The hooves of horses have been an instrumental part of the rise of modern human civilization. We have worked side by side with horses for the past 5,000 years – hauling plows, pulling carriages or carrying soldiers into battle.
A very strange partnership – a predator and a one-ton prey, but humans and horses have been able to successfully talk across the species barrier mostly because of one shared trait: emotion. Any experienced horse rider will tell you they can read the small changes in moods of individual horses. An irritated flick of a tail or the concerned move of their eyes – once a rider knows the read the signs then he can see the emotions of his horse.
But the really cool thing is that horses can also pick up on human emotions. Though the modern domesticated horse is no longer a furious roaming stallion, the ability to pick up on emotions comes from their older generations. When horses roamed the open plains they did so as bands of five to ten. These bands had social orders and formed close relationships.
Basically, humans have become part of the herd which is why domestic horses respond to changes in voice, pitch, and tone. They can even understand things like quality of touch and the stiffness of a rider’s body. This is already quite an amazing talent, but they can also read facial expressions.
This is something that was thought only to be seen in dogs. A team of researchers showed 28 horses large photos of a man’s face either making a positive smile or an angry face. The horses were able to distinguish the difference. And what they meant! This is an amazing skill for a domestic horse because let us be honest if a human approaches you with an angry face it probably is not going to be for a happy reason.
The question remains, however, is this an ancestry trait or a skill domesticated riding horses have learned after generations of interacting with humans?