EquiFACS: the equine facial action coding system

Jen Wathan, Anne M. Burrows, Bridget M. Waller, Karen Mccomb

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Although previous studies of horses have investigated their facial expressions in specific contexts, e.g. pain, until now there has been no methodology available that documents all the possible facial movements of the horse and provides a way to record all potential facial configurations. This is essential for an objective description of horse facial expressions across a range of contexts that reflect different emotional states. Facial Action Coding Systems (FACS) provide a systematic methodology of identifying and coding facial expressions on the basis of underlying facial musculature and muscle movement. FACS are anatomically based and document all possible facial movements rather than a configuration of movements associated with a particular situation. Consequently, FACS can be applied as a tool for a wide range of research questions. We developed FACS for the domestic horse (Equus caballus) through anatomical investigation of the underlying musculature and subsequent analysis of naturally occurring behaviour captured on high quality video. Discrete facial movements were identified and described in terms of the underlying muscle contractions, in correspondence with previous FACS systems. The reliability of others to be able to learn this system (EquiFACS) and consistently code behavioural sequences was high—and this included people with no previous experience of horses. A wide range of facial movements were identified, including many that are also seen in primates and other domestic animals (dogs and cats). EquiFACS provides a method that can now be used to document the facial movements associated with different social contexts and thus to address questions relevant to understanding social cognition and comparative psychology, as well as informing current veterinary and animal welfare practices.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0131738
Number of pages35
JournalPLoS One
Issue number9
Publication statusPublished - 5 Aug 2015


  • RCUK
  • BB/D526896/1


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