Do Horses Recognize Humans?

Dr. Nancy Diehl shares research results that indicate whether horses recognize their people.
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Do Horses Recognize Humans?
Researchers have conducted several studies in the past to determine how horses respond to people based on different types of cues and reinforcement. | Photo: iStock
Q: Does my horse recognize me from other people?

A: We all get a sense that our horses recognize us by our appearance or the sound of our voice, and that they can distinguish us from strangers or less familiar people. Certainly we know horses learn associations between a person coming around an expected time and their getting fed, turned out, or exercised. It’s difficult from this simple scenario to discriminate between a horse learning by reinforcement and a horse actually recognizing a specific person providing the reinforcement.

One very old study showed that horses depended on facial features as well as clothing to recognize individuals. A number of more recent studies have shown that horses seem to be able to tell when the audio recording of the voice and the sight of familiar handlers match up; that is, compared to when the voice recording is from a different person than the one a horse is shown. This is known as “cross-modal recognition,” because the horses were asked to combine multiple sensory cues. By the way, this also seems to be true when researchers asked the question of whether horses recognize and discriminate between familiar horse herdmates. Horses seem to detect when the recorded horse vocalizations played for them and the visual appearance of the horse actually presented match up.

It’s also notable that in these studies, the humans or horses used as cues in the tests were kind of paraded past the subject horses and taken behind a barrier out of sight. Then researchers played the audio voice or vocalizations. So the horses were not seeing and hearing the cues at the same time. Yet they could still seem to discriminate when the audio and visual cues matched up. In humans, it’s understood that individual recognition of other people depends on the immediate audio and visual cues but also draws on past experience or knowledge of that individual. So these studies suggest that horses, too, are relying on both immediate cues and some representation in their memory

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Prior to attending veterinary school, Dr. Nancy Diehl completed a master’s degree in animal science while studying stallion sexual behavior. Later, she completed a residency in large animal internal medicine at the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center and worked in equine practices in Missouri and Pennsylvania. Diehl also spent six years on faculty at Penn State, where she taught equine science and behavior courses and advised graduate students completing equine behavior research. Additionally, Diehl has co-authored scientific papers on stallion behavior, early intensive handling of foals, and feral horse contraception. Currently she is a practicing veterinarian in central Pennsylvania.

2 Responses

  1. Enjoyed this post. I certainly believe a horse recognizes his human. My little mare would see me and walk down the fence line to greet me at the gate. Another place where I boarded her she would hear my car and be waiting at the gate for me. And the last time as she lay on the ground she heard me come to be with her in her last minutes. Her ears flicked and she tried to nose me then when I knelt down by her side and petted her she was calm, knowing I was there and she passed peacefully. Animals know.

  2. Another great article. I had an experience with a small pinto pony who was ridden and shown by my daughter for 2 years. She was sold by owner. Years later (21) she came back to be sold again. She was in a 50 acre field with over 40 other horses. When I called her by name, she ran right over to get some love. It was amazing! I also have a 15 y.o. mare I bred and raised. I talked to her by name in the womb. (I wanted a filly of course.) When she was born, I said her name. She turned her head and looked directly at me. The vet and the barn manager were floored as she was only minutes old.

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