Researchers have found that horses use 17 different facial expressions to communicate.
Humans have 27 different facial expressions, while dogs have 16 and chimpanzees have all of 13. Our facial expressions are what externalize our internal feelings and sensations. If we're happy, sad, or confused, our faces often betray those emotions, thus letting others know how we feel. We now know of a few animals that can do this as well, and we may discover more in the years to come.
“Horses are undoubtedly emotional animals,” says Jennifer Wathan, one of the authors of a new study on the facial expressions of horses. What's more, horses also have intricate socioemotional experiences and connections with their peers. Horses use the muscles around their eyes, nostrils, and lips to convey what they're feeling. Surprisingly, the researchers also found that the facial expressions of horses can be quite similar to those of humans.
The musculature of a horse's face [Image by the University of Sussex]
So how exactly do you study the faces a horse makes? First, the researchers dissected a horse's head to study the muscles under the skin. After this came observation—the researchers watched 15 hours of footage depicting a total of 86 horses. These horses were from several different breeds, ranging from the ages of four weeks to 27 years old. Finally, Wathan and her colleagues created a complex coding system that they named Equine Facial Action Coding System, or EquiFACS. This system helped the researchers record and keep track of all the eye, nostril, lip, and chin movements the horses make.
What the researchers found was striking. Apparently, we humans have a number of facial expressions that are similar to the ones that horses make. For example, both humans and horses raise the inner eyebrows to express fear, sadness, or surprise. Both also pull back lip corners in greeting or to show submissiveness. The widening of the eyes also indicates alarm in both species.
Other than those, the researchers have also found other facial expressions in horses. According to the findings, horses combine actions such as “eye white increase,” “ears forward,” “tongue show” and “lip presser” to create different facial expressions.
Will we be able to understand horses better in the future?
Now, knowing that horses have facial expressions similar to ours—or that they have facial expressions at all—is certainly quite interesting. Other than giving us something to bring up as small talk at parties, however, how can this knowledge benefit us?
Perhaps the most obvious use of this knowledge on equine facial expressions is horse training and veterinary purposes. After all, if you can understand an animal better, chances are that you'll have a better time training or treating it.
“Even people who know horses really well sometimes can’t articulate exactly what it is about an expression that they’re seeing,” says Wathan. “This gives them a way of articulating it.”
Even the horses themselves managed to help with the research. Wathan and her colleagues didn't want their own human understanding and biases to influence their interpretation of horse expressions. Thus, the researchers had horses judge the facial expressions of other horses themselves.
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