Horses are able to read angry and happy human facial expressions, says new study published in the journal Biology Letters.
Horses having the ability to understand human emotions has been demonstrated for the first time in a new study whereby the reactions of 28 horses were observed upon seeing photographs depicting people with both happy and angry facial expressions.
The team psychologists behind the study (from the University of Sussex) observed that the reactions of horses pertaining to negative emotions were particularly clear. They explain that the horses would look at angry faces more with their left eye which is a behaviour linked with the perception of negative stimuli; previous research shows that many species consider negative events with the left eye as it is the right brain hemisphere that is specialised in processing stimuli corresponding with potential threats. Furthermore, the animals also had quicker increased heart rate and displayed more stress-related behaviours. It was, therefore, concluded that horses can understand angry faces when they would view them.
Why the stronger reaction to negativity? According to the authors, this might be due to the need of animals to identify threats in their environment which would make them more prone to recognising angry faces so that they can anticipate negative human behaviour towards them. Co-lead author Karen Comb says that emotional awareness might be very important for horses which are an extremely social species.
Also, this study marks the first time the effect on heart rate has been witnessed in interactions involving animals and humans.
Co-lead author Amy Smith explains that their findings show horses are able to make the difference between negative and positive emotions “across the species barrier” despite the stark difference in the facial morphology existing between horses and humans.