Do horses smile? They sure do.
Recent study results suggest horses have specific facial expressions that reveal positive emotions akin to “happiness,” in a sense. And while those expressions might not be the cheesy cartoon grin or the human ear-to-ear, they do represent the “equine happy face.”
“What we’re seeing really is a kind of ‘smile,’” said Léa Lansade, PhD, of the French Horse and Riding Institute and the National Institute for Agricultural Research’s behavior science department, in Tours.
“And while in our scientific jargon, we don’t really use the adjective, ‘happy,’ the emotion we’re picking up from that ‘smile’ does strongly resemble a positive welfare state,” she said.
Many horse owners already recognize a sort of “smile” with their own horses, Lansade added. However, her research group picked up on particularly subtle expressions that owners might not always pick up on.
In their latest study, Lansade and her fellow researchers followed up on their grooming research to find body language—specifically facial expressions—related to positive emotions. While previous aspects of that grooming study centered on horses’ expressions of discomfort and other negative emotions, as well as what constitutes good and bad grooming, Lansade said she wanted this study to focus on the positive.
“Improving horse welfare can’t be limited to just avoiding negative emotions,” she said. “We need to strive toward a maximum of positive emotions.”
Lansade and colleagues groomed horses in two different ways. In the “standard” way, grooming was carried out in a traditional method and was continued regardless of how the horse reacted. In the “gentle” way, groomers stopped certain movements when the horse showed signs of discomfort and continued other movements when the horse showed signs of pleasure.
The scientists recorded the horses’ body language and facial expressions—including seemingly very subtle expressions—and compared data to define trends. For this analysis, they used observation data from “blind” observers—meaning researchers that could see images of the horses’ faces but not which kind of grooming the horse was receiving. Then, a year later, they brought the same horses back for a grooming session to see what kinds of body language and facial expressions they gave from the start.
They found that horses have a set of expressions that tend to reveal their “happiness” during grooming, Lansade said. Those expressions included having “their necks moderately raised, their eyes half-closed, their upper lips extended and either immobile or twitching, and their ears pointing backward almost in line with the nose.”
What’s more, they seem to have “happy memories” of that grooming because one year later, they show up at the grooming session with a “smile.”
Being able to recognize a horse’s “smile,” from its earliest stage, can lead to better welfare and a better horse-human relationship, Lansade said.
“Riders usually recognize the positive facial expressions of horses groomed in a ‘gentle’ way, when those expressions are obvious—like protruding lips that sometimes move a little bit, and half-closed eyes,” she said. “But sometimes, these expressions can be much more subtle. If you look closely, you can see just the upper lip just slightly stretching forward. That’s something that few riders actually notice. But that would be one of the first signs that we’re grooming the right way and that we should continue what we’re doing.”
Missing these details causes the same problem, in the opposite sense, with negative expressions, Lansade added.
“Few people know how to recognize that little tightening up of the corner of the lips, which is relatively subtle if you’re not paying attention for it,” she said. “But when you know it’s there, it’s easy to recognize. Identifying this sign of discomfort from the outset is crucial because then you can immediately change the way you’re brushing, before the horse needs to threaten you or suddenly avoid contact to make you understand. Being able to read our horses’ facial expressions (and in this case in particular, their lips) helps us improve communication considerably.”
The study, “Facial expression and oxytocin as possible markers of positive emotions in horses,” was published in Scientific Reports.