Reading subtle and not-so-subtle signs crucial to horse-human relationships

The authors of a study on horse-human relationships suggest that horses appear to be better at perceiving human actions than humans are at perceiving theirs.
The authors of a study on horse-human relationships suggest that horses appear to be better at perceiving human actions than humans are at perceiving theirs. Photo by Stephen Mayes

Subtle behavioural signals from horses can provide handlers with important insights into how horses prefer humans to interact with them, according to the authors of a just-published paper.

Katrina Merkies and Olivia Franzin set out in their review to explore aspects of the relationship between humans and horses in a bid to better understand the horse’s experience of the world and shed new light on potential positive approaches to enhancing welfare.

“Understanding how horses perceive and interact with humans can aid in developing positive interaction approaches, thereby enhancing their welfare,” the researchers, with the University of Guelph in Canada, wrote in the journal Animals.

It is also important to be able to recognise behavioural indicators of negative emotion, they said, as the failure to do so when working with horses will harm their welfare when working with humans.

The pair delved into the ways horses read humans, such as by our odours, posture, and vocal repertoire, all of which affect the horse’s interpretation of us.

“While it is difficult to truly know how a horse thinks and feels, paying attention to subtle behavioural signals can give us insight on how horses prefer humans to interact with them,” they said.

“As we are continuously growing our knowledge on how horses view humans, it is important for those working with horses for sport, companionship, or as a working animal to be open to evolving and modifying tactics used to create a positive experience for the horse.”

Scientific literature suggests that horses are capable of remembering previous experiences when working with humans, they noted.

Even though horses may be capable of recognising emotional states in humans, there remains a gap in the literature of whether horses are capable of empathising with human emotion.

The authors said interactions between humans and horses are comprised of many different aspects evolving from the various perspectives of this historical relationship.

“Understanding the workings of this relationship can enable advancements in welfare, training, husbandry, and management, particularly through focusing on indicators of positive experiences for the horse.”

Exploring equine senses, the pair noted that horses can see almost all the way around them, with a blind spot directly in front and behind them. Binocular vision is limited to a narrow arc of 65 to 80 degrees.

Horses likely see much better at a distance than humans do, and are also superior in poor light. They have difficulty discerning red.

“Equipment or practices that limit or restrict the movement of the horse’s head impact how the horse visually perceives his environment,” they said.

“A simple positive approach is to allow free movement of the head and neck to enable the horse to see and process environmental cues, thereby providing autonomy in how the horse chooses to respond to them.

“Attention to the colours in a horse’s environment, particularly when asked to navigate coloured obstacles, can not only allow better discernment of obstacles, but also impact rider safety.”

They noted the good sense of smell possessed by horses. Despite this, little research has been done on the impact of odour on communication in horses.

Horses engage in sniffing behaviour to recognize kin. However, the horse’s olfactory senses have an even greater capacity than just inferring information from other horses. The findings of a 2020 study suggest horses have the potential to smell human emotion.

“While some practitioners believe that horses can intuit the emotional state of a person, it could be that the horse is merely responding to olfactory signals.”

The sense of smell in horses deserves greater research to better understand its impact on the horse-human relationship, they said. “As horses are capable of smelling and understanding our emotional odours, this could influence the horse’s own actions and emotions.”

Turning to hearing, Merkies and Franzin said horses do not have a large vocal repertoire, but they can transmit information and social intentions through vocalizations.

Horse vocalizations can convey the sex, size, and reproductive status of the caller. “Emotion and arousal are individually encoded within their acoustic qualities,” they said.

“Understanding of a horse’s ability to recognize human vocalizations and their associated intentions would provide valuable information on the cognitive abilities of the species.”

Evidence suggests that horses can identify a familiar human from visual or auditory cues even if one is present without the other.

Recent novel research examined human use of pet-directed speech – the use of “baby talk” – toward horses. “Horses displayed calmer behaviour, more mutual grooming, and were more successful at locating food rewards when humans used pet-directed speech compared to adult-directed speech.”

“Gaining insight on how our vocal repertoire influences the horse’s perception of humans can allow us to work in a way that is beneficial to the horse.

“Moreover, recognizing how the tone of our voice affects the horse and paying attention to their responses allows for increased human safety when working with horses.”

Looking at how equines handle the presence of humans, the authors suggest that horses appear to be better at perceiving human actions than humans are at perceiving theirs.

Evidence suggests that horses can not only recognize and understand facial expressions by humans, but they can also remember these emotional expressions.

“Human body posture is an important cue as it can elicit different equine behaviors. Human attentiveness may also be a factor in how horses view us, as research has shown that horses chose to approach an attentive person over an inattentive person.”

Horses, they said, remember past interactions with humans and these experiences impact how the horse will interact with humans in the future.

“Many horse owners wish to believe that their horse loves them more than they love other people.

“Even though humans may be important to a horse, recent evidence shows that horses perform a target task better when rewarded with food compared to a human touch reward such as scratching and petting.”

Horses, they said, read humans in various ways, such as through our body posture, facial expressions, and attentiveness.

“Small actions such as a happy facial expression when approaching the horse can allow for a positive experience with the horse.

