By Dr. Kris Hiney , Oklahoma State Equine Extension Specialist
A pinned ear. A white eye. A horse anxiously pacing back and forth.
Many horse owners can read very obvious signs of horse emotion, but how good are we at reading the entire horse? Humans are auditory species and spend much of our day chatting happily away. Because of our obsession with spoken language, we often fail to realize how animals “talk” to one another. They have highly complex patterns of body postures and facial expressions to convey how they feel. As humans, we are only recently tuning in to how complex horse thinking and behavior may be. Currently, researchers are working on interpreting these behaviors to increase our understanding of horses and to improve their well-being.
Often we underestimate the brain power and emotions of the animals with whom we share our lives. For example, primate researchers have developed an interest in horses and are using techniques typically seen with our closer relatives. By teaching horses to use computer touch screens they have found that horses are able to discriminate between shapes, pick out different letters of the alphabet and understand the concept of less versus more. This insights provide more appreciation for the complex lives of horses.
While probably not a surprise to most horse owners, horses are able to recognize herd mates, possess long term memories of positive and negative interactions with people, and even engage in conflict resolution with their own herd mates. Horses use a combination of senses to recognize those in their lives. Horses are startled when what they see and what they hear don’t exactly match up. To test this, researchers monitored a test horse after leading another horse by and out of view and then played the voice of a different horse. The test horses stared in the direction of the “wrong voice” compared to when the horse’s actual voice was played. When the test was repeated with familiar people, researchers found the same thing, essentially a surprised horse that the voice didn’t match the person they just saw.
Horses may even be able to appreciate our digitally obsessed/selfie world. In an experiment in the UK, horses were exposed to either a photograph of an unfamiliar horse which was relaxed and showing positive signs of interest, or a different photograph where the horse was showing an agonistic/threatening expression. Horses were more likely to approach the friendlier pictures than the picture of the threatening horse, which tended to increase their heart rates. They also spent more time looking at the friendly, attentive horse.
It makes sense that horses are keen observers of horse behavior and can translate that to photographs, but they are just as good at observing us. Both of our closest companions, horses and dogs are able to identify emotional states by looking at human facial expressions. It would make sense that being keen observers of human emotional state will help them get along with us. Stick close to the friendly person, and avoid the angry one! This ability is not surprising as we do share some common features, such as widened eyes when afraid or wrinkling over the top of our eyes when worried or tense. Think about the wrinkled nose or bared teeth of a really angry horse. Sound familiar to angry people or dogs?
Stressed humans create stressed horses. Horse’s heart rates increase when their handlers heart rate increases, independent of outside stimuli, even when they are not in actual contact. The calmer we are around a horse, the calmer they will be.
Just how well can horses read human emotion?
Just like the test of recognizing horse emotion from photographs, horses can recognize human facial expressions in photographs too. Even more notable, horses can be trained to associate a positive response such as a food reward, to pictures of a particular person. They can even recognize that person when meeting them face to face for the first time, demonstrating their ability to link 2D and 3D images.
Based on these studies, horses can tell what we are thinking, but how good are we at reading them? Increasingly horse’s facial expressions are being used to identify pain and other indicators of poor welfare. Researchers have documented 17 different ways in which horses are able to change their facial expressions. The goal is to link these actions with the physiological states of discomfort, stress or positive states as well. Currently, facial expressions are being investigated to help owners, riders and trainers identify subtle signs of lameness that are frequently missed. Most people don’t recognize signs of lameness and often fault the horse’s attitude and unwillingness to work. By analyzing pictures of lame horse’s heads before and after diagnostic pain relief, the hope is to help develop tools for owners and veterinarians to find pain. In this study, lame horses were more likely to have their head twisted to either side, carry their head elevated, show whiter eyes, tension around their eyes and/or having their ears back. Certainly a picture can only capture one moment in time, but owners should be encouraged to monitor their horses for an increasing frequency in these expressions which are associated with fear, pain or discomfort. A greater appreciation for the emotional state of horses can help us provide better management practices to optimize their lives.
So what does all this mean? Your horse knows who you are, can recognize your voice, and could pick you out in a police lineup. They know what you are feeling and will seek to avoid angry people, and maybe even you if you are in a bad mood. So if they spend so much time reacting to our emotions, shouldn’t we try and do the same? Pay attention to your horse, he really is trying to tell you something.
Horses that have previously been housed in isolation and then allowed to live with other horses have a sunnier view of the world, or are essentially more optimistic. When they are exposed to a stimulus that really has no meaning to them, they responded with a more optimistic attitude. They are pretty sure that unknown stimuli can only mean something bad. However, it wore off over time.
We also underestimate how much information they may be capable of conveying to us, if we simply pay attention. Most social species, which horses as herd animals most definitely are, have sophisticated means to communicate.
Interestingly, even other abnormal behaviors may be affected by pain. Sue Dyson, from the Animal Health Trust in Newmarket has reported spooky behavior being abolished after diagnostic analgesia . Certainly acclimation to the environment cannot be ruled out.