Horses are watching your every move, researchers say

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Aug 23, 2009
By dvm360.com staff
Brighton, United Kingdom -- Horses are closely watching your body language to see if they’ve got your attention, according to research by Leanne Proops and Karen McComb at the University of Sussex.

Following other scholars’ research observing dogs and primates responding to human cues, the pair from the Centre for Mammal Vocal Communication Research watched 36 horses’ reactions to people’s eyes, body orientation, and head orientation. Horses overwhelmingly chose attentive people—those looking at the horse, and those facing the horse with their body or head—more than inattentive people. Facial expressions were kept neutral, and treats weren’t given during the tests.

Horses also chose attentive people over people whose orientations were mixed: an attentive person whose body faces away, but head faces the horse; or an inattentive person whose body faces the horse, but whose head faces away.

The reseachers concluded that it's possible that horses, like dogs, have grown adept at spotting whether the food-giving humans are watching them and whether it’s time to employ begging techniques. Lead author Proops also wondered if the traditional idea that horses always see direct eye contact as threatening is more complicated than previously thought.

"In the same way that humans distinguish between a stare of aggression and a look of friendship, this current research suggests that horses will interpret eye contact as a friendly gesture in certain contexts," Proops wrote in the paper.

Proops says further research is needed into whether this awareness of human cues is genetic or trained.