Horses communicate with their eyes and mobile ears

Aug 04, 2014
Author Jennifer Wathan is shown with study participant Bartie. Credit: Jennifer Wathan

Horses are sensitive to the facial expressions and attention of other horses, including the direction of the eyes and ears. The findings, reported in the Cell Press journal Current Biology on August 4, are a reminder for us humans to look beyond our own limitations and recognize that other species may communicate in ways that we can't, the researchers say. After all, human ears aren't mobile.

"Our study is the first to examine a potential cue to that humans do not have: the ears," says Jennifer Wathan of the University of Sussex. "Previous work investigating communication of attention in animals has focused on cues that humans use: body orientation, head orientation, and eye gaze; no one else had gone beyond that. However, we found that in their ear position was also a crucial visual signal that other horses respond to. In fact, horses need to see the detailed of both eyes and ears before they use another horse's head direction to guide them."

The new study also challenges the earlier held notion that animals with eyes to the sides of their heads cannot glean information based on the direction of one another's gaze.

Wathan and the study's senior author Karen McComb took photographs to document cues given by horses when they were paying attention to something. Then Wathan and McComb used those photographs as life-sized models for other horses to look at as they chose between two feeding buckets. In each case, the horse in the photo was paying attention to one of the buckets and not the other. In some instances, the researchers also manipulated the image to remove information from key facial areas, including the eyes and the ears.

This video is not supported by your browser at this time.
Credit: Jennifer Wathan

The researchers' observations show that horses rely on the head orientation of their peers to locate food. However, that ability to read each other's interest level is disrupted when parts of the face—the eyes and —are covered up with masks. The ability to correctly judge attention also varied depending on the identity of the horse pictured, suggesting that individual facial features may be important, the researchers report.

Wathan and McComb plan to continue to explore facial features related to the expression of emotion in their horses, noting that horses' rich social lives and close relationship to humans make them particularly interesting as study subjects. Our understanding of horses' social lives might also have implications for their welfare.

"Horses display some of the same complex and fluid social organization that we have as humans and that we also see in chimpanzees, elephants, and dolphins," Wathan says. "The challenges that living in these societies create, such as maintaining valuable social relationships on the basis of unpredictable interactions, are thought to have promoted the evolution of advanced social and communicative skills. There is a general interest in studying species with this social structure."

Explore further: Veterinarians advise ways to avoid infection while traveling with horses

More information: Paper: Current Biology, Wathan et al.: "The eyes and ears are visual indicators of attention in domestic horses."

Related Stories

Humans aren't the only ones with obesity problems

Apr 24, 2007

Horses are inheritably couch potatoes. An overeating, slothful horse leads to an obese horse. Unlike humans, however, horse owners often don’t see the dangers of an obese horse. Caretakers may see no harm ...

Recommended for you

Scientists discover new 'transformer frog' in Ecuador

4 hours ago

It doesn't turn into Prince Charming, but a new species of frog discovered in Ecuador has earned the nickname "transformer frog" for its ability to change its skin from spiny to smooth in five minutes