What is the mood? Study results not surprising: horses can read human emotions

A recent study published in Europe confirms what horse people have known for years- horses can recognize and respond to human emotions. But this study, conducted by an international research team from the National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food, and Environment in France, the University of Tours in France, and the University of Turku in Finland, has revealed some new information. Not only can horses react to high-arousal emotions such as anger and happiness, the new study has shown they are also capable of recognizing sadness, a low-arousal emotion.

            In this study, horses were shown side-by-side images of a human with a happy expression and a human with a sad expression. Then, a recording of a voice sounding either happy or sad was played. The horses in the study first looked at the face that matched the emotion they were hearing, but spent longer looking at the face that didn’t match it, seemingly surprised by the juxtaposition. Doctoral Researcher Océane Liehrmann of the University of Turku says, “This is interesting because it would mean that when horses observe our faces and hear our voices, they don’t just see and hear separate things, but they are able to match them across different modalities.”

            After the initial responses, horses were observed spending more time looking at the human face displaying happiness. Additionally, the horses’ heart rates increased more upon hearing the happy voice than the sad one. Researchers state that this indicates the horses were more alert and excited at the sound of a joyful human voice. They theorize that this may be because horses are among the animals that experience emotional congtagion, where the emotions of an observer match those of the one they are observing.

            Lisa Lockhart, a 15-time National Finals Rodeo qualifier and professional barrel racer of over 30 years, agrees. Having spent her entire life around horses, she believes that they can without a doubt sense different emotions in humans- both positive and negative. The Oelrichs, South Dakota, rodeo athlete and rancher says it’s a combination of every part of a human’s body language that they respond to. They are intelligent animals who put together the puzzle pieces of your tone, facial expressions, body language, and even energy to gauge what emotion you’re feeling. “You can see them reading you when you approach,” Lockhart says. In her experience, Lockhart says that while she finds horses read and respond to all human emotions, they often offer a big response to negative emotions such as anxiety and anger. They feed off of the energy you provide them, and will react to your fear with their fear. On the flip side, they are highly responsive to calm, relaxed energy from humans. Slow, gentle touches and soothing tones often bring out a positive response in the horse.

Recent studies indicate that horses can read human emotions through the tone of voice as well as facial expressions. Mekenna Fisher | Courtesy photo

            All horses are capable of responding to human emotion, but every horse reacts differently. Lockhart compares them to humans in that some fall on the more social side of the spectrum and are therefore more adept at reading and reacting to emotions, whereas others that are less socially inclined tend to be less responsive to emotions. She also believes that horses that have experienced a lot of training and socialization with humans respond better, particularly horses that have spent an extended period of time with one person. “The more in-tune to you they are, the more responsive they are”.

            Lockhart wholeheartedly believes that horses are sensitive animals well-adapted to reading and responding to human emotions, but emphasizes that they draw their conclusions from the whole picture. Far more than just facial expressions and tone of voice illustrate your emotions to your horse- everything from your posture, to your stride, to even your energy play a role in allowing your horse to understand how you’re feeling.

Dustin Luper, a Rangeland professor at Chadron State College who teaches equine classes and serves as the assistant coach for the rodeo team, shares a similar view. Luper has been riding horses since 2003 where he worked under reined cow horse trainer Cory Shelman. He now breeds and trains performance horses of his own, and believes that horses are very receptive to human emotions. In his words, “I am a firm believer that horses can definitely feel and play off of our emotional intelligence, whether positive or negative.”

            In Luper’s experience, he finds that horses are most responsive to two emotions: self-confidence, and fear. “If you have a confident horse and a frightened owner, the horse will become very domineering and overpower the person like a bully. Likewise, if you bully a horse they will either shut down or become defensive; either way is dangerous.” He says it’s important to focus on building a healthy, respectful relationship with the horse, and that motivation works better than manipulation.

            He shares Lockhart’s experience that horses you have spent more time with tend to respond better to your emotions than those you haven’t. The more you build a relationship with a horse, the more they recognize your “ups and downs”, similar to how you begin to understand theirs. Trust is the key component in this relationship. “A horse when they fully trust you will give you their life and their soul,” Dustin says.

            As for what influences a horse’s aptitude at recognizing emotions, Luper said he believes humans themselves have the biggest influence. By understanding a horse’s fears, reinforcing their strengths, and building their confidence, we shape their personality as well as their understanding of humans. They learn how to understand what we ask of them and how to gauge our emotions and mental space. They will feed off any emotion, whether that be positive or negative. Providing them with a positive emotion creates a positive environment, which in turn generates positive results. Negative emotions can and will produce the opposite effect.

         The emotional intelligence of horses comes as no surprise to many who have lived and worked with them for years. This study demonstrates that horses, much like humans, prefer the company of those experiencing positive emotions and generating positive energy. In order to create the best environment for your horse and yourself to grow, it’s important to feed that desire for a positive and uplifting experience.

  After the initial responses, horses in the study were observed spending more time looking at the human face displaying happiness. Mekenna Fisher | Courtesy photo