A new study from a team of researchers at the University of Sussex suggests that horses, much like dogs, are suckers for smiles. They also don’t easily forget them.
On Thursday, The Guardian reported the study’s findings, which build upon the team’s previous research on horses’ ability to recognize human emotions. Karen McComb, who co-authored the study and is a professor of animal behavior and cognition at the University of Sussex, told The Guardian, “We knew that horses could register emotional expressions, so we wanted to know if they could remember them, so that they can actually use those memories to guide their future interactions with specific individuals.”
The research was based upon a fun method, where horses were shown photographs of human faces smiling and poised in anger, then introduced to the pictured individuals face-to-face and monitored for their reactions. The telling behavioral signs were not so dramatic, tending to hinge upon small, anxious mannerisms. “They treat the person the same irrespective of whether it was the negative [photograph] they had seen in the morning or the positive one,” said McComb. Still, she added,“It is really interesting that animals are picking up on the subtle emotional expressions that humans are revealing on a moment to moment basis”
The Guardian’s article is headlined “Beware the Long Face: Horses Remember Your Mood,” so I’m not attempting to redo that particular pun. I’m just saying that smiling often in the presence of horses is a stable indicator of them liking you better down the road. So if you want to curry favor with a horse, try smiling. Manely avoid feelings of anger and spur positive, affirming facial cues. Don’t be sad(dle) in their presence.
Most importantly: Does this mean that horses can also hold grudges?