A new study has presented the first empirical evidence proving that horses are able to perceive human emotion.
The study by the Mammal Vocal Communication and Cognition Research Group at the University of Sussex has shown that horses have the ability to spontaneously “discriminate between positive (happy) and negative (angry) human facial expressions in photographs”.
In the study 28 horses were shown large photos of facial expression for 30 seconds. The horses showed recognition of anger through a stress-response including a quicker heart rate and a preference for looking through their left eye. This left eye preference is important as it indicates how the horse’s brain processes emotions. This left-eye preference shows that in the case of anger, the image triggers the right hemisphere of the brain in the same way as threatening stimuli.
“It’s interesting to note that the horses had a strong reaction to the negative expressions but less so to the positive. This may be because it is particularly important for animals to recognise threats in their environment. In this context, recognising angry faces may act as a warning system, allowing horses to anticipate negative human behaviour such as rough handling.”
Amy Smith, Doctoral student in the Mammal Vocal Communication and Cognition Research Group.
Research shows that many animal species view negative stimuli through their left eye, due to how the right hemisphere of the brain is responsible for processing primary emotions like fear.
The findings published by The Royal Society this month open up some interesting questions about how emotional expression and perception works across species. The finding too brings new light to how beneficial Equine Therapy can be for human healing, given now that we understand just how perceptive horses are.
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