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Horses Can Read Human Faces

Hey, Wilbur! New research from the U.K. finds horses are aware when a facial expression signals anger.
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(Photo: Karsun Designs/Flickr)

(Photo: Karsun Designs/Flickr)

Are you convinced that nobody in your life really gets you? That no one is sensitive enough to read the expression on your face, and figure out what you are feeling?

Well, there's always your horse.

New research from England concludes horses have the ability to read at least one key human emotion: anger. The study finds the image of an infuriated human led to specific patterns of gazing, brain processing, and heart rate, all of which suggested the animals were attuned to a possible threat.

The researchers, led by University of Sussex psychologists Amy Smith and Karen McComb, studied 28 horses from five riding/livery stables in Sussex and Surrey. (A subset of 17 of the animals were used for the main heart-rate analysis.)

If you go horseback riding to be alone with your thoughts and feelings, be aware that you may be sharing more than you realize.

On two occasions at least two months apart, each horse was shown a large, high-resolution color photograph of the face of a man. In one of the images, he was scowling in apparent rage; in the other, he wore a big, broad smile.

The horses looked at each for 30 seconds. As they did so, experimenters standing nearby noted their reactions.

They found the animals looked at the angry faces predominantly through their left eye. Information from the left eye is processed in the brain's right hemisphere, which is where threatening stimuli is evaluated. This behavior has previously been noted in dogs, "where angry human facial expressions are viewed with a left-gaze bias."

In addition, "from the start of the test phase, the horses' heart rates rose significantly faster when exposed to negative, compared to positive, stimuli," the researchers add. The warning signal having been received, their pulses quickened—just as ours do when we sense danger.

The results, published  in the journal Biology Letters, make BoJack Horseman's obliviousness to others' emotions even more difficult to forgive. (If you're unfamiliar with that particular animal, check out his brilliant satirical series on Netflix.)

The researchers suggest several possible explanations for these findings. Horses may have learned to read human emotions as the two species co-evolved together, making such knowledge innate. Conversely, individual animals may "learn to interpret human expressions during their lifetime experiences with humans."

Either way, they apparently have some ability to read your face—especially when your mood could impact them. So if you go horseback riding to be alone with your thoughts and feelings, be aware that you may be sharing more than you realize.


Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.