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Horses respond to human facial expressions

A. V. Smith, L. Proops, K. Grounds, J. Wathan, K. McComb

WHETHER non-human animals can recognise human signals, including emotions, has both scientific and applied importance, and is particularly relevant for domesticated species. This study investigated horses' abilities to spontaneously discriminate between positive (happy) and negative (angry) human facial expressions in photographs, with the authors hypothesising that negative stimuli would induce avoidance behaviour.

Horses were recruited from five riding/livery stables in Sussex and Surrey between April 2014 and February 2015. The final sample contained 28 horses in the behavioural analyses (21 geldings, seven mares), with a subset of 17 horses in the main heart rate analyses and 15 in the heart rate recovery analyses. Each horse was shown two A3 (42 x 29.7 cm) photographs – one positive and one negative – across two trials, while its behavioural and physiological responses were measured. The photographs were held 1 m from the horse's nose for 10 seconds, then moved forwards by 10 cm and held for 10 seconds, then moved back to the original position for a final 10 seconds.

The authors found that when viewing negative photographs, more horses looked left for their first monocular look than …

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