Horses Look To Humans For Cues On How To React

Horses take emotional cues from their handlers when they’re exposed to new objects, a German study has found. Though dogs and cats have been known to use emotional information from humans to guide their behavior in unfamiliar situations, it was not clear if other domestic animals show the same aptitude.

Drs. Anne Schrimpf, Marie-Sophie Single and Christian Nawroth noted that the horse-human relationship uses interspecies communication cues like posture, vocalizations, emotional cues and gazes. For their study, the team used 46 horses: 20 Warmbloods, 19 Thoroughbreds and seven ponies to try to determine if they used emotional information from humans to adjust their behavior when faced with a new object. They were also curious if horse behavior differed between breeds.

The horses were assigned to two groups that used a round pen and a blue plastic bin covered by a blue and yellow shower curtain. For each group, the experimenter directed her gaze and voice toward the bin. In one test, the experimenter altered her gaze between the bin and the horse, used a positive facial expression and was relaxed. She said, “This is great!” every 10 seconds in an upbeat tone.

In the second test, the experimenter looked anxious and tense, and said “This is terrifying” in a negative tone. The scientists then analyzed each horse’s position in the area in relation to both the object and the person. The horse’s physical interactions and gaze were also monitored.

The horses in the group that heard the positive tone spent more time between the experimenter and the object; the horses that heard the negative tone gazed more often at the object. The Thoroughbreds used in the experiment were less interested in the person than the ponies and Warmbloods.

Female horses spent more time behind the experimenter and male horses tended to stay between the object and the experimenter more. The researchers say that this is in line with other studies, which have shown mares to be more suspicious and anxious than their male counterparts.

The scientists determined that horses do use emotional cues from humans to guide their reactions to new objects. This is why horses are so responsive to human cues, they note.

Read the study here.

Read more at HorseTalk.

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