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.
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.
The horses that were studied, however, all came from riding schools. As a result, the findings cannot determine if this facial reading skill is an innate ability, or one that the animals learned.
What It Means
This finding means that the mood you’re in when you go to work with a horse is going to affect how the horse feels. If you’re happy and excited to go for a ride, the horse is less likely to be on guard, and will expect a good outcome. If you’re nervous or agitated, the horse is likely to be skittish and less cooperative.
If you’re learning how to treat hoof cracks, and it isn’t something you’ve done before, then getting all worked up about it before you try will only make the process more difficult on both of you. This is especially true if the crack is severe or the result of injury, rather than a simple cosmetic issue. If the crack is deep and painful, the horse is already on guard. They will be looking to you, and looking at you, to see if you are calm and confident. Your demeanor and expression can determine if treating the horse will be a simple, smooth experience or one that is painful for both of you.
Horses are often said to be both unintelligent and have poor eyesight. This study clearly showed that neither of these things are true. Instead, these are kind, emotionally intelligent animals who are able to form strong bonds with the humans they work with. Understanding that your facial expressions impact the animals may be the first step you can take towards forming an even better bond with them.
Kayla Matthews writes and blogs about healthy living and has an especially strong passion for helping others increase their mental health and happiness by improving their daily productivity and positivity. To learn more about Kayla, you can follow her on Google+, Facebook and Twitter and check out her most recent posts on Productivity Theory. Read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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