Quirks & Quarks

Horses can read human faces

Horses shown pictures of angry humans react with fear, while happy faces don't alarm them.

Horses can read the emotional states of humans from their faces

Don't be alarmed... (Pete Markham, cc-sa-2.0)
The ability of animals to recognize emotion in human facial expression has been debated over the years, mostly because their faces are so different from ours.

But now Amy Smith, a PhD researcher in Mammal Vocal Communication and Cognition Research at the University of Sussex in England, has found that horses can also tell the difference between a happy human face, and an angry one.

When horses were shown photographs of angry human expressions, they exhibited two reactions consistent with fear.  One was that their heart rate increased, and the other was that they looked more with their left eye than their right - a response from the right side of the brain where fear is known to be perceived in horses. The happy human expression photo did not result in a negative response.

Related Links

- Paper in The Royal Society Biology Letters
- University of Sussex news
CBC News story
- Science magazine news story
Discovery news story