photo by Liz West
If you thought your horse could sense your mood, you were right. Researchers at the University of Sussex say horses are “socially sophisticated” and can read human emotions based on their facial expressions.
The study published Wednesday in Biology Letters proves horses are able to distinguish between angry and happy facial expressions.
Psychologists studied how 28 horses reacted to seeing photographs of positive versus negative human facial expressions.
When viewing angry faces, horses looked more with their left eye, a behavior associated with perceiving negative stimuli. Their heart rate also increased and they showed more stress-related tendencies.
The effect of facial expressions on heart rate has not been seen before in interactions between animals and humans.
Doctoral student Amy Smith was one of the leads on the study and says, “it shows that horses have the ability to read emotions across the species barrier. We have known for a long time that horses are a socially sophisticated species but this is the first time we have seen that they can distinguish between positive and negative human facial expressions.”
Professor Karen McComb, a co-lead author of the research explains there are several possible explanations for the findings. “…Horses may have adapted an ancestral ability for reading emotional cues in other horses to respond appropriately to human facial expressions during their co-evolution.”
McComb adds individual horses may have learned to interpret human expressions during their lifetime. “What’s interesting is that accurate assessment of a negative emotion is possible across the species barrier despite the dramatic difference in facial morphology between horses and humans.”