New research has revealed that horses can read and remember human expressions. They then use what they have seen to later identify someone who may pose a threat to them. Karen McComb is professor of animal behaviour and cognition at the University of Sussex School of Psychology. She has led a detailed study into how horses perceive and remember facial expressions. During the study, the team used a group of 24 leisure horses from a riding school and a control group of similar horses.
Horses Can Identify People From Photographs
In the morning, the horses were shown a still photograph of a person looking either angry or happy. Later in the day, the horses met that person in the flesh sitting quietly and displaying a neutral expression. The researchers observed the horses' reactions to the people. They noted whether the horses' reactions varied according to the human expression that they had first seen. The humans involved in the experiment were not told whether a happy or angry photograph of themselves had been shown to the horse. This reduced the risk of them adapting their own behaviour.
Horses Interpret Facial Expressions
The researchers found that the horses' reactions to the people visiting their stable varied according to the nature of the photograph of that person that they had been shown. In other words, they could recognise a person from a photograph and were clearly wary of their visitor when they had seen a picture of them looking angry. Previous studies have demonstrated that horses can pick up on several aspects of human behaviour to interpret a person's mood. This exciting study demonstrates that horses are capable of interpreting human expressions as the use of photographs meant that the horses could not rely on any other signals to form their impression of the person.
Important Implications For Equestrians and Vets
The researchers' findings have important implications for anyone who spends time with horses and could prove very useful for vets. The researchers are urging vets to take a moment to consider their emotional state and expressions before interacting with horses. The animals will remember what they have seen. They can tell the difference between a friendly face and an angry or worried one. If a vet is in a bad mood, the horse will pick up on this and could react badly at that time or in the future when they see the same vet again. Be aware of your own demeanour and adjust your mood and expression before you interact with a horse. This could make a huge difference to your relationship with the animal.