Horses are remarkable creatures. 47 million years ago, their evolutionary ancestor was just two feet tall. Anatomically speaking, their “wrist” is located at the joint that looks like a knee, while the rest of each leg is technically a finger. It’s been reported that two draft horses working together can pull triple the load of one horse.
And despite their reputation for not being terribly bright, like any other pack animal they have the ability to discern each other’s emotions—something your irritating co-worker still can’t seem to do.
Now, researchers at University of Tokyo are conducting tests to see if horses can also read the emotions of nearby humans. Are riders right when they claim that their horse seems to know just how they’re feeling, or do we simply see what we want to see in their big brown eyes? For that matter, how would such a test possibly be structured? You can’t give a horse a questionnaire, and fMRI machines are definitely not designed for quadrupeds.
Instead, scientists devised a clever work-around: they adapted a tool that’s been used in the past to study cognitive development in infants. Horses were shown a human facial expression on a screen—approving or scolding—and then played an audio clip of a human voice either praising or reprimanding. Some horses got matching faces and voices—two positive samples, for instance—while others were subjected to, say, a happy face and an angry voice.
If horses are capable of noticing and interpreting emotions in both human facial expressions and human speech, those mismatched clips should be very confusing. If one face or one vocal tone is like another, then the clash wouldn’t even register.
Horses responded between 1.6 and 2 times faster when presented with the confusing face-and-voice situation, and they also watched the face 1.4 times longer, as if to say, “What the heck, buddy?” It seems that a horse can indeed pick up on these cues, at least enough to be awfully perplexed when things don’t add up. However, these results held true whether or not the human in question was familiar, so science has gotten no closer to quantifying the supposed bond between a horse and its rider. Hundreds of cowboy songs remain un-factchecked. For
Still, it’s an interesting first step—a first canter, if you will—towards understanding just what’s going on in that creature’s head, even if Gerald from accounting is yet a mystery.
Hi-ho Silver, and away…