Do Horses Recognize Their People?

Does a horse respond differently to "his person" as opposed to a stranger? The results of a recent French study indicate that horses use auditory and visual information to recognize specific people, and that they expect certain behaviors from those people based on previous experience.

"We wanted to understand how horses perceive humans and which of our characteristics and behaviors are relevant to them," said Carol Sankey, MSc, PhD (ethology) and lead author on the study.

As part of the study, Sankey and her colleagues at the Laborotoire d'ethologie Animale et Humaine at the Université de Rennes in Paimpont, France, raised 16 horses from birth, restricting the animals' human interaction to feeding time. When the horses were 2 years old, Sankey trained them to stand immobile for 60 seconds at the command "Reste!" (the French word for "stay"). Sankey was the only person who handled the horses, and she used the same routine each time she worked with a horse: She entered the stall, placed a halter and lead rope on the horse, looked at the animal, and gave the command.

After five days of twice-daily training, the horses responded well to Sankey and were familiar with her. The team then designed a test to observe whether the horses responded differently to a person they recognized than to a person they'd never met before. Sankey and an individual who had not previously been introduced to the horses showed each horse varying levels of attention (facing and looking at the horse, facing the horse with closed eyes, facing the horse and looking at the ceiling, and standing with back turned to the horse) after giving the "stay" command. An observer monitored and recorded the horses' behavior and reactions to each test by observing changes in foot and head movement as indications of the horse's attention.

According to the researchers, the horses behaved quite differently when reacting to the known trainer (Sankey) versus the stranger (a male researcher on the study). Horses did not actively monitor Sankey, suggesting that the horses were likely at ease with her. Most of the horses maintained immobility when Sankey looked at them (nine of 16) and when she turned her back to them (eight of 16); however, the researchers noted that when Sankey closed her eyes, a behavior that was not part of her normal routine, the horses tended to move more frequently (six of 16 remained standing) and turn their heads toward Sankey, displaying monitoring behavior.

The horses showed much greater monitoring behavior with the stranger (i.e., they kept more of their attention on the unfamiliar individual), turning their heads toward the individual when he appeared to be distracted, closed his eyes, or faced away from the horse. While most of the horses (10 of 16) remained still when the stranger looked at them, only three and four remained still when the stranger looked at the ceiling and had his back turned, respectively.

"This tells us that what we expected," says Sankey. "Horses have an expectation of certain behaviors from (certain people) in certain situations. In humans we call this a 'concept of person'."

The researchers also noted that they "observed disturbances in the horses' response when the experimenters' eyes were not visible (closed)." They added that "if horses do have a representation of a person based on experience, this is not very surprising, as they are bound to have seen the experimenter with her back turned ... at some point during the training session, while seeing her with her eyes closed was something completely new."

Although owners might already recognize this behavior in their horses, Sankey's team suggests there is a specific recognition coupled with the expectation of behavior that can be called a "relationship."

The study, "Do Horses Have a Concept of Person?" was published in the open access Public Library of Science journal, PLoS ONE, and is available online.

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