For the first time horses have been shown to be able to distinguish between angry and happy human facial expressions.
Psychologists studied how 28 horses reacted to seeing photographs of positive versus negative human facial expressions. When viewing angry faces, horses looked more with their left eye, a behaviour associated with perceiving negative stimuli. Their heart rate also increased more quickly and they showed more stress-related behaviours. The study, published today (10 February) in Biology Letters, concludes that this response indicates that the horses had a functionally relevant understanding of the angry faces they were seeing. The effect of facial expressions on heart rate has not been seen before in interactions between animals and humans.
Amy Smith, a doctoral student in the Mammal Vocal Communication and Cognition Research Group at the University of Sussex who co-led the research, said: “What’s really interesting about this research is that it shows that horses have the ability to read emotions across the species barrier. 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.”