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People can understand animal emotions. But can animals understand ours? Young scientist Amy Smith suspected that this was possible, especially with horses.

512px-Chestnut_horse_head,_all_excited Wikimedia commons

This chestnut horse watches at the camera with great interest. Wikimedia Commons

Smith grew up in a house with lots of pets. During the summer months, she stayed at a farm in Southern Ireland where she became very familiar with horses. As many of us know, animals are very good at communicating how they feel. For instance, an angry dog will bare its teeth, and a happy one will wag its tale and nuzzle your arm.

People often say that horses are good at reading people’s emotions. This is a reason they are good therapy partners of people who struggle with their physical and mental health.

“Horses also can sense the emotions of their herd mates,” Smith told me in an interview. “As a student of animal behavior, I wanted to objectively study whether horses were capable of understanding what people were feeling.”

Before conducting her study, Smith searched the scientific literature for works similar to the one she was planning. Although she found work with dogs that showed that they do respond to human emotion, she did not find much scientific work on this topic about horses.

Bring on the video cameras!

In the early morning hours when it was still dark, Smith and her colleagues walked toward the stables in a farm in Sussex, U.K. carrying several video cameras, tripods, and large photographs of men with angry or happy faces.

“People we encountered gave us a funny look,” Smith said. “They didn’t know that we were about to begin our experiments. We set up our equipment in an empty stable and brought one horse at a time.”

Smith and her team showed each horse a large picture of a man’s face and video recorded the horse’s reaction. First, they showed the horse a happy face, and in a second group of tests, an angry face. In addition, they measured the horses heart rate. After video recording the sessions with the horses, Smith and her colleagues returned to their lab to study the videos and the heart rate measurements.

To make fair observations of the horses’ responses to the photos, the scientists conducted ‘blind’ analyses, meaning that, when they studied the videos, they did not know whether the horse was seeing a happy or an angry face. Then, they compared their individual analyses of the videos and were pleased to see that they had independently recorded the same results.

They found that horses turned their head to the right and gazed at the picture with their left eye when they were looking at an angry face. However, they did not seem to move their heads when they faced a happy face. The heart rate supported the video recordings; it increased more when the horse was looking at an angry face than when facing a happy face.

Makes you wonder. If horses can read happy and angry faces, maybe they also can understand other emotions. And maybe other animals, not only dogs and horses, can sense how people feel by looking at their faces.

Thank you for reading. Will you join me again next time?


Ana Maria S. Rodriguez


If you are interested, here is the reference to Amy Smith’s original work:

Amy V. Smith et al., Functionally relevant responses to human facial expressions of emotions in the domestic horse (Equus caballus), Biology Letters, 2016, Vol. 12 (online publication).


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