Researcher: Horses Are “Emotional Sponges”

A group of Welsh mares with limited past human interactions exhibited signs of stress and relaxation in response to respective “angry” and “joyful” human facial expressions and sounds.

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Researcher: Horses are %22Emotional Sponges%22
High sensitivity to human emotions has led the researchers to urge handlers to take caution when expressing their emotions, because the horses are paying attention—and reacting, said Lansade. | Photo: iStock
It’s in the way you say it. It’s in the faces you make. Forget words and language—horses are paying attention to your emotions with their eyes and ears. And the emotions humans express are affecting their equids—whether we mean for them to or not.

“Horses are truly emotional sponges, and they react strongly and very rapidly to our human emotions,” said Léa Lansade, PhD, of the French Horse and Riding Institute and the National Institute for Agricultural Research’s behavior science department, in Tours.

The Experiment: “Strong Reactions”

In a recent study, Lansade and her fellow researchers, including PhD student Miléna Trösch, tested horses’ ability to associate human vocal and facial emotional expressions. They projected short video clips without sound of an unfamiliar woman on either side of each study horse. In one video the woman was making an “angry” face; in the other she was making a “joyful” face.

At the same time, the scientists played an audio clip of a different, also unfamiliar, woman vocalizing either anger or joy through nonverbal sounds (no words), such as grrr and aah

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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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