrily. They distributed the prints to volunteers who showed them to 28 different horses living around Sussex and Surrey. All of the horses could tell the difference between the prints.
The angry face provoked a left-gaze bias (a way of looking at something that is suggestive of a negative response to it) in the horse, as well as an increase in heart rate. These small clues are suggestive that the horses were aware of the negative emotion being expressed in the print.
According to Karen McComb, who was co-lead author of the study and spoke to The Guardian, it isn't clear if horses' sensitivity to human expressions has happened as a result of long-term co-evolution between humans and horses or if "individual horses may have learned to interpret human expressions during their own lifetime."
This finding tallies with earlier research that shows that horses are incredibly sensitive to humans. A 2013 study in Animal Behaviour, also from the University of Sussex, found that horses are able to pick up some of our subtle cues.
Horses have helped humans for many years for the purposes of agriculture, transport, entertainment and companionship. They can also provide useful therapy for people with conditions such as ADHD, anxiety, autism, cerebral palsy, dementia, depression, developmental delay, genetic syndromes, traumatic brain injuries and many more. While equine-assisted therapy cannot replace other forms of treatment it can be an effective way for individuals to find peaceful experiences.
Because horses are so sensitive they can reflect the feelings of the person handling them. Their keen responsiveness can be applied in workshop settings.
The fact that horses can so strongly relate to humans is fascinating. Their sensitivity also indicates that horses can be more beneficial for us than the chores they do (like running fast and pulling carts). We have the possibility of learning from and being understood by our animal friends.