Smiling at Horses

Scientists are finally beginning to catch up with cowboys.

Anyone with good sense who has been around horses knows that equines are careful, and expressive, observers of people.

Now, thanks to researchers at the University of Sussex in England, this is a carefully documented fact.

In 2015, Jen Ward and her colleagues enumerated the expressiveness of a horses face—noting that horses control their facial expressions by combining 17 distinct muscle groups—more than dogs (16) or chimpanzees (12) but fewer than humans (27).

Horses, of course, respond to our voices and tonality, to body language, and to gestures. But Amy Victoria Smith, of the University of Sussex’s Mammal Vocal Communication and Cognition Research Group wanted to know whether horses recognize and respond to human facial expressions, independent of other emotive clue. If you smile at your horse, does he relax? If you frown, does he worry? Previous research demonstrated that dogs respond to human facial expressions. What about equines?

Smith and her colleagues selected 28 horses for their research—21 geldings and seven mares, ages 4-23 years—all from local riding stables. To eliminate factors such as human body language, odors, and sounds, they only showed horses life-sized pictures of either a smiling, happy human, or a very angry, unhappy one.

sn-horses_0.jpgThe horses responded to these two different images in two very different ways.

When viewing the angry face, most horses turned their head to the left, looking at the image with their left eye. Their heart rates rose. The happy face elicited either a first look, turning their heads to the right, and viewing the image with the right eye,

Their heart rates remained stable

Like dogs, horses seem to process negative stimuli and observations with the right side of their brains—which is wired to the left-side of the body—and more positive stimuli with the left side of their brains—which is wired to the body’s right side. Hence, when scrutinizing a frown or a menacing, angry face, they turn their head to the left so that the left eye gets a detailed, monocular view of the situation, and the right side of the brain can process the threat.

What are the practical implications of this research? They might include that it really does pay to simply smile at your horse. Perhaps more importantly, if he turns his head to look at something with his left eye, it’s likely a cause of anxiety. You might want to take a deeper seat. And smile.

To read the entire research papers:

Horse facial expressions: http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/ournal.pone.0131738

Horses recognizing human expressions:

http://rsbl.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/12/2/20150907

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