Talking Horses? Reading Horse Facial Expressions

Reader Contribution by Jamie Cearley and Phd

If his mouth doesn’t say it, his face surely will. Twister was always such an expressive horse. He would draw, ears pricked, eyes soft, and lips relaxed as he approached his human partner. It was clear, Twister was pleased. It was also clear when he was afraid. The white sclera of his Appaloosa eyes would show like the morning sun as a tell-tale sign of his concern.

We understood many of Twisters facial expressions. Still, he left us to wonder about much of what he was saying, yet was never heard by human eyes. He was the leader of the herd. So much in control, he rarely exhibited any behavior beyond an ear flick. We often referred to his ruling the herd by Jedi mind tricks. His language was too discrete for our untrained eyes. Careful observation and study opens human eyes, enabling communication with the horse using their language. Many horse students have a growing vocabulary on which to draw.

Still, our understanding of the subtleties of this language is deepening. Researchers at the University of Sussex, have made interpreting horse facial expressions easier (Jen Wathan, 2015). Studies have documented human facial muscles, expressions produced, and what emotions those expressions indicated. But no such data had existed for the horse, until recent years. In the August 2015 issue of PLOS, scientists describe EquiFACS (Equine Facial Action Coding System). Using EquiFACS they identified expressions based on facial musculature and muscle movement. This marks the first documentation of all facial configurations of the horse.

With the intricate muscling of the human face, we have the most cataloged expressions at 27. Dogs, our companion predators, have 16 and chimpanzees 13. Cats come in with a whopping 21, albeit, due to a wide range of whisker and ear movement. Many were not expecting the researcher’s findings rendering the horse with 17 varieties. Yet, those of us in the horse lover’s community would have expected no less.

Even more interesting are the many similarities between humans and horses expressions and musculature. Will these similarities in muscle structure and action extend to similarities in emotion? One example where this correlation holds true is between the showing of the whites of the eye and fear. A second similarity lies in the ability of both horse and human to raise the skin above their eyes. This action appears to correlate with negative emotional states as well. Will other similarities, like tongue showing or nostril dilation, elicit emotions like humans? It will be most interesting to find out.

Then there are the differences, just as important to understand. Much of a horse’s facial expression depends on their ears. Humans have some control over ear movement, but the role they play in our expressions is trivial. It is unsafe to assume similar musculature will always correlate with similar emotional context. Understanding the emotional context of these 17 facial expressions is a worthwhile task.

No studies to date have investigated what expressions may correlate with positive emotional experiences. It is useful to recognize fearful expression as well as those that are neutral. Yet, a catalog of positive expressions is necessary to complete the vocabulary. After all, recognizing pleasure is just as important as seeing fear. Recognition of positive expressions would complete our understanding for the welfare of the horse. 

There is little doubt horses understand what is written on our faces.  So much so, we sometimes credit horses with being able to read thoughts. In reality it isn’t thoughts at all they are reading. Rather, they are masters at reading not only facial expressions but body language as a whole. Once again, human egos get checked at the gate. Horses don’t need scientific studies, or hours of video to know what is written on our faces. They are aware of how thoughts change muscles which change expressions. We are just beginning to communicate with our horses. True communication being two or more individuals sharing and understanding an idea. Humans have a long ways to go. Continuing research like this will increase our abilities beyond what is currently possible.

Scientists continue using EquiFACS to link expressions with emotion. Validation of expressions will advance horsemanship and our quest to communicate with horses. Indeed we will enter into the conversation on an even deeper level.

If only Twister were still here to tell us one more time all he wanted heard by his human. “Some people talk to animals. Not many listen though. That’s the problem.” —A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh.

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