HOW HORSES READ HU­MAN EMO­TIONS

EQUUS - - Eq Medicalfro­nt -

We’ve all been taught that horses can read­ily pick up on our anx­i­ety, anger and other emo­tions from our body lan­guage. Now, re­search from Eng­land sug­gests that they can read our fa­cial ex­pres­sions as well.

In a study at the Univer­sity of Sus­sex, re­searchers video­taped 28 rid­ing school horses, rang­ing in age from 4 to 28, as they were shown four pho­to­graphs of two male mod­els, each with a pos­i­tive (smil­ing) ex­pres­sion and a neg­a­tive (an­gry) ex­pres­sion. Each horse’s heart rate was also mon­i­tored as he viewed the im­ages. The tri­als were re­peated two months later.

In an­a­lyz­ing the filmed re­ac­tions, re­searchers looked specif­i­cally for the horses to turn their heads to view the im­ages with their left eyes. Pre­vi­ous stud­ies have es­tab­lished that this so-called “left­gaze bias” in­di­cates un­ease or a per­ceived threat.

“In­for­ma­tion from the left vis­ual field en­ters the right brain hemi­sphere, which con­tains ar­eas spe­cial­ized for pro­cess­ing threat­en­ing events,” ex­plains Amy Smith, the doc­toral can­di­date lead­ing the study. “Re­search tells us that many ver­te­brates share this be­hav­ior. There are nu­mer­ous the­o­ries as to why this is---it may be a more ef­fi­cient way of pro­cess­ing in­for­ma­tion.”

The re­searchers found that when shown pho­to­graphs of an­gry ex­pres­sions the horses tended to exhibit left-gaze bias, and looked at the im­ages with their left eye longer than they did the pos­i­tive im­ages. Also, their heart rates in­creased when they viewed the neg­a­tive fa­cial ex­pres­sions. All of this in­di­cates that horses rec­og­nize and re­act to hu­man emo­tions ex­pressed by fa­cial cues alone, says Smith.

Whether this abil­ity is in­nate or learned through in­ter­ac­tions with peo­ple is un­clear. “One of the in­ter­est­ing ques­tions that arises from this work is whether the abil­ity comes from evo­lu­tion or from an in­di­vid­ual’s life­time ex­pe­ri­ence,” says Smith. “I would say that there are el­e­ments of both. Dur­ing the 6,000 years horses and hu­mans have co­e­volved, horses may have adapted to un­der­stand us bet­ter, which may fa­cil­i­tate their abil­ity to pick up on our cues. To re­ally un­der­stand the rel­a­tive roles of do­mes­ti­ca­tion and learn­ing, fur­ther re­search would need to test the abil­i­ties of horses with­out much in­di­vid­ual ex­pe­ri­ence of hu­mans.” Part of her on­go­ing work, she says, is an­a­lyz­ing equine re­sponses to a wider range of hu­man faces and emo­tions.

Al­though over­all body lan­guage plays a crit­i­cal role in horse-hu­man com­mu­ni­ca­tion, Smith ad­vises peo­ple to con­sider the ef­fect of their coun­te­nance as well: “This re­search should en­cour­age us to be aware of our moods and emo­tions when in­ter­act­ing with horses and other an­i­mals, as it shows that our neg­a­tive moods may have neg­a­tive ef­fects on their be­hav­ior and phys­i­o­log­i­cal re­sponses.”

Re­searchers found that horses rec­og­nize and re­act to hu­man emo­tions

ex­pressed by fa­cial cues alone.

Ref­er­ence: “Func­tion­ally rel­e­vant re­sponses to hu­man fa­cial ex­pres­sions of emo­tion in the do­mes­tic horse (Equus ca­bal­lus),” Bi­ol­ogy Let­ters, Fe­bru­ary 2016

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