Communication can seem crude in the rough and tumble at the field gate, but are horses capable of anything more sophisticated?
It turns out that they are. Scientists have confirmed that horses can read each other’s facial expressions — without any extra clues from body language, vocal sounds or smells.
“We all know that horses have a range of different facial expressions, but what we’ve learnt is that they use these facial expressions when deciding how to respond to other horses,” explains Dr Leanne Proops, of the University of Sussex Mammal Vocal Communication and Cognition Research Group. “Our research shows that horses do indeed pick up on these subtle facial cues.”
The research team tested how 48 horses responded when presented with two photographic headshots of the same unfamiliar horse. The three pairs of photos used represented different states of mind: positive attention and agonistic; relaxed and agonistic, and positive attention and relaxed.
“The horses were essentially left alone to investigate the photos by themselves,” says Leanne. “We led each horse to within a few metres of the photos and released him, before walking away to stand with the cameras towards the rear of the arena. I think it was curiosity that motivated the horses to approach the photo, even though they were not rewarded in any way. Horses are very social animals and tend to be very interested in the arrival of a new horse.
“Although most horses approached ‘nose to nose’ with each photo, as they would greet another horse, they realised that it was not real once they were able to investigate and smell the stimuli,” adds Leanne. “Some looked around the barrier as if they were trying to find the rest of the horse, which was interesting.”
“The horses generally tended to approach the positive-attention photos more than the agonistic photos,” says Leanne. “The relaxed expression was favoured over the agonistic photo, but no particular preference was shown when they had the choice between the relaxed or positive attention photos.
“This shows that horses do respond to the facial cues alone of other horses,” she explains.
“It also demonstrates that horses can respond appropriately to photographs.
“It’s possible that photos could be used to provide ‘company’, as long as the horses are not given the opportunity to explore the image and realise it’s not real,” adds Leanne. “How long this effect would last, however, would need to be assessed.”
According to Leanne, the research is an important first step in looking at how different horses respond to the emotions of others.
“We’re exploring ways in which horses respond to emotional facial expressions and how this relates to measures of personality and their behaviour in a social group,” she says. “In this way, we hope to be able to identify those who are more able to respond appropriately to emotional stimuli. This could have practical uses, such as being able to identify horses best suited to a certain job — working with the police, for example, or in equine therapy.
“We’ve also conducted research showing that horses are sensitive to human facial expressions,” adds Leanne. “This has interesting implications for how we interact with our horses. Although they are often very sensitive to our moods, we may not think that they are paying attention to our facial expressions. Again, this research shows that the facial expressions we use — in isolation to all other cues — influences how horses will respond to us.”
Ref Horse & Hound; 31 August 2017