Study: Horses among animals with complex facial expressions

Having a “face like a horse” might seem like an insult to some people, but it turns out human faces may have something in common with their equine counterparts: complex facial expressions.

A study coming out of the United Kingdom shows that horses use a variety of muscles around their eyes, mouths and nostrils to make a few different facial expressions — which are sometimes just like the ones humans make.

“Horses are undoubtedly emotional animals,” Jen Wathan, a study author, told the Huffington Post. “But what they feel and how that is expressed is a question that we have yet to pin down.”

The study’s researchers have put together a manual for decoding the moods and meanings behind different faces. They call the manual EquiFACS, for Equine Facial Action Coding System (it’s based on a system originally created to study humans).

EquiFACS doesn’t keep track of facial expressions themselves, rather, it documents muscle movements that ultimately create an expression. The manual is described as “a tool for objectively measuring facial movement, without letting subjective interpretations of facial expressions get in the way.”

Creating the manual involved a lot of work. After examining the anatomy of a dissected horse head, and spending hours observing nearly 90 horses, the researchers singled out 17 different movements such as putting ears forward, widening the eyes, sticking out the tongue and other signals that horses combine to make facial expressions.

In a video, the researchers explain what some of the expressions they’ve decoded really mean. For instance, a raised inner brow is thought to be a signal of negative emotions, just like humans experiencing sorrow or terror. And also just like humans, horses widen their eyes drastically when scared.

The goal is for horse training and veterinary programs to use this information to better understand the animals they work with — though so far, many people have used the system. Animators have even used it to better recreate horses onscreen.

For the future, the researchers hope to continue unlocking the meanings behind the muscle movements to better understand the real emotional states of horses.

“We don’t know much about the emotional lives of animals,” Wathan told National Geographic. “What does a positive emotion look like? This tool could help us see it.”

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