Your Horse Can Read Your Facial Expressions

| 3/9/2016 9:42:00 AM


Anyone who has worked or lived with horses knows that they are more than just beasts of burden. Humans could not have come as far as we have without the help we get from them. However, in order to get along with us as well as they have, horses have developed skills of their own. Learning to read human’s facial expressions and react to our emotions has turned out to be beneficial to them.

Out of all the animals we have domesticated, only two have been shown to understand our facial expressions — dogs and horses. Dogs had a much longer time to learn that skill, since the domestication process began somewhere between 15 and 30 thousand years ago. Horses, however, have been domesticated for fewer than 6,000 years. In that time, they’ve worked hard, but they’ve also learned some pretty neat things — namely, how to read our facial expressions.

The Studies

In order to determine why so many people seemed to bond so strongly with both dogs and horses, scientists did a variety of studies. Dogs have been studied more, which makes sense as they are a more common pet than horses. It’s been documented that horses can show a range about 17 facial expressions that we’re aware of. Humans, on the other hand, can show 27. Even though the species’ faces are different, we make some of the same expressions. For example, both horses and humans will raise their eyebrows in response to a surprise.

The research team from the University of Sussex decided to test the animals to determine if horses could, in fact, differentiate between human expressions. The team, led by Amy Smith, gathered 28 horses from the area, including both mares and geldings. They showed the animals life-size images of both happy and angry human men. Astonishingly, the researchers observed a definite difference in how the animals responded to the different pictures.

When viewing the pictures of angry men, the horses turned their heads to see the image with their left eye. This is important because the left eye is connected to the right hemisphere of the brain, which is the side responsible for processing emotion and fear stimuli. This response has also been documented in dogs, and indicates that the animal is paying close attention to the emotions of the person they’re interacting with. In addition, the horses’ heart rates also shot up faster when they were presented with the angry man, a finding which indicates a fearful response.

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