Do Horses Recognise Their Owners?

We’re all convinced that our horses recognise us, but is it true? A recent study set out to determine if horses can identify humans from…

We’re all convinced that our horses recognise us, but is it true? A recent study set out to determine if horses can identify humans from their faces alone. Although many social animals can differentiate between members of their own species, the ability of animals to discern between human faces is much less common and is believed to result from a shared evolutionary history; horses and humans have been partners for at least 5000 years.

When carrying out a study based on sight only the influence of other cues, such as scent and sound must be eradicated. To address this photographs were used instead of real humans, however, this inadvertently reduced individuals to two-dimensions – in theory reducing the likelihood of identification. Although the identification rate compared to real life models is not known, previous studies have found that horses are capable of understanding the relationship between a real individual and their photograph (two-dimensional representation).

The study was carried out using two photographs displayed on a computer screen: one of a horse’s current or previous owner, and another of a stranger. The horses were then taught to tap their nose on the computer screen. When the horse tapped a picture of a human they were familiar with they were given a positive reward, and when they tapped the incorrect image they were given a negative reward. This was carried out 32 times per session.

So, do horses recognise their owners? Lansade et al (2020) found that a horse was able to identify their current owners face about 75% of the time (much better than chance) and that horses were just as good, if not better at identifying their previous owner (who they hadn’t seen for six months) than their current one.

On top of identification between different human faces, other studies have shown that horses are capable of associating visuals of horses with their neighs, as well as humans with their voices. For example, when a horse sees someone they recognise but hears the voice of someone else they spend more time looking in the direction of the voice than when they can hear a voice that they’ve previously paired with a face that they can also see.

Can My Horse Tell If I’m Angry?

A study performed by Proops et al. in 2018 looked at the ability of animals to remember human facial expressions. It found that when horses are presented with a photograph of someone that is happy and then shown the person in real life they react in a different way than when they were shown a photograph of an angry human, and then shown them in real life. In the latter case horses engaged in more scratching and floor sniffing than in the former.

Does My Horse Remember That I Was Angry?

Horses have advanced human recognition abilities, with long-term memory of human faces, and have been shown to remember whether they had a good or bad relationship with a human for several months after the interaction. So be careful!

Source: Lansade et al. (2020)

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