horses can now interpret human facial expressions

A new research which was published in the Biology Letters journal has revealed that horses can now read/interpret human emotions.

A psychologist studied how 28 horses reacted to different facial expressions ranging from positive to negative expressions. The horses were gotten from 5 different stables in Sussex and Surrey. They were shown two pictures of unfamiliar faces depicting happiness and anger. The interviewers couldn’t look at the pictures, in order not to influence the horses’ reaction to the images.

When the horses looked at angry faces, their heart rate increased rapidly (a reaction which has not been seen before in interactions between animals and humans), appeared to be at stress, and they used more of their left eye which scientists have linked to horses’ perception of negative stimuli. They also had less reactions to positive facial expressions. These reactions led the researchers to believe that horses have a clear understanding of human expressions.

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The Study co-leader, Amy Smith who is a doctoral student in the university’s mammal vocal communication and cognition research group explained that;

“We have known for a long time that horses are a socially sophisticated species, but this is the first time we have seen that they can distinguish between positive and negative human facial expressions.

“It’s interesting to note that the horses had a strong reaction to the negative expressions but less so to the positive

“This may be because it is particularly important for animals to recognize threats in their environment. In this context, recognizing angry faces may act as a warning system, allowing horses to anticipate negative human behavior such as rough handling.”

Another leader of the study, professor Karen McComb also tried to explain the significance of the research results, adding that;

“There are several possible explanations for our findings.

“Horses may have adapted an ancestral ability for reading emotional cues in other horses to respond appropriately to human facial expressions during their co-evolution.

“Alternatively, individual horses may have learned to interpret human expressions during their own lifetime.

“What’s interesting is that accurate assessment of a negative emotion is possible across the species barrier despite the dramatic difference in facial morphology between horses and humans.

“Emotional awareness is likely to be very important in highly social species such as horses – and our ongoing research is examining the relationship between a range of emotional skills and social behavior.”

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