‘That’s a Horse!’: Horses Recognize Horse Faces in Photos
Horses recognize horse faces in 2D photos, and they distinguish them from other animals. The findings give us another clue to the workings of the equine mind, according to Italian researchers.

“Understanding how horses’ minds work is crucial because it helps us understand why, for example, horses behave in a particular way in certain situations,” said Giulia Ragonese, PhD, of the Department of Veterinary Sciences at the University of Messina, in Italy. “This can help improve the relationship with our horse and also limit experiences that horses find distressful.”

Previous study results have confirmed that monkeys, dogs, cows, and sheep can distinguish 2D images of their own species from other animals, said Ragonese, who works under the supervision of Paolo Baragli, PhD, of the University of Pisa, also in Italy. Ragonese wondered if horses could do the same.

She and fellow researchers presented 10 adult Franches-Montagnes horses with large, 2D color photographs of the faces of horses, cows, pigs, donkeys, and sheep. Horses first learned there was food hidden behind the images of horses, but not other animals. Then the scientists reversed the test and put the food behind images of other animals. The horses had to push the “right” photo with their noses to find the food hidden behind it.

They found that 80% of the horses successfully distinguished horse faces from the faces of the other animals—including donkeys—in flat images. That was true even after the scientists reversed the test; the horses understood the food was not behind the horse’s face. However, the team’s statistical analysis revealed their study horses weren’t capable of telling cows, pigs, donkeys, and sheep apart.

In other words, the horses recognized horses versus other animals, but they didn’t appear to categorize the other animals as distinct from each other, according to Ragonese. That might be because the horses in their program had never seen sheep, cows, pigs, or donkeys in real life, she said.

That horses can recognize other horses in photographs is far more than a fun fact, Ragonese said. The finding reveals information about how horses see 2D images—critical when it comes to research that tests horses’ ability to identify flat images. It also leads to greater insight into how horses’ brains work.

“All cognitive tests help us better understand horses’ minds, which is crucial for horse welfare,” she said.