Do Horses Recognize Humans?
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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