Study Confirms Horses Read Other Horses’ Facial Expressions

Horses reacted to facial expressions in the absence of any other cues, such as body movements, vocal sounds, or odors.

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Study Confirms Horses Read Other Horses
Researchers have just scientifically confirmed that horses do read other horses’ facial expressions without any other cues—body movements Photo Credit: iStock
What a charming look that sorrel just gave me. I think he wants to be my friend! But that dapple gray mare over there, whew! What did I do to set her off? Don’t worry, lady; I read your message loud and clear. I’m staying away!

If your horse could talk, these might be things he’d say when he’s around other horses. Though many owners have observed for years that their horses can communicate with each other through body language, researchers have just scientifically confirmed that horses do read other horses’ facial expressions. And that’s without any other cues—body movements, vocal sounds, or odors. Purely speaking, horses can pick up messages in facial expressions alone. And that, scientists say, is exciting news.

“Although (we know) horses produce clear facial expressions, we’ve never proven, until now, that the other horses around them actually pay attention to those expressions and use them to inform their own behavior,” said Leanne Proops, PhD, of the University of Sussex Mammal Vocal Communication and Cognition Research group, in the United Kingdom.

To take out any risk of influence from other factors like movements, sounds, and smells, Proops and her fellow researchers tested 48 horses’ responses to photographs alone. They presented the mares and geldings, individually, with two headshots of the same unfamiliar horse. There were three different pairs of photos that the researchers used, each pair representing different states of mind: positive attention/agonistic, relaxed/agonistic, and positive attention/relaxed. (The researchers defined these expressions and their related emotions according to previous EquiFACS research on equine facial expressions

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Passionate about horses and science from the time she was riding her first Shetland Pony in Texas, Christa Lesté-Lasserre writes about scientific research that contributes to a better understanding of all equids. After undergrad studies in science, journalism, and literature, she received a master’s degree in creative writing. Now based in France, she aims to present the most fascinating aspect of equine science: the story it creates. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

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