It's official. Our horses can remember emotional expressions that they’ve seen on human faces.
A recent study paper entitled ‘Animals remember previous facial expressions that specific humans have exhibited’ has confirmed that horses can read and then remember people’s emotional expressions, enabling them to use this information to identify people who could pose a potential threat.
Controlled experiments were conducted in which domestic horses were presented with a photograph of an angry or happy human face and several hours later saw the person who had given the expression in a neutral state. Short-term exposure to the facial expression was enough to generate clear differences in subsequent responses to that individual (but not to a different mismatched person), consistent with the past angry expression having been perceived negatively and the happy expression positively. Both humans were blind to the photograph that the horses had seen.
The study found that despite the humans being in a neutral state during the live meeting, the horses’ gaze direction revealed that they perceived the person more negatively if they had previously seen them looking angry in the photograph rather than happy.
• Non-human animals monitor human emotions and adjust subsequent behavior accordingly
The paper is authored by a team of psychologists, co-led by Professor Karen McComb from the University of Sussex and Dr Leanne Proops, from the University of Portsmouth – both specialists in animal behaviour.