Can horses read human faces? Scientists at the University of Sussex tested 28 horses to figure out. The answer was surprising.
Can Horses Read Human Faces? Experts Say Yes
A new study confirms this. The scientists showed the 28 horses pictures of human males, with angry or negative expressions and good, positive expressions. The men in the pictures were unknown to horses.
They found the horses would look at the negative pictures more often with the left eye. The horses’ heart rate also increased when presented with faces showing stress or distress. In both horses and dogs, the right hemisphere of the brain focuses on decoding bad signs. Both signs suggest the horses do understand that what they see is dangerous or anxiety-provoking. Curiously, when asked to recognize a person’s voice and match it to a known face, the horses use the right eye. This is because the right side is controlled by the left hemisphere of the brain, and vice versa.
In fact, the horses had less dramatic reactions to positive expressions. It makes sense: as prey animals, horses are in tune with their environment. A horse needs to be prepared to escape at the slightest notice. Horses see quite well and in color, so it is no wonder they would react to negative expressions so strongly.
As social animals, horses use a lot of body language. They have 17 distinct facial expressions, while dogs have 16 and chimpanzees, 14. It is no surprise they can distinguish a wide range of expressions. It is the first time we confirm this ability is sophisticated enough in horses to cross species, though. The likely reason for this is so the horse can react to predict a human’s potential harmful actions, for self-defense. A positive expression does not require a dramatic reaction.
The authors of the study, Amy Smith and Karen McComb, believe this ability might have evolved over the 5,000 years of domestication. There is some possibility that the results come from learned behavior, though. As the horses tested come from riding schools and have interacted with people their whole lives, they may have learned through experience. Dogs recognize expressions from their owners’ faces easier than a stranger’s.