Horses can not only read human emotions but they remember them, and change behaviour accordingly, a study has indicated.

Research carried out by the universities of Sussex and Portsmouth found the equines identified specific individuals’ expressions from photographs, and recalled them when they met the people in person.

Professor Karen McComb from the University of Sussex and Dr Leanne Proops from the University of Portsmouth, both specialists in animal behaviour, led the study.

Horses were shown a picture of either an angry or happy human face then, hours later, met the person pictured, this time with a neutral expression.

“This short-term exposure to the photograph of a person’s facial expression was enough to generate clear differences in subsequent responses upon meeting that individual in the flesh later the same day,” said a spokesman for the researchers.

Previous research has shown that animals tend to see negative events with their left eyes, as information seen by this eye is processed in the brain’s right hemisphere, which specialises in processing threatening stimuli.

The human subjects did not know which expression the horses had previously been shown, so there was no risk of their behaving in a certain way.

“What we’ve found is that horses can not only read human facial expressions but they can also remember a person’s previous emotional state when they meet them later that day – and, crucially, that they adapt their behaviour accordingly,” said Professor McComb. “Essentially horses have a memory for emotion.”

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Dr Proops said it was already known that horses are socially intelligent, but that this is the first time any mammal has been shown to have this ability.

“What’s very striking is that this happened after just briefly viewing a photograph of the person with a particular emotional expression – they did not have a strongly positive or negative experience with the person,” she added.

The research paper was published yesterday (26 April) in the journal Current Biology.

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