Horses' Reactions to Human Facial Expressions

Credit : Scoopdyga

Tuesday 21 February - 16h32 | Ian Clayton

Horses' Reactions to Human Facial Expressions

Horses are known to be sensitive creatures, each with their own unique personalities — some more skittish than others.

In general, though, it is fair to say that equines are highly attuned to the emotional state of the humans around them, a sensitivity developed over 5,000 years of coexistence and cooperation between the two species. The confidence or fear of a rider can have a big impact on the behaviour of their mount and their overall riding experience, for example. 

But some research suggests the ability of foals, fillies, stallions, and mares to pick up on human feelings goes beyond tone of voice, touch or body rigidity to include our facial expressions.  

The subject was covered in an article in The Atlantic last year, referencing research on horses’ reactions to human emotion.
Among other things, the article notes, horses tend to look at angry faces out of their left eye to engage the part of their brain dealing with fear and threats — this in addition to a heightened heart rate in response to an unpleasant human expression. 

How much of this response is a specific understanding of human beings by horses? See the article for more on the issue, and links to some of the research that has raised questions about horses and their emotional sensitivity.

Further reading...