Horses can tell when we are happy or sad by our facial expression and voice

A scientific study recently published online conducted by researchers from the University of Turku in Finland, concluded that horses can distinguish between the human facial expressions of sadness and joy and they can combine that visual appreciation with the sound of our voice. The study is called: “Horses discriminate between human facial and vocal expressions of sadness and joy”. It is published in the online journal Animal Cognition.

Horses can tell when we are happy or sad
Horses can tell when we are happy or sad. Image: MikeB

It is an attempt to learn more about how horses relate to our voices and expressions which is something that we know a lot about in respect of dogs and a little less in respect of cats.

The researchers wanted to better understand whether horses recognise and understand a range of human emotions through their facial expressions combine with their voices.

I’m told by Tong Whipple, The Science Editor, of The Times, that the scientists employed a technique used in studying baby cognition.

There were 28 participating horses. They were shown two videos side-by-side, as I understand it, of the same person. In one the person had a happy face. In the other it was sad. Simultaneously they heard happy and sad voices.

Only one of the videos made sense in that the voice corresponded with the video. The others did not make sense.

They found that the horses spent longer looking at the incongruent videos when there was a mismatch between the expression and the voice as if to try and work out what was going on and they appeared to be puzzled and surprised.

They also found that the horses spent longer overall looking at the pictures of happy faces and voices which suggested that they preferred to be with happy people.

Océane Liehrmann, who I believe is the lead scientist, said that the response of the horses implied that they had a level of sophistication in respect of emotional and cognitive appreciation that we previously hadn’t attributed to horses.

She added:

This is interesting because it would mean that when horses observe our faces and hear our voices, they don’t just see and hear separate things, but they are able to match them across different modalities.


At the moment we don’t know whether horses understand what it’s like to be sad or happy. Comment: we do know that cats and dogs are able to feel these basic emotions i.e. happiness and sadness and therefore I would expect that horses can too. I’d be very surprised if they didn’t.

Research suggests that horses expect us to have a match between a facial expression and our voice and perhaps other behaviours.

Liehrmann added that, “You could imagine that they have a particular box in their mind labelled ‘human sadness’ containing the characteristics of both a human sad face and a human sad voice.”

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Post Category: Horses > anatomy