Horses understand human facial expressions

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Horses understand human facial expressions

Like fearful humans, horses raise the inner brow of their eyes when threatened or surprised. Altogether their faces can convey 17 emotions (ours express 27), and they readily recognize the expressions on their fellow equines. But can they read our facial cues? To find out, researchers tested 28 horses, including 21 geldings and seven mares, from stables in the United Kingdom. Each horse was led by his/her halter rope to a position in the stable, and then presented with a life-size color photograph of the face of a man. The man was either smiling or frowning angrily. The scientists recorded the animals’ reactions, and measured their heart rates. Other studies have shown that stressed horses’ heart rates fluctuate, and when the horses looked at the angry man, their hearts reached a maximum heart rate more quickly than when they viewed the smiling image. When shown the angry face, 20 of the horses also turned their heads so that they could look at it with their left eye—a response that suggests they understood the expression, the scientists report online today in Biology Letters, because the right hemisphere of the brain is specialized for processing negative emotions. Dogs, too, have this “left-gaze bias” when confronting angry faces. Also, like dogs, the horses showed no such bias, such as moving their heads to look with the right eye, when viewing the happy faces—perhaps because the animals don’t need to respond to nonthreatening cues. But an angry expression carries a warning—the person may be about to strike. The discovery that horses as well as dogs—the only two animals this has been tested in—can read our facial expressions spontaneously and without training suggests one of two things: Either these domesticated species devote a lot of time to learning our facial cues, or the ability is innate and more widespread in the animal kingdom than previously thought.

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