March 03, 2016

Horses recognize emotion in human faces


By Chloe Mitchell, ASAS/ASAP Intern

March 3, 2016 – A paper recently published in Biology Letters has shown horses are able to recognize and respond to human emotions when presented with photographs of different human facial expressions.

The study, undertaken at the University of Sussex, involved showing horses photographs of two men unknown to the horses. The men exhibited either a positive or negative facial expression. When shown an angry or negative expression, horses displayed an increased heart rate and a left-eye preference for viewing the photographs, which is associated with processing negative stimuli. Lateralized responses to human emotion such as this have previously only been seen in dogs, and the increased heart rate response to a negative facial expression has never been recorded before in any species. These are thought to be stress-related responses.

Previous studies conducted by these researchers and others have shown that horses respond to the direction of the human gaze, yet this is the first study to examine the reaction to human facial expression. The authors acknowledge that the source of the horses’ ability to discriminate between the facial expressions has not been determined. The horse response may or may not be broadly applicable to human expressions from people of all ages, gender and appearance, or could also be a result of previous experience of the horses used in the study.

Read more in Discovery News.