Study Finds Horses Can Read, Remember Human Emotions

May 11, 2018 - 7:57 am

CHICAGO (WBBM NEWSRADIO) -- A horse is a horse, of course of course, and no one can talk to a horse of course, that is, of course, unless the horse is the famous Mister Ed. 

Did Mr. Ed ever speak to you? Maybe not actually speak, but what about a horse feeling and understanding your emotions? 

A new study finds that that is not impossible. 

Research done at the University of Sussex and the University of Portsmouth have found that horses can read and remember people’s emotional expressions. Horses are able to distinguish between angry and happy human facial expressions, enabling them to use the information to identify people who could pose a potential threat.

“What we’ve found is that horses can not only read human facial expressions but they can also remember a person’s previous emotional state when they meet them later that day — and, crucially, that they adapt their behavior accordingly,” said Karen McComb, a lead author of the study and a professor of animal behavior at the University of Sussex, in a statement. “Essentially, horses have a memory for emotion.”

The study was conducted to build upon previous research suggesting horses could recognize emotions from reading human faces. But the latest finding, published in the journal Current Biology, are the first to show the mammals can recall an expression linked with an individual's face.

Researches studied how 20-30 domestic horses reacted to seeing photographs of positive and negative human facial expression. The study found when viewing angry faces, horses looked more with their left eye, a behavior associated with perceiving negative stimuli. Their heart rate also increased more quickly and they showed more stress-related behaviors when looking at negative human expressions.

Later, the horses were introduced to the people they saw in the photographs, this time with neutral expressions. Researchers watched the eye movements of horses as they met the photograph subjects in real life. The horses perceived those who had been photographed with an angry face as more threatening.

"We know that horses are socially intelligent animals, but this is the first time any mammal has been shown to have this particular ability," said Portsmouth researcher Leanne Proops. "What's very striking is that this happened after just briefly viewing a photograph of the person with a particular emotional expression -- they did not have a strongly positive or negative experience with the person."

Because this is the first time research has shown horses can remember emotional experiences with specific individuals, the ability could have clear benefits for social bonding and aggression avoidance when these individuals are encountered again.

“A powerful aspect of our research is that the horses were not re-exposed to the negative or positive stimuli; rather, they were presented with the neutral person who was blind to the valence of the photograph that subjects had previously seen," the researches wrote in the report, Thus, the results could not be due to emotional contagion; i.e., the subjects could not be picking up on the emotion expressed by the live human model.

“Instead, our results suggest that the subjects (horses) were using a memory of the positive or negative expression in the specific human previously seen to guide their response to that same person even when they adopted a neutral expression. Our paper provides direct evidence of a key role for processing of facial cues to emotion in long-term social functioning in a non-primate, throwing light on its adaptive significance across species and indicating that facial expressions can be registered and remembered even in inter-specific communication.”

Note: The horses were recruited from five riding or livery stables in Sussex and Surrey, U.K., from April 2014 to February 2015. They were shown happy and angry photographs of two unfamiliar male faces. The experimental tests examined the horses’ spontaneous reactions to the photos, with no prior training, and the experimenters were not able to see which photographs they were displaying so they could not inadvertently influence the horses.

Smith and McComb are based in the School of Psychology at Sussex. The study is co-authored by Sussex colleagues Leanne Proops, BSc. (Hons.), MSc, PhD; Kate Grounds; and Jennifer Wathan, BSc. (Hons.), MSc. This research is part of an ongoing project into emotional awareness in horses that is funded by the Leverhulme Trust and the University of Sussex.