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Horses have complex emotions, but interpreting them has proven difficult

Researchers in England have made a breakthrough in understanding the emotional lives of horses. In a recent study, they have pinpointed distinct facial expressions that differentiate between frustration and disappointment in horses.

The research team is composed of Claire Ricci-Bonot and Daniel Simon Mills from the University of Lincoln. The study involved a series of tests that centered on the availability of food as a reward, which they conducted on a diverse group of 31 horses, aged 2 to 23.

“There is good reason to suppose that horses live in an emotionally complex world,” the researchers wrote in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science

Horses have an intricate communication system

According to the researchers, horses are not just social animals. They also possess an intricate system of communication that involves subtle visual signals like eye direction, ear position, and, importantly, facial expressions.

However, the experts noted a prevalent issue: the common misunderstanding of horses’ negative emotions. Most of the time, the emotions horses express are misread or overlooked altogether. This problem is partly because much of our understanding of horse expressions comes from anecdotes, lacking in scientific evidence.

How the study was conducted

Ricci-Bonot and Mills set out to bring science into this arena. They trained the horses to anticipate a food reward in a controlled environment. The food, in the form of pellets, was placed inside a clear acrylic screen. After a wait of 10 seconds, the screen was moved back, making the food accessible.

Once the horses had familiarized themselves with this process and the 10-second wait, the researchers conducted tests under three different conditions. 

The first scenario created anticipation of the reward, considered a positive emotional state. The second was a frustration phase, where the horses had to wait for a minute before they could reach the food. The third stage was a disappointment phase, where the horses found no food after the wait. The second and third situations were considered negative emotional states.

To accurately gauge the horses’ reactions, all interactions were videotaped for later examination. These videos were analyzed using the Horse Facial Action Coding System (EquiFACS), which objectively records facial movements based on muscle contractions.

What the researchers learned

While the researchers couldn’t pin down facial markers for anticipation, they found a set of nine distinct actions that occurred under the scenarios of frustration and disappointment. When frustrated, horses often revealed more of the whites of their eyes, rotated their ears more, and tended to turn their heads to the left more frequently than when disappointed.

On the other hand, disappointment was characterized by increased blinking, nostril-lifting, showing the tongue more often, and more frequent chewing behaviors. These horses also exhibited a tendency to lick the feeder. Frustration, rather than disappointment, prompted horses to bite the feeder.

Gender also plays a role in how horses emote their feelings

In addition, the researchers found a gender difference in the disappointment phase, with female horses blinking more than their male counterparts.

According to Ricci-Bonot and Mills, these findings show that specific facial expressions can potentially help discern a horse’s emotional state. “The results highlight how there may be different qualities of a given emotional valence (frustration and disappointment) which can be distinguished from the facial expressions shown at the time,” they wrote.

However, the researchers added a note of caution, stating that these results might only be applicable in feeding situations, underlining the need for further research. Another question raised by their study is whether the anticipation of food is truly a positive event for horses, as they were unable to identify facial markers for this state.

The study marks a significant stride in understanding horse emotions, and their research could open the door to improving our interactions and overall relationship with these remarkable animals.

More about horses 

Horses, or Equus ferus caballus, are large mammals within the family Equidae. Domesticated over 5,000 years ago, they have been used by humans in a wide variety of roles, including transportation, work, sport, companionship, and therapy.

Anatomy and physiology

Horses are known for their size and strength. They typically stand around 4.5-6 feet at the shoulder and can weigh anywhere from 900 to 2,200 pounds, although size can vary greatly among different breeds. Horses have a well-muscled body, a long neck, and a head with large, expressive eyes.

A horse’s teeth can tell you a lot about its age because they continue to grow throughout most of a horse’s life. Horses have a digestive system designed for grazing, with a small stomach but a very large cecum where fiber from grasses and hay is broken down.

Horses have hooves made of keratin, the same substance that forms human hair and nails. These hooves require regular care from a farrier to prevent foot problems. Their legs are strong and designed for speed, with most of the power coming from large muscles in the hindquarters.


