A new study published in the journal Biology Letters reveals horses are capable of recognizing and reacting to human emotions, just as dogs have been adjudged intelligent enough to identify enough emotions.
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Researchers subjected 28 horses to viewing photographs of happy facial expressions and negative facial expressions, finding the horses all reacted differently to the negative facial expressions by staring at them with their left eye, a behavior already linked to perceiving negative stimuli such as threats and sensing fear.
To really show that the horses considered angry facial expressions as a negative emotion which could be threatening, the horses’ heart beats increased to indicate rising stress levels and palpable tension when viewing the negative expression photos.
"What's really interesting about this research is that it shows that horses have the ability to read emotions across the species barrier," said Amy Smith, one of the researchers, in a news release.
"We have known for a long time that horses are a socially sophisticated species but this is the first time we have seen that they can distinguish between positive and negative human facial expressions. The reaction to the angry facial expressions was particularly clear-there was a quicker increase in their heart rate, and the horses moved their heads to look at the angry faces with their left eye," she added.
Horses are not the only animals that view threats or negative stimuli with the left eye, a few other animals do too, and it is because of the way the right brain’s hemisphere is configured to process threatening stimuli or dangers.
The researchers noted that the horses reacted less strongly to the positive expressions as they did to the negative ones which they considered threatening – and this is largely because animals are configured to inherently identify environmental threats before they emerge.
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Within this context, the horses were seeing angry faces as a sort of warning system alerting them to a rising negative human behavior which may include whipping and rough handling among others.