Study: Young Horses Can't Read Subtle Human Body Cues

Four years ago, The Horse reported on research showing that horses are capable of reading subtle human body cues. Today, those researchers are back to tell us that although adult horses have this capacity, young horses do not. And this, they say, fails to support the theory that such a skill is innate in this species.

“In dogs, even young puppies are extremely good at reading human body language, but what we found in horses was that young individuals were not particularly skilled at reading human body language and that this ability developed over time,” said Leanne Proops, PhD, of the Mammal Vocal Communication and Cognition Research group at the University of Sussex, in the United Kingdom.

“This is not to say, however, that horses do not still have some underlying predisposition to learn and attend to the body language of their human social partners,” Proops added. “It just means that it takes time and practice for this skill to develop fully.”

In her study, Proops and her colleagues tested 35 horses younger than three years old using the same series of tests as in her 2009 study of adult horses. Essentially, the animals had to distinguish between a person standing facing the horse or with his or her back to the horse; between two people standing facing the horse but one with the head turned to the side and the other with the head facing forward; and between two people facing the horse with their full bodies and heads but one with the eyes closed and one with the eyes open. In a fourth, "mixed cue" test, one person stood sideways with his head turned toward the horse, whereas the other stood with her body forward and her face turned to the side.

The testers would, at first, have food in their hands if they were the “attentive” ones. In a second experiment, the humans would indicate which of two buckets had food in it, using more or less subtle clues (pointing at it, head turned toward it, eyes turned toward it, etc.).

In this experiment the young horses performed similarly to adult horses in that they were able to detect the more obvious cues like finger pointing, but they were not able to pick up subtle cues like body orientation or eye gaze.

“What this shows is that, alongside the need to slowly build on the training cues and commands we use with young horses, their understanding of our body language and communicative cues will also require time to develop fully,” said Proops. “I’m sure, however, that young horses—without any explicit training from us—are learning about our body language and how to interpret our behavior just by being around people and having contact and exposure to us as we work with them.”

The fact that horses can learn to read human body language over time—despite not being born with the ability—still shows that they have an innate sensitivity to it, Proops added. And this could be key to their status as human companions over the past several centuries.

“Very few species have been domesticated,” she said. “The horse’s ability to be able to understand human communicative cues, given appropriate exposure and training, may well be one of the reasons why horses have had such a close and enduring relationship with people across the ages.”

The study, "The Responses of Young Domestic Horses to Human-Given Cues," appeared in June in the open-access journal PLoS One

Disclaimer: Seek the advice of a qualified veterinarian before proceeding with any diagnosis, treatment, or therapy.