Domestic horses (Equus caballus) discriminate between negative and positive human nonverbal vocalisations

Amy Victoria Smith, Leanne Proops, Kate Grounds, Jennifer Wathan, Sophie Scott, Karen McComb

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

114 Downloads (Pure)


The ability to discriminate between emotion in vocal signals is highly adaptive in social species. It may also be adaptive for domestic species to distinguish such signals in humans. Here we present a playback study investigating whether horses spontaneously respond in a functionally relevant way towards positive and negative emotion in human nonverbal vocalisations. We presented horses with positively- and negatively-valenced human vocalisations (laughter and growling, respectively) in the absence of all other emotional cues. Horses were found to adopt a freeze posture for significantly longer immediately after hearing negative versus positive human vocalisations, suggesting that negative voices promote vigilance behaviours and may therefore be perceived as more threatening. In support of this interpretation, horses held their ears forwards for longer and performed fewer ear movements in response to negative voices, which further suggest increased vigilance. In addition, horses showed a right-ear/left-hemisphere bias when attending to positive compared with negative voices, suggesting that horses perceive laughter as more positive than growling. These findings raise interesting questions about the potential for universal discrimination of vocal affect and the role of lifetime learning versus other factors in interspecific communication.
Original languageEnglish
Article number13052
Number of pages8
JournalScientific Reports
Early online date29 Aug 2018
Publication statusEarly online - 29 Aug 2018


  • RCUK
  • BB/F016808/1


Dive into the research topics of 'Domestic horses (Equus caballus) discriminate between negative and positive human nonverbal vocalisations'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this