Horses, pretty much like dogs, have been reliable animal companions for humans since a long way back. Because of this, they are much more in sync with their human owners than a great many other species. But exactly how in sync are they? According to a study from the University of Sussex, horses can recognize human feelings via facial expressions.
They show pictures to horses, don’t they?
A team of psychologists from Sussex studied a group of 28 horses in order to determine how they react when shown pictures of humans expressing negative and positive emotions. It turns out that horses present a number of tell-tale signals that show how well they understand emotions.
First of all, the animals tended to look with their left eye at the pictures of humans with negative facial expressions. This is associated with perceiving negative stimuli. Many domesticated species show the same inclination of looking at negative stimuli with their left eye, because the right side of the brain is responsible for those types of operations.
Second of all, and probably most important, the animals showed an increased heart rate when looking at the pictures of obviously upset humans. This is a reaction never before seen in interactions between humans and animals, and it was associated more stress related behaviors from the horses, like stomping their hooves or whinnying.
Hold your horses, how is this possible?
Despite the fact that we’ve known for a long time that horses are very social creatures and that they have cohabitated with humans for over 5,000 years, this is the first time any animal except dogs have shown this ability across the species barrier.
The fact that the animals showed far more intense emotions and signals when confronted with pictures of humans with negative facial expressions works to shed some light on the mechanisms behind the very interesting process.
Several possible explanations came to the minds of the experts behind the study.
On one hand, this might be an evolutionary thing, with the animals’ ancestors evolving alongside humans with the ability of discerning their masters’ emotions and passing the ability on via genetics.
On the other hand, each individual horse could have learned to interpret out facial expressions during their own lifetimes in order to have a better time getting along with their human overlords.
It’s kind of hard to tell without access to wild horses that haven’t come into contact with humans before, and using them could turn out to be quite dangerous for the researchers.
Image source: Pixabay