It’s well known that dogs can read human body language, but they’re not the only animals that can.
New research has found that horses can tell the difference between dominant and submissive body postures in humans, even when the person is not familiar to them.
The findings improve our understanding of how animals can communicate across the species barrier using body posture, and they’re specifically helpful for informing horse handlers and trainers about the way horses perceive human body language.
Researchers based at the University of Sussex and the University of Portsmouth worked with 30 domestic horses to see whether they were more likely to approach a person displaying a dominant body posture (standing straight, with arms and legs apart and chest expanded), or a submissive posture (slouching, keeping arms and legs close to the body, relaxed knees).
The researchers found that even when the horses had been given food rewards previously by each person when they were in a neutral body posture, the horses were significantly more likely to approach the individual displaying a submissive rather than a dominant posture.
“Horses are often thought to be good at reading human body language based on anecdotal evidence such as the Clever Hans effect”, said Amy Smith, co-lead author of the study and psychology doctoral student.
“However, little research has tested this empirically. These results raise interesting questions about the flexibility of cross-species communication”, she added.
Last year Amy, who is part of the Mammal Vocal Communication and Cognition Research Group at the University of Sussex, co-led a study that found that horses were able to distinguish between angry and happy human facial expressions.
“Evolutionarily speaking, animals – including humans – tend to use larger postures to indicate dominance, or threat, and smaller postures to indicate submissiveness”, said Dr. Leanne Proops, a researcher at the University of Portsmouth.
“Horses may therefore have an instinctual understanding of larger vs. smaller postures”, she added.
The researchers said they were interested in dominant and submissive postures with horses specifically because although many trainers use posture as a training cue, not much research has investigated whether horses would be sensitive to these cues without any specific training.
“Results like these encourage us to be more conscious of the signals we exhibit when interacting with horses and other animals to facilitate a smooth animal-human relationship”, said Clara Wilson, who co-authored the research while an undergraduate at the University of Sussex.
To conduct the study, researchers recruited horses at three equestrian centers in Suffolk and East Sussex in England.
All the handlers were women, dressed in similar clothing and of similar size, and they wore a dark neck warmer to cover their faces to eye level to minimize facial expression cues.
The horses, which had previously been fed by two people, were given a free choice to approach either the person displaying the dominant or the submissive body posture.
After four trials, the researchers found that the horses preferred approaching the person in the submissive body posture, rather than showing a preference for an individual handler or a particular side.
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