Have you ever seen a horse quietly follow a calm buddy into the trailer but then become anxious when loaded alone? Or maybe you’ve been on a trail ride when one horse suddenly startles and spins, causing the others to startle as well. These are examples of social buffering and emotional contagion—when one individual is affected by or shares the emotions of another¹,²—and provide evidence that horses possess the capacity for empathy.
What is empathy?
Emotional contagion and social buffering can affect an animal’s immediate and future behavior.¹ In horses, they trigger responses that are adaptive in the moment. For example, a horse can flee without exposing itself to the potential threat. Horses can also learn that a situation is safe or dangerous by mirroring the emotional reaction another horse had to the same situation, without having to go through the experience directly. For example, a horse might quickly learn to avoid a hot wire after having observed another horse touch and react to it.
The capacity for empathy is a general psychological mechanism that plays a fundamental role in cooperative, prosocial behavior.³ The degree to which an individual feels empathy in response to another’s pain or pleasure depends on the situation. Empathy seems to be stronger when the other is socially close or similar and inhibited when the other is a competitor, a stranger, or different.
Moreover, some individuals are fundamentally more empathetic than others, and in humans scientists have linked these differences to brain activity. When someone who doesn’t feel empathy hears about or sees another person in pain, the brain areas associated with empathy do not light up, and in extreme cases of psychopathy, the brain’s pleasure centers might even become active.
Until recently, researchers considered empathy and other higher-order cognitive processes the exclusive domain of human psychology,² but over the past decade discoveries from scientific study results have blurred the line between humans and nonhuman animals.
How do animals express empathy?
Internal states are difficult to study, because they can’t be directly observed. However, behavior can provide insight into what animals feel, think, and know. Emotional mirroring, motor mimicry, and synchronized movements are viewed as evidence of primal empathy,² and the responses are typically unconscious and immediate. Examples that have been used as evidence of animal empathy include contagious yawning, synchronized movement, and gaze-following.
Contagious yawning is a well-studied example of motor imitation that has been linked to empathy in humans, nonhuman primates, and carnivores. Female gelada baboons even precisely imitate different types of yawns.4 In contrast, contagious yawning has not been reported in horses. Yawning occurs less in horses and other ungulates than in primates or carnivores. In a recent study comparing domestic and Przewalski’s horses, researchers reported that yawning occurred most frequently in mature stallions and was associated with social and environmental stress.5 Synchronized movement and gaze-following are commonly seen in horses, but systematic studies of these imitative motor patterns in horses are lacking.
Studies have also linked self-awareness with empathy, but it requires the cognitive capacity to distinguish self from other that goes beyond emotional state-matching.² Humans, some nonhuman primates, elephants, and dolphins show self-recognition using the mirror test. In most studies, the mirror test involves applying a paint mark on the animal’s face. Animals with self-recognition will look at the mirror image and then touch the mark on their own face, but those without self-recognition will touch the mark on the mirror image or react to the image in some other way. Using this test, horses do not appear to possess self-recognition.
In horses, mirrors are often used as a form of “social” enrichment and might also be mounted in riding arenas. For several years I worked with a mare, and every time we rode past the mirror along one side of the arena, she would pin her ears and then cow-kick the wall at the “other horse” that pinned its ears back at her!
The capacity for empathy is thought to be a fundamental psychological mechanism of prosociality, the hallmark of which is taking a personal risk to help another in distress. This targeted helping requires the mental ability to take another’s perspective and is rare in nonhuman animals; it has been documented in great apes, dolphins, and elephants³ but probably does not occur in horses.
Comparative scientific research of empathy and other higher-order mental processes in animals have focused on human’s closest relatives. Like primates, horses share many of the social and ethological characteristics believed to favor an ability to experience empathy. Horses are very social and long-lived; they have prolonged maternal care, on which the well-being of the foal depends; and they also form strong and long-lasting social bonds with other horses, and close alliances between unrelated horses are common. Under free-ranging conditions, horses also rely on the herd for survival. Further scientific research that includes horses would provide a more complete cross-species understanding of how animals experience and express empathy.
1 Panksepp, J. and Panksepp, J.B. (2012). Toward a cross-species understanding of empathy. Trends in Neuroscience 36(8), 489-496.
2 de Waal, F.B.M. (2012). A bottom-up view of empathy. In: The Primate Mind. Frans BM de Waal and Per Francesco Ferrari, eds. Harvard University Press.
3 Yamamoto, S. and Takimoto, A. (2012). Empathy and fairness: Psychological mechanisms for eliciting and maintaining prosociality and cooperation in primates. Social Justice Research (25), 233-255.
4 Palagi, E., Leone, A., Mancini, G., and Ferrari, P.F. (2009). Contagious yawning in gelada baboons as a possible expression of empathy. PNAS (106, 46), 19262-19267.
5 Górecka-Bruzda, A., Fureix, C., Ouvrard, A., Bourjade, M., and Hausberger, M. (2016). Investigating determinants of yawing in the domestic (Equus caballus) and Przewalski (Equus ferus przewalskii) horses. Science Nature (103): 72.