Horse sense: research suggests horses detect human emotion through body odours

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Friday 18 January - 16h15 | Ian Clayton

Horse sense: research suggests horses detect human emotion through body odours

Horses are known for been highly attuned to their surroundings. 

 - Horse sense: research suggests horses detect human emotion through body odours

Credit : Montanabw (Wikipedia CC)

As the equine expert Kathy Pike puts it, “Horses are sensitive, feeling-oriented prey animals. Their survival depends on their ability to sense any incongruence in their environment.” And as researchers explain in a new article, that ability could include being able to read a person’s emotional state through the smell of their sweat. 

“We noticed that horses had increased levels of arousal when they smelled human ‘fear’ and ‘happiness’ odors,” Paolo Baragli of the University of Pisa Department of Veterinary Sciences in Italy told Christa Lesté-Lasserre in The Horse, talking about his team’s recent studyAnd as Lesté-Lasserre notes, “that finding could open doors to a whole new way of understanding emotion transfer between species — and specifically, from human to horse.”

The Italian research paper is called A Case for the Interspecies Transfer of Emotions: A Preliminary Investigation on How Humans Odors Modify Reactions of the Autonomic Nervous System in Horses and as Baragli says in The Horse, “Even if these results are preliminary, the data support the hypothesis that avoidance or escape behaviors in horses could be due, in part, to an odor communication system at an interspecies level. And that’s the wide window we’ve opened. Do emotional exchanges have multichannel pathways between species? Our research suggests they certainly might.”

The scientists’ method involved collecting human sweat samples on cotton gauze and presenting them to horses of different breeds and ages. They measured the horses’ cardiac activity when smelling the various sweat pads (swiped after the subjects had watched either feel-good or frightening movies) compared to an unscented sweat pad. 

“The horses had clear changes in autonomous nervous system activity when they smelled the human fear and happiness odors,” Lesté-Lasserre writes.  “However, they haven’t yet studied…. the specific “direction” the horses’ emotions took…. In other words, they don’t know yet whether the horses’ response to human fear is to become more fearful themselves or if their response to human happiness is to have more positive emotions themselves.” For the original article in The Horse, see here. 

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