Do Horses Recognize Their People?

Does a horse respond differently to “his person” as opposed to a stranger? The results of a recent French study indicate that horses use auditory and visual information to recognize specific people, and that they expect certain behaviors from those
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Does a horse respond differently to "his person" as opposed to a stranger? The results of a recent French study indicate that horses use auditory and visual information to recognize specific people, and that they expect certain behaviors from those people based on previous experience.

"We wanted to understand how horses perceive humans and which of our characteristics and behaviors are relevant to them," said Carol Sankey, MSc, PhD (ethology) and lead author on the study.

As part of the study, Sankey and her colleagues at the Laborotoire d’ethologie Animale et Humaine at the Université de Rennes in Paimpont, France, raised 16 horses from birth, restricting the animals’ human interaction to feeding time. When the horses were 2 years old, Sankey trained them to stand immobile for 60 seconds at the command "Reste!" (the French word for "stay"). Sankey was the only person who handled the horses, and she used the same routine each time she worked with a horse: She entered the stall, placed a halter and lead rope on the horse, looked at the animal, and gave the command.

After five days of twice-daily training, the horses responded well to Sankey and were familiar with her. The team then designed a test to observe whether the horses responded differently to a person they recognized than to a person they’d never met before. Sankey and an individual who had not previously been introduced to the horses showed each horse varying levels of attention (facing and looking at the horse, facing the horse with closed eyes, facing the horse and looking at the ceiling, and standing with back turned to the horse) after giving the "stay" command. An observer monitored and recorded the horses’ behavior and reactions to each test by observing changes in foot and head movement as indications of the horse’s attention

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Written by:

Nancy Zacks holds an M.S. in Science Journalism from the Boston University College of Communication. She grew up in suburban Philadelphia where she learned to ride over fields and fences in nearby Malvern, Pa. When not writing, she enjoys riding at an eventing barn, drawing and painting horses, volunteering at a therapeutic riding program, and walking with Lilly, her black Labrador Retriever.

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