It sounds a bit obvious doesn’t it? bear with us! A new study has shown that horses favour gentle touches which is hardly surprising. But the research was primarily aimed at establishing if facial expressions provide a good indication of the way horses are feeling.
French study looks at emotional responses
The study was conducted in France to look at how horses express the way they are feeling. Researchers were investigating whether facial expressions, behaviour or physiological responses best indicate the emotions of horses.
Horses are good subjects for research into animal’s facial expressions as, like apes, they possess complex facial muscles which facilitate a wide range of movements.
Two types of grooming
The study featured two groups of 13 horses. Each group underwent 11 grooming sessions. In the first group, only hands were used and the horses were only touched repeatedly in areas which elicited responses indicating pleasure. The other group were groomed vigorously all over, regardless of the reactions they displayed.
By the end of the sessions, the horses which had been groomed gently were displaying more contact-seeking behaviours than the other group. The horses which had been groomed vigorously exhibited more avoidance behaviours. In other words, the horses which had been gently groomed were actively asking for more attention.
Specific facial expressions
The facial expressions displayed were recorded by observers who did not know what type of grooming each horse had received. This prevented them from being influenced by seeing the grooming routine.
The researchers discovered that the horses’ facial expressions were a better indication of what they were feeling than their behaviour during the sessions. The horses were found to produce specific and recognisable expressions in response to human touch.
One year later
One year after the grooming sessions, the horses were returned to the same groomers and were seen to exhibit similar expressions to those observed in the initial stage of the study.
The gently groomed horses were often seen to raise their necks a little and to hold their eyes half closed. Their upper lips would be extended and sometimes twitching and their ears would be pointing backwards.
On the other hand, the horses from the group which had been more vigorously groomed would hold their necks in a higher position and have their eyes wide open. Their ears were asymmetrical and they tended to raise the corners of their mouths.
It was clear that the horses could remember their groomers and the relationship they had established with them, even after a year had passed. The horses demonstrated contrasting expressions according to which type of grooming they had received.
It quickly became obvious that facial expressions were specific demonstrations of particular emotions. Facial expressions were the only indicators of the contrasting emotions which remained consistent after a year had passed. The researchers therefore concluded that these expressions are more reliable than behavioural indicators when assessing horses’ responses.
Fascinating stuff but probably only confirming what you already know! Do you recognise and understand your horse’s expressions or are they a mystery to you?