A new study is showing for the first time that it’s not just people who process and react to facial expressions, but horses do as well.
In the study, 28 horses were shown large color photographs of different facial expressions for 30 seconds, and their reactions monitored as part of the research by psychologists at the United Kingdom’s University of Sussex. When presented with photographs of angry male faces — frowning with bared teeth — the horses’ heart rate significantly increased.
Even more importantly, the equines also moved their heads to look at the aggressive photos through their left eye — a mannerism associated with negative stimuli. Information from the horses’ left eye is processed in the brain’s right hemisphere — an area specializing in threatening environments, the researchers said in an article.
“What’s really interesting about this research is that it shows horses have the ability to read emotions across the species barrier,” Amy Smith, a doctoral student who co-led the research, explained in the article.
“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,” she continued.
The animals studied were from stables across Sussex and Surrey in the south of England, and were also found to have a much stronger reaction to the angry faces, than the happy ones.
“Recognizing angry faces may act as a warning system, allowing horses to anticipate negative human behavior such as rough handling,” Smith said in the article.
This information follows another study by others researchers also at Sussex University in August of last year, which revealed horses have 17 discrete facial expressions to indicate their mood. This was found to be one more expression than dogs, and four more expressions than chimpanzees have. Additionally, cats were found to have 21 expressions, with the “larger facial repertoire largely due to extensive whisker and ear movements,” the article states.
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