“As horses remember previous experiences, more positive experiences with humans will promote generalization to all human interactions. Recognizing how the horse responds to a positive interpretation of a human can create better welfare when working with humans.”

The authors say the face of a horse is a great source of information in terms of its emotional state. There are multiple signs, from the position of the ears, the tension visible around and above the eyes, chin position and flared nostrils.

Behavioural indicators of stress include wide eyes, ears back, nostrils flared, head tossing, high head carriage, trembling, and a clamped tail.

Conversely, the pleasure face of a horse is commonly described with relaxed eyes, extended upper lips, and loosely backward ears.

“However, behavioral and physiological markers of discrete positive emotions remain scarcely investigated in horses.”

The equine face can reveal much about the animal’s affective state. (A): A young horse with what could be described as a “pleasure” face. Note the relaxed eyes, extended upper lips, and loosely backward ears (Photo credit P McGreevy). (B): A horse displaying indications of stress including tightening around eyes, tension above the eye area, pronounced chin, and flared nostrils (P
The equine face can reveal much about the animal’s affective state. (A): A young horse with what could be described as a “pleasure” face. Note the relaxed eyes, extended upper lips, and loosely backward ears. (Photo: P McGreevy)
(B): A horse displaying indications of stress including tightening around eyes, tension above the eye area, pronounced chin and flared nostrils. (Photo: K Merkies)

It is important to recognize behavioural indicators of negative emotions, they said, as our failure to recognize these when working with horses will adversely affect the horse’s immediate and future welfare.

“However, we must also educate ourselves on behavioural indicators of positive affective states and attempt to increase their frequency.”

Turning to cognition, the authors noted that horses learn better and faster with a greater positive attitude toward their trainers. Fewer problem behaviours are displayed within their training sessions when positive reinforcement is used.

The cognitive abilities of a horse can be quantified by relationships built from repeated interactions and previous experiences with humans, they said.

“The creation of a relationship implies a high level of social cognitive ability, as this is an important attribute to acquire within social species like horses.”

Friendliness toward humans is a clear positive indicator associated with improved welfare in working horses.

“The horse’s previous experiences working with humans impacts their cognitive abilities. As humans play a large role in equine cognition, it is important to understand how our interactions can impact this. We must take pains to ensure we are training in positive scenarios and pay attention to both the positive and negative behavioural indicators of stress.”

They said while horses may recognize different emotional states in humans, there is a gap in knowledge on whether horses are capable of empathizing or deliberately acting to alleviate specific human emotions.

“If the emotional state of a human has the potential to influence the emotional state of the horse, it is important for us to work with a positive attitude based on our knowledge of equine affective states.”

Equine temperament is genetically predetermined, they said. There are multiple temperament traits and dimensions that exist in horses.

“Equine personality is of interest to behaviour and welfare scientists as well as equine practitioners, as certain traits can impact injury risk, training processes, learning, and the horse-human relationship.

“It is clear,” they said, “that humans become very attached to their horses, however, it is not as clear if horses are equally attached to their human.”

Understanding specific personality traits can allow humans to modify how they work with their horse, with the aim of increasing positive experiences.

“Further research needs to be undertaken regarding attachment styles to gain a better understanding of the bond between a horse and human. While we may provide some comfort by our presence, it still remains to be determined if a reciprocal bond exists.”

The pair said it is evident that some aspects of the human-horse relationship are generally well understood, such as equine perception. However, other aspects of this relationship, such as the emotional transfer between humans and horses, are inconclusive and require greater scientific attention.

“Whether the relationship we have with our horse is as a working animal, for sport, or companionship, working toward optimizing this relationship is essential to improve equine welfare when working with humans.

“Understanding how horses interpret humans is fundamental to understanding their sensory capabilities.”

They said knowledge concerning equine vocalizations allows insights into the affective state of a horse and could be extrapolated to the way horses react to the different repertoire of human vocalizations.

“Understanding how our tone of voice affects the horse will allow for increased human safety when working with horses. This can aid in creating more effective bilateral communication between humans and horses.

“Moreover, through examining horses in the presence of humans, our body posture, attentiveness, and transmission of communicative cues are all key assets to creating and maintaining a positive relationship with the horse.”

The emotional states of horses can be influenced by our interactions and attitudes around them, they said.

“As equine emotion and cognition are interrelated, they are integral components to the comprehension of a horse’s umwelt (the way in which it experiences the world).

“As we humans become increasingly attached to our horses, it is important to understand equine personality and their true attachment to humans.”

Given that our interactions with horses are cumulative, keeping the relationship positive will result in the horse maintaining a better outlook on humans.

“Horses,” they said, “are a relevant component to society and work closely with humans as companions, therapy animals, and team members.

“Recognizing the ways we can improve our relationship with them will allow for better welfare of horses living in the human world.

“It is important for us to educate ourselves to better understand behavioural indicators of positive affective states and strive to increase their frequency of use.”

Merkies, K.; Franzin, O. Enhanced Understanding of Horse–Human Interactions to Optimize Welfare. Animals 2021, 11, 1347.

The review, published under a Creative Commons License, can be read here.

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