Domestic horses (Equus caballus) prefer to approach humans displaying a submissive body posture rather than a dominant body posture

Amy Smith, Clara Wilson, Karen McComb, Leanne Proops

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Signals of dominance and submissiveness are central to conspecific communication in many species. For domestic animals, sensitivities to these signals in humans may also be beneficial. We presented domestic horses with a free choice between two unfamiliar humans, one adopting a submissive and the other a dominant body posture, with vocal and facial cues absent. Horses had previously been given food rewards by both human demonstrators, adopting neutral postures, to encourage approach behaviour. Across four counterbalanced test trials, horses showed a significant preference for approaching the submissive posture in both the first trial and across subsequent trials, and no individual subject showed an overall preference for dominant postures. There was no significant difference in latency to approach the two postures. This study provides novel evidence that domestic horses may spontaneously discriminate between, and attribute communicative significance to, human body postures of dominance; and further, that familiarity with the signaller is not a requirement for this response. These findings raise interesting questions about the plasticity of social signal perception across the species barrier.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)307-312
Number of pages6
JournalAnimal Cognition
Issue number2
Early online date13 Oct 2017
Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2018


  • body posture
  • interspecific communication
  • emotion recognition
  • dominance and submissiveness
  • horse-human relationship


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