Horses can read human emotions

Feb 10, 2016

For the first time horses have been shown to be able to distinguish between angry and happy human 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 behaviour associated with perceiving negative stimuli. Their heart rate also increased more quickly and they showed more stress-related behaviours. The study, published today (10 February) in Biology Letters, concludes that this response indicates that the horses had a functionally relevant understanding of the angry faces they were seeing. The effect of facial expressions on heart rate has not been seen before in interactions between animals and humans.

Amy Smith, a doctoral student in the Mammal Vocal Communication and Cognition Research Group at the University of Sussex who co-led the research, said: “What’s really interesting about this research is that 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.”

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12 comments on “Horses can read human emotions

  • ruff


    There was a time when a human first perceived a drawing of a beast or a person on a rock wall and was seriously spooked. Maybe as she was drawing it. How is it possible? A living moving thing trapped on a surface like that.

    Hungry baby gulls see “mum-with-food” when presented with an iced lolly stick. They go mental if it has a red dot just so, like their mum, indeed, more mental than with mum herself. Cognitions work this way. Get the simple stimulus just right and that feeling of recognition kicks in bigtime.

    With dogs it might be teeth.

    With enough intelligence the scary impossibility of your perception will hit you too.

    Just a little more intelligence and an earlier chance encounter with “Eat, pray, love” might generate the kind of horror shown by a transfixed retreat.

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  • If I could talk to the animals, just imagine it
    Chatting to a chimp in chimpanzee
    Imagine talking to a tiger, chatting to a cheetah
    What a neat achievement that would be.

    If we could talk to the animals, learn their languages
    Maybe take an animal degree.
    I’d study elephant and eagle, buffalo and beagle,
    Alligator, guinea pig, and flea.

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  • Thank you, Olgun. I love cats. Fascinating creatures. I have always suspected that they were a hell of a lot smarter than most people give them credit for – and most people too; ever heard of a cat who denied the theory of evolution or who voted Republican? Case closed.
    (AlI kidding aside I appreciated the video and meant what I said about felines – cats in particular).
    I suspect that Siamese cats are the smartest cats.

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  • We’ve long gotten used, via Darwin, to the idea that people are a kind of animal.

    Now it’s time to get used to the idea that animals are a kind of people.

    Anything we can do, they have done (some of) somewhere, somehow, someplace. Sort of.

    Oh, maybe not launched a couple of Voyager spacecraft right out of the solar system. I think that’s a first for us. But pretty much everything else. Maybe reality TV. But then, is that actually an achievement?

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  • Technical tip: How to use the new @ function

    The new @ function allows you to address specific users, but you do need to be a little careful with it.

    It works here the same way as on Twitter, i.e. you need to use the person’s user name, which may not be the same as the display name.

    To find the user name, let your cursor hover over the name displayed beside any comment by the user in question. A long link like this will appear at the bottom of your screen:[USER NAME]/

    For the @ function you just need the final bit of the link, i.e. the user name – without the / before and after.

    It is important to get it right, as otherwise the notification of your comment will be sent to the wrong person, which they will obviously find annoying!

    The mods

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