Human Facial Expressions Give Emotional Cues to Horses

Your body language and facial cues could affect your two-legged and four-legged clients.

Editor’s note: According to the AAEP horse owner survey, the top three things that horse owners want from vets are 24/7 coverage, a veterinarian who values them and their horse and communicates well, and a practitioner who keeps up with medical advances. Watch for Keeping Up articles in EquiManagement magazine and on the website.

Emotional Cues in Human Facial Expressions

Veterinarians who work with horses are well aware how postural cues and one’s temperament can affect horse cooperation. If you are in a hurry or in a bad mood, a horse can sense this. In those situations a normally tractable horse might become somewhat flighty and difficult to handle in ways atypical of the horse’s normal behavior. One recent study looked into the way our faces communicate expressions of emotions to horses.

A team of researchers examined reactions of horses to happy and angry facial expressions from photographs presented to the horses. If a horse demonstrated a left gaze (called a lateralization response generally associated with a negative perception) and an increase in heart rate (HR), this was interpreted as a negative reaction to the photograph. Each of 28 horses was presented with a photograph of a negative human expression and later shown a positive facial expression.

The study concluded: “Horses demonstrated right-hemispheric biases towards angry stimuli (preferentially viewing images with the left eye), which were positively correlated with both avoidance duration and mean increase in HR; further, horses displayed a faster overall increase in HR to angry compared with happy stimuli. There were also non-significant trends to perform more stress-related behaviors towards angry stimuli.”

Results from the study imply that horses are able to discriminate between positive and negative human expressions and will react accordingly if anticipating potential negative consequences or positive ones. More information can be found in Biology Letters from The Royal Society, Feb 2016 by authors Amy Victoria Smith, Leanne Proops, Kate Grounds, Jennifer Wathan, Karen McComb;

Author’s note: While there has been some controversy over the results of this study, it still reminds us that our own behavior and emotions often influence horse and owner cooperation. How well a client’s horse relates to you as a practitioner can go a long way in inspiring your client’s confidence in your abilities and expertise.

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