Horses Read Human Body Cues, Researchers Say

Do you ever feel like your horse might be watching your every move? He very well might be, according to a new behavior study by British scientists. Their research indicates that horses are highly sensitive to the attention we attribute to them, including our gaze.

In a series of tests involving 36 horses and ponies aged 10 months to 38 years, two humans stood motionless in a paddock, each in a different position that showed more or less attention to the horse. Nearly 80% of the horses chose to walk toward the person that showed the most attention in the three primary tests, said Leanne Proops, PhD, researcher at the Centre for Mammal Vocal Communication Research at the University of Sussex in Brighton and primary author of the study.

During these tests, the animals were 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 but with his head turned toward the horse, whereas the other stood with her body forward and her face turned to the side. Although 60% of the horses in this last test chose the person with the face forward, the results were not considered significant enough to be conclusive on the mixed cue.

In all tests, the testers maintained neutral facial expressions. Horses were not rewarded for choosing correctly, in order to prevent any learning during the study, Proops said. (However, commercial horse treats were given between tests in order to maintain the motivation of the horses.) Interestingly, there were no significant differences in responses among horses from a private riding stable and those in a refuge, which she said suggests that the horse's prior experience with humans has little effect on their attention to human cues.

Another interesting result of the study was that frequently when the horses chose the inattentive person, they would walk into that person's field of vision and made efforts to gain his or her attention, Proops said.

"These results show how sensitive horses are to very subtle body cues when interacting with humans, in the same way that they are sensitive to tiny changes in posture and muscle tone in other horses," Proops said. "Knowing that you are communicating with your horse subconsciously in every move you make can only lead to an improved relationship with him."

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