Recognizing Humans

Is it common for horses to respond differently to different people in the same situation?
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Q. My wife and I have noticed a difference in how our herd responds to each of us when we are bringing them in from their pasture for meals. When I call for them, they typically all come right to the barn and will go right into their respective stalls. When my wife calls, more often than not they wait for her to walk out to the field and “escort” them in. Is it common for horses to respond differently to different people (perhaps between men and women) in the same situation? Why might this happen?

Lance, via e-mail


A. Yes, it is not at all uncommon for horses to respond differently to different caretakers. While in some instances the difference in response seems to be gender-related, it’s difficult to distinguish whether the discriminating factor is gender itself, independent of behaviors, or if it’s a style commonly different between men and women. Based upon your horses’ and others’ responses, it seems pretty certain that most horses do discriminate between individuals and appear to anticipate people’s behavioral moves.

Working with university animals on shifts, you can see this pattern as it develops. And your question reminds me of a similar scenario I see with my own horses at home. We feed hay along the fenceline, and on any given day it could be any one of three of us doing the feeding. Each of us tends to place the hay in different spots: My husband puts it closest to the shed where the hay is stored; I tend to move it out further to a fresh spot where no manure or mud has accumulated; and our granddaughter places the hay fairly close to the shed on some days and farther away when she remembers to look for a clean spot. The horses can see us from the time we leave the house, and you can see them responding as soon as they see who’s coming. Depending on which of us is heading out to the shed, they either head up the hill, stage near the shed, or watch and wait

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Sue M. McDonnell, PhD, is a certified applied animal behaviorist and the founding head of the equine behavior program at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine. She is also the author of numerous books and articles about horse behavior and management.

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