Functionally relevant responses to human facial expressions of emotion in the domestic horse (Equus caballus)

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

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Whether non-human animals can recognize human signals, including emotions, has both scientific and applied importance, and is particularly relevant for domesticated species. This study presents the first evidence of horses' abilities to spontaneously discriminate between positive (happy) and negative (angry) human facial expressions in photographs. Our results showed that the angry faces induced responses indicative of a functional understanding of the stimuli: horses displayed a left-gaze bias (a lateralization generally associated with stimuli perceived as negative) and a quicker increase in heart rate (HR) towards these photographs. Such lateralized responses towards human emotion have previously only been documented in dogs, and effects of facial expressions on HR have not been shown in any heterospecific studies. Alongside the insights that these findings provide into interspecific communication, they raise interesting questions about the generality and adaptiveness of emotional expression and perception across species.
Original languageEnglish
Article number20150907
JournalBiology Letters
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 10 Feb 2016
Externally publishedYes


  • RCUK
  • BB/F016808/1
  • emotion recognition
  • facial expression
  • interspecific communication
  • lateralization
  • heart rate
  • stress-related behaviours


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