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Horse-Human Connection: Horses Recognize Our Emotions

If you have ever owned or spent a lot of time riding with one particular horse, chances are high that you’ve felt some sort of special connection with them — and wondered if horses like, daresay love, humans? Maybe you’ve felt like they were actually your friend, or a part of your family and wanted to know if the feeling was reciprocal. Research is now confirming that this connection isn’t in your head — and anyone who has ever had a pet before, horse or not, definitely won’t be surprised at some of these recent findings. A new study shows that horses understand and remember human emotions, which makes them even more special than they already are. This is not the first time scientists have discovered something like this about these animals — previous studies have found that horses recognize expressions. This new research, though, finds that the animals not only recognize expressions, but also remember them and link them to a specific face. In other words, horses can recognize human faces and their emotional expressions, something that they then use to discern whether the person is a threat or not. This latest study was done by researchers at the universities of Sussex and Portsmouth and was published in the journal Current Biology. While it’s not the first study done on equine behavior, it is the first one to examine horses at this level of detailed behavior, recognition and memory patterns. “We know that horses are socially intelligent animals, but this is the first time any mammal has been shown to have this particular ability,” Portsmouth researcher Leanne Proops said. “What’s very striking is that this happened after just briefly viewing a photograph of the person with a particular emotional expression — they did not have a strongly positive or negative experience with this person.” The researchers came to this conclusion after a series of experiments where they showed horses photographs of humans with either a happy or angry facial expression. Later, they showed the horses the people in the photographs, making neutral expressions. During the real-life meeting, researchers watched the eye movements of the horses. They found that the horses saw those who had been photographed with angry faces to be more threatening (previous research has shown that horses look at negative or threatening things with their left eye). As part of the control, the humans did not know which photographs the horses had seen before, which was done to eliminate the risk of the humans behaving differently. Karen McComb, a professor at the University of Sussex, said in a news release, “What we’ve found is that horses not only read human facial expressions, but they also remember a person’s previous emotional state when they meet them later that day — and, crucially, that they adapt their behavior accordingly.” This research is incredibly interesting for so many reasons. For one thing, it proves exactly how intelligent and emotional horses really are — and that connection you feel with one of these magnificent mammals is a real thing. It’s an important step toward learning more about these important animals, and maybe even animals in general. We still know so little about what goes on in the minds of some of our favorite animals, but this is one way to understand a little bit more about at least one of them. In fact, this backs up previous research that horses have more human-like behavior than ever imagined: horses deal with chronic stress, allergies and even the flu. By Jessica Booth for

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