Can Horses Recognize People and Voices?

Study results suggest horses appear capable of matching voices to faces when it comes to humans they know.
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Can Horses Recognize People and Voices?
The team found that when the voice on the speaker belonged to someone the horse knew, the animal would almost always look quickly toward that human, Proops said. | Photo: Photos.com
Are horses really capable of recognizing their owners and their voices? Study results from a team of British behavior researchers suggest that horses really do appear to be capable of matching voices to faces when it comes to the humans they know.

“We already know that horses can discriminate between different human faces and between familiar and unfamiliar people, but this is the first time we have shown that they can associate the right voices with the right people,” said Leanne Proops, PhD, of the Mammal Vocal Communication and Cognition Research group at the University of Sussex, in the United Kingdom.

In her two-part study, Proops evaluated 72 horses that each heard one of two recorded voices saying the horse’s name over a loud speaker. The two people who had recorded the voices would stand in front of the horse, a few feet apart from each other. In the first part of the study, one person was someone the horse knew while the other was a stranger. In the second part, both people were familiar to the horse. Proops and colleague Karen McComb, PhD, watched to see which way the horse looked when he heard his name spoken over the loud speaker, and how long he looked in that direction.

The team found that when the voice on the speaker belonged to someone the horse knew, the animal would almost always look quickly toward that human, Proops said. And usually, the horse continued to look at that person for a relatively long time. By contrast, if the voice belonged to the unfamiliar person, the horse took a longer time to look at that person and did not look at him or her for very long

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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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