Humans show good ability to interpret arousal levels of horses from whinnies

Dr Katrina Merkies with University of Guelph research horses Mira and Mojo. Photo: University of Guelph
Dr Katrina Merkies with University of Guelph research horses Mira and Mojo. Photo: University of Guelph

Most people in a study, regardless of their equine experience, could successfully interpret the mood of horses through their vocalisations, Canadian researchers have found.

Humans, it turns out, appear well attuned to the whinnies and neighs of horses, showing an ability to understand whether an animal is content or upset.

The findings of the University of Guelph study suggest the sounds made by horses contain nuances that humans can readily identify.

The research involved an online survey, in which more than 300 respondents with varying familiarity with horses listened to 32 audio clips of the animals vocalising. The horses were of different breeds, ages and sexes.

The findings are a little surprising, says Dr Katrina Merkies, a professor who investigates horse behaviour, welfare, equitation science and management in the Department of Animal Biosciences at the Ontario Agricultural College, part of the University of Guelph.

“You would expect people who are familiar with horses to better understand the vocalizations,” says Merkies, who worked on the study with graduate student Haley Belliveau.

On average, most respondents were able to differentiate between the vocalizations the horses made, regardless of their equine knowledge or experience.

Listening to the audio clips, the survey respondents were directed to rate the horse’s arousal level on a scale of one to 100, representing “calm” to “very excited”.

“We wanted to know if people could distinguish was the horse happy or upset,” Merkies explains. Respondents, who were aged from 18 to 65-plus, came from eight countries and spoke a variety of languages.

Merkies notes that other researchers have determined a “common genetic programming” across species. “We can pick up tone, intonation, tonality, frequency of vocalizations and pick up whether it’s positive or negative,” she said, regardless of what animal is making the sound.

Researchers found adults over 65 tended to rate the horse whinnies as “more aroused” – something the researchers felt resulted from more life experience.

Horses communicate in different ways, body language being the most common, Merkies says. A low head position can signal a relaxed horse whereas a high head position means a horse is usually focused on something moving in its environment. A horse with their ears pinned back is a sure sign of anger and a horse frozen in position is one on the edge of exploding.

Horse are not one of the more prominent communicators and, compared to other animals, they lack a large vocal repertoire, Merkies explains.

Contrary to the way they have been depicted in movies and television, horses don’t vocalize much.

“Nevertheless,” she says, “we need to pay attention to what they’re telling us.”

Deciphering the range of vocalizations is part of a bigger whole to better understand horses and improve the relationship humans have with them, Merkies says. Knowing what a horse’s whinny is signalling allows humans to move beyond listening to acting, when and if necessary.

“We’ve got to step up and put ourselves in their hooves.”

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