Research shows that Horses are On to Us –
Other members of the animal kingdom lack some of our complex reasoning abilities but they’re surprisingly skilled at identifying our feelings.
A study of horses reading and recalling human emotions was published in the May, 2018 issue of Current Biology. There is a trove of research on interpretation of facial expressions within a species. This study showed that horses (and very likely other domestic animals) can recognize happiness and anger in photographs of humans and later apply those memories when seeing the actual person.
Our brains share some basic functions with many species. Modern imaging shows that threats are processed in the right side of the brain, causing a gaze to the left. Happier, more social perceptions are managed on the left side, causing the eyes to shift right.
These researchers showed horses photos of unfamiliar humans with angry faces. The animals were later exposed to the person, wearing a neutral expression. The horses were also shown pictures of happy people who subsequently showed up exhibiting no emotion.
So what happened? You guessed it; the horses who had seen grumpy pics reacted later to the real person with a long left gaze and “displacement” behaviors indicating discomfort. When meeting the inscrutable person whose picture had expressed happiness the horses gazed to the right, indicating a more social emotional response.
The upshot of this paper: “…some animals are capable of taking into account a single encounter with an individual displaying an emotional facial expression when subsequently interacting with that same individual in a neutral context 3–6 hours later.”
Have you ever suspected an animal of recalling brief human encounters? You weren’t imagining it. Appropriate discrimination of facial expressions is considered a foundation of social competence for people, although not everybody has it. Communication among members of other species follows similar rules. Now we know that their skills can cross species lines. I often see dogs and cats hoodwink their people but it’s now clear that our shenanigans aren’t fooling them.