It’s not just dogs anymore, as horses can tell how you’re feeling as well and distinguish positive and negative human reactions. It seems that we’re not as mysterious to animals as we thought.
- Researchers tested the reactions of 28 different horses from 5 different locations
- The horses were shown a series of images of a man they did not interact with before
- When looking at angry facial cues, their heart rate increased
- Furthermore, they looked at the images with their left eye, an indicator of assessing scary or threatening stimuli
Researchers from the University of Sussex conducted a study on 28 horses with the purpose in mind of observing their reaction to human expressions. The research was conducted by the same team who compiled a list of horse facial cues and what they might mean. Previously, they showed that the animals indicate emotions as well, and perhaps are even able to detect them among themselves.
However, they turned their previous findings on their head, and showed that a horse’s ability to comprehend emotion breaks through the species barrier. It was believed that only dogs have that exceptional capability. But, their distinction as “man’s best friend” might be challenged, as it seems horses do not show weaker signs of similar capabilities. In fact, the technique was oddly similar.
The team of researchers took large, color-printed pictures of a human male showing different expressions. This ranged from calm, baring teeth, frowning and baring teeth, or other facial cues to display be it positive or negative emotions. The photographs were shown to nearly thirty horses from five different riding or livery stables across Sussex. According to the scientists, they examined their spontaneous reactions, with no prior training.
And the responses were rather clear. Very importantly, the horses displayed increased heart rate when looking at pictures of the man showing negative emotions, such as anger. Secondly, the animals seemed to look at the images with their left eye. Experts have noted similar behavior in dogs. It’s believed that the brain’s right hemisphere, where the information from the left eye is recorded, deals with handling scary or threatening situations.
By showing that the horses were affected by the negative stimuli indicated that they understood the human emotion behind the expression. According to one of the researchers, Amy Smith, who specializes in mammal vocal communication and cognition, that shows that horses have the ability to detect emotion across the species barrier. This is in spite of the fact that that the facial morphology between humans and horses is dramatically different. And yet, they can tell.
Smith stated that they had always known that the animals are a “socially sophisticated species”, but this is the first time it was shown that their abilities can stretch to human emotions.
The study’s co-author, Katie McComb, claimed that is unknown precisely how that came to be. It could be that horses “adopted an ancestral ability” from others of their kind on how to respond appropriately to a person’s facial cues. Or, they could’ve gained that knowledge themselves throughout their lifetime. Either option proves exceptional cognitive abilities, but of different types.
Image source: arkagency.com