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Study Finds That Horses Can Identify and Recall Human Facial Expressions

A recent study published in the Current Biology journal has shed some light on horse psychology and a horse’s ability to recognize human emotions through our facial expressions.

This study follows a previous study completed by University of Sussex, which established a directory of horse facial expressions known as the Equine Facial Action Coding Systems (EquiFACS). EquiFACS identifies 17 equine micro-expressions that can help to indicate a horse’s mood or intention.

Professor Karen McComb, a co-lead author, explains to University of Sussex Broadcast, “With EquiFACS we can now document the facial movements associated with different social and emotional contexts and thus gain insights into how horses are actually experiencing their social world. As well as enhancing our understanding of social cognition and comparative psychology, the findings should ultimately provide important information for veterinary and animal welfare practices.”

This most recent study, which was conducted by Leanne Proops, Kate Grounds, Amy Victoria Smith and Karen McComb, sought to build on those possibilities that the establishment of EquiFACS allowed. Their study examined whether horses could remember “previous facial expressions that specific humans have exhibited.”

To do this, they conducted an experiment where they exposed 48 horses to a photograph of either an angry or happy human face, and then an hour later, they were introduced to the person in the photograph while they had a neutral facial expression.

The study found that horses that were shown the angry face displayed more cautious facial expressions when confronted with the same human with a neutral facial expression. The study explains, “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.”

Through this study, the co-authors “show that, like humans, horses remember past expressions seen on the faces of particular people and use this emotional memory to guide future interactions.”