What’s in a whinny? Even non-horsey people seem to know, say researchers

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People can mostly distinguish between positive and negative whinnies, even those with little or no horse experience, Canadian researchers have found.

It appeared that women were better at distinguishing the difference, University of Guelph researchers Haley Belliveau and Katrina Merkies reported.

The pair, from the university’s Campbell Centre for the Study of Animal Welfare, within the Department of Animal Biosciences, said domestic horses were social animals that relied on various calls for communication.

Vocalizations can occur in positive situations, such as being reunited with a herd member or the expectation of receiving food, or in negative situations, such as separation of a mare and foal or social aggression.

The ability of humans to recognize the context of horse vocalizations can allow them to take appropriate action to alleviate a negative situation, or provide positive situations, they said.

A total of 309 people took part in an online survey, categorizing 32 vocalizations according to whether they believed they were positive or negative.

The vocalizations they heard were collected from immature, mature, male and female horses, with some taken from popular media, including animated movies and shows.

It was found that the participants correctly distinguished positive and negative vocalizations about 64% of the time, regardless of the source of the clip.

Females were better at classifying the vocalizations compared to males, although this could be because more females were involved with horses, the pair said.

Other information collected about the participants during the survey, including their age, experience with horses, and residing country, appeared to have no role in their ability to correctly categorize
the vocalizations.

“Positive or negative vocalizations may be indicative of what the horse is feeling, and accurately interpreting cues from the horse enables humans to respond to the situation and alter the experience if necessary to create the most positive outcomes,” Belliveau and Merkies reported in a summary of their work.

Vocalizations in popular media seemed to accurately portray the emotion connected with the scenario, they said, enabling even people with little or no horse experience to understand the emotional context.

They said the ability to correctly classify vocalizations can impact horse welfare in all areas of the animal’s life, including training, housing, husbandry and human-horse interactions.

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