Do you ever feel like your horse might be watching your every move? He very well might be, according to a new behavior study by British scientists. Their research indicates that horses are highly sensitive to the attention we attribute to them, including our gaze.
In an August article on body language an horse-human communication in the Horse.com, Christa Lesté-Lasserre chronicles a series of tests involving 36 horses and ponies aged 10 months to 38 years. Also in the study were two humans who stood motionless in a paddock, each in a different position, demonstrating more or less attention to the horse. According to Leanne Proops, PhD, a researcher at the Centre for Mammal Vocal Communication Research at the University of Sussex in Brighton (and primary author of the study), in the three primary tests, almost 80% of the horses walked toward the person showing the most attention.
During these tests, the animals were to distinguish between a person standing facing the horse or with his or her back to the horse; between two people standing facing the horse but one with the head turned to the side and the other with the head facing forward; and between two people facing the horse with their full bodies and heads but one with the eyes closed and one with the eyes open.
In a fourth, “mixed cue” test, one person stood sideways but with his head turned toward the horse, whereas the other stood with her body forward and her face turned to the side. Although 60% of the horses in this last test chose the person with the face forward, the results were not considered significant enough to be conclusive on the mixed cue test.
In all the tests, the testers maintained neutral facial expressions. The horses were not rewarded for choosing correctly. However, the horses did receive commercial horse treats between tests in order to maintain motivation.
No significant differences in responses among horses from a private riding stable and those in a refuge were reported, which Proops says suggests that the horse’s prior experience with humans has little effect on their attention to human cues. In other words, this is not a learned response.
One of the most interesting results of the study is that when horses chose to engage the inattentive person, they often entered that person’s field of vision and actively made efforts to gain his/her attention.
These results show how sensitive horses are to very subtle body cues when interacting with humans, in the same way that they are sensitive to tiny changes in posture and muscle tone in other horses. Knowing that you are communicating with your horse subconsciously in every move you make can only lead to an improved relationship with him.
We knew that, didn’t we?
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