Horses Remember You, Even On-Screen
When Liam Neeson claimed that a horse remembered him from a previous movie set, The Washington Post contacted me to ask me if it could be true.

You don’t have to be a science person to know that that horse could have remembered Neeson, even years later. Especially since Neeson loved giving him yummy treats. You just have to be a horse person.

Still, science clears up the doubts about this question and gives it a firm stamp of “fact.” Yes, horses do recognize people, as we’ve seen in this article and this behaviorist commentary, for example. And they can remember things for a long time, including each other, as we’ve reported here and here.

French scientist Léa Lansade, PhD, of the French Horse and Riding Institute and the National Institute for Agricultural Research’s behavior science department, in Tours, and her team have just taken this research one step further. In a new study, they’ve confirmed not only that horses remember caretakers they hadn’t seen in months, but that they even recognized photos of them.

Getting a Horse to Tell Scientists he Recognizes Someone

Since you can’t ask a horse to reminisce about the good old times of getting fed carrots by the old friend he sees in a photo, Lansade and her team developed an innovative testing method using screen technology. They randomly flashed photos of people—all unknown to the horse—on a large touch-screen monitor.

While the photos included dozens of different, new faces, four faces kept reappearing. The horses—11 Welsh pony mares—only got treats when they touched these faces that gradually reappeared in the random flashing. In other words, the horses got rewarded for selecting faces they were starting to recognize.

Little by little, the researchers started slipping in photos of people the ponies actually knew in real life—their caretakers. These young ponies (all 3-year-olds) regularly touched the photos of these caretakers to get their treats, indicating that they recognized the faces, Lansade said. Additionally, the ponies had  never seen photos of these people, meaning they were able to recognize this two-dimensional image as a representation of the 3D human.

Faces Stay Fresh Even Months Later

As the researchers added new photos of faces to the ponies’ slideshow, they started slipping in pictures of previous caretakers, Lansade said. These included people the horses hadn’t seen in months—in some cases, even half a year.

Still, the ponies touched those faces as well, as people they “recognized,” she said.

“The present study shows that beyond remembering what they have learned or the interactions they have had with humans, horses also have an excellent memory of people and particularly of their faces,” said Lansade.

Zoom With Your Horse?

During lockdown, I got a video call from a friend I hadn’t seen since he moved out of the country several months earlier. I happened to be in the field with my horses when he called. Both horses immediately perked up their ears when they heard the voice of Adrian—who’d had a particularly close and gentle relationship with them and had enjoyed caring for them. When I noticed the horses’ reactions—and realized they were actively looking for him—I showed them my screen. My senior mare seemed confused, but my younger gelding watched the screen intently as Adrian spoke to him. (After a few minutes, he seemed to accept that Adrian wasn’t coming out of the box to give him carrots, and so he went back to grazing.)

Considering Lansade’s study, and Adrian’s clearly recognized on-screen presence from thousands of miles away, does this mean we could be face-timing/Whatsapping/Zooming/Skyping with our horses when we’re off on vacation or business?

“Why not!” Lansade said with a laugh. “It could be fun!”

In all seriousness, though, it might not necessarily be a very successful “conversation” with your horse, she added. “You have to keep in mind that our horses were very used to watching screens,” she explained. “We had to train them over a period of weeks to stay focused on the screen because at first they were easily distracted. I don’t know if untrained horses would watch a screen for long and be as interested in what’s on it as horses that are trained to watch it.”

Zoom or no Zoom, though, Lansade’s experiment inspires fun home projects with the horses. In fact, I think I’ll start training mine to recognize recurring faces in photos in exchange for carrots. When they start recognizing Liam Neeson, I’ll let you know.