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Tone of the human voice affects emotional state of domestic animals including horses

Talking to your horse in melodious tones is the right way

Domestic animal caregivers should talk to their animal companions politely in melodious and pleasant tones as they know when you’re angry and when you are expressing that anger in your voice. As a result, they become upset according to a study of horses and pigs. Observant cat owners and scientists who have run studies know that dogs and cats can read emotion in a human voice. They can tell the difference between negative and positive tones in the sound of the voice. In this instance, scientists wanted to find out if horses and pigs responded in the same way.

Talking to your horse in melodious tones is the right way

Talking to your horse in melodious tones is the right way. Image: iStock (modified).

And you can guess the outcome, otherwise I wouldn’t be writing about it! It seems that the phrase “horse whisperer” is very apt because if you whisper and speak gently to a horse you can obtain far more positive results.

In the study they assessed how horses responded to angry and joyful sounds from animals of their own species, made by their wild or domestic cousins and by humans.

The sounds were played to the animals through loudspeakers. They were meaningless sounds in terms of the spoken word created by actors with the intention of communicating either a positive or negative tone or, indeed, anger.

They recorded the positive animal noises while the horses were feeding, playing and socialising. The negative sounds were recorded during periods of isolation.

Elodie Briefer, a behavioural biologist at the University of Copenhagen said: “Our results show that these animals are affected by the emotions we charge our voices with when we speak to or are around them. They react more strongly – generally faster – when they are met with a negatively charged voice, compared with having a positively charged voice played to them first. In certain situations, they even seem to mirror the emotion to which they are exposed.”

They assessed the reactions of domesticated horses and wild Przewalki horses native to Asia. And they studied domesticated pigs and wild boars.

They assessed how they responded in terms of whether they stopped eating, flatten their ears, moved around or stood still, moved their tails or tilted their head to the side.

The study is published in the journal BMC Biology. In conclusion they stated in the report: “Domestic horses, Przewalki horses and pigs seem to discriminate between positive and negative vocalisations produced not only by [members of their own species], but also by [members of other species], including humans.”

Further they stated that: “Our results suggest that the valence [positivity or negativity in tone] of human voice can have an impact on the emotional states of domestic and captive animals.”

The effects on individual animal were less pronounced in wild boars when communicated to buy humans compared to sounds from their own or related species. Briefer thought that further research was required to investigate the extent to which animals have an emotional life and whether they can be self-conscious.

This is a long-standing discussion; whether animals are self-aware or self-conscious. In my view they are not but I am open to correction. They studied the wild animals in parks or zoos where they were of course captive but undomesticated.

The study with horses must impact the quality of cat caregiving. I can remember about 14 years ago watching a video on YouTube of a man yelling at his Maine Coon cats in an effort to create an amusing video. It was objectionable. I believe the video is still on YouTube. There is nothing amusing about that kind of treatment.

The study will not educate observant and careful cat care givers because they already know that their cat responds positively to a melodious and friendly voice and fearfully when the voice sounds angry and aggressive.

Below are some more pages on horses.