Horses are social herd animals and establish a hierarchy known as a “pecking order.” They communicate with each other through vocalizations, body language, and facial expressions. Horses are crepuscular, which means they are most active during dawn and dusk.

Horses are prey animals and have a strong flight or fight response. Their large eyes, set on the side of their head, give them a wide field of vision to spot predators. They also have excellent hearing and a good sense of balance.

Breeds and uses 

There are over 300 different breeds of horses, which can be categorized into three types: hot-bloods, cold-bloods, and warm-bloods. Hot-bloods, like Arabians and Thoroughbreds, are known for their speed and endurance. 

Cold-bloods, like Clydesdales and Shires, are heavier and known for their strength and calm demeanor. Warm-bloods, a mix of the two, are often used in riding competitions, such as show jumping and dressage.

Horses have been used by humans for various purposes, including agriculture, warfare, transportation, and companionship. Today, they’re commonly seen in equestrian sports, police work, and therapeutic riding programs. They’re also often kept as pets or used for leisure activities.


Horses are seasonal breeders, most often in the spring and summer. The gestation period lasts about 11 months, and the mare usually gives birth to a single foal. Twins are rare. Within a few hours of birth, the foal is able to stand and run.

Health and lifespan

Horses have a lifespan of around 25 to 30 years, although many live into their 30s and a few into their 40s. They require regular veterinary care, including vaccinations and deworming. Common health problems include colic, lameness, and respiratory diseases.

Horses also need a balanced diet and plenty of exercise to stay healthy. They are grazing animals and will naturally spend many hours a day eating grass or hay. They need access to clean water, mineral salt licks, and possibly supplemental feeds, depending on their work level and health status.


Horses are intelligent animals capable of problem-solving and learning through conditioning. They also show emotional responses and have good memories. Research, like the study mentioned earlier, is continuously deepening our understanding of horse cognition and emotional life.

Horses are fascinating, complex creatures with a rich history alongside humans. Their significant contributions to various aspects of human civilization, from transportation and agriculture to sports and warfare, have made them an integral part of our history and culture. Moreover, their unique combination of strength, grace, and intelligence has endeared them to people worldwide.

Emotional intelligence

Horses display a remarkable level of emotional intelligence. They can read and respond to human emotions, making them effective in therapeutic settings. This sensitivity to emotions is also apparent in their herd dynamics, where they communicate through a sophisticated system of body language and vocal cues.

Riding and training 

The ability to ride horses has been a valuable skill throughout history. Riding styles vary greatly, including Western (often used for ranch work and rodeo events) and English (used in sport disciplines like show jumping, dressage, and eventing).

Training a horse requires understanding its mentality as a prey animal. Positive reinforcement and gentle methods tend to be the most effective and are part of a philosophy known as “natural horsemanship.”

Impact on culture and history 

Horses have deeply impacted human culture and history. Horse-drawn chariots and cavalry units were key components of many ancient armies. Horsepower played a crucial role in agricultural societies for plowing fields and transportation.

In the modern age, while their role has decreased with mechanization, horses remain symbolically potent. They appear in numerous mythologies, artworks, literature, and are often associated with qualities like power, grace, nobility, and freedom.

Preservation and conservation 

Many breeds of horses have come under threat due to changes in agricultural practices and mechanization. Efforts are being made to conserve these breeds and maintain genetic diversity within the species. Organizations worldwide are dedicated to the welfare and protection of horses, aiming to prevent cruelty and neglect.


Understanding horses, their behavior, physiology, and history helps us appreciate these magnificent creatures more fully. It can also enhance the ways we train, work with, and care for horses. From Ricci-Bonot and Mills’ study of horse emotions to ongoing conservation efforts, our relationship with horses continues to evolve, striving towards more informed, respectful, and empathetic interactions. 

Despite the vast knowledge we’ve already acquired, horses remain fascinating subjects of study, continuing to captivate us with their strength, grace, and complexity.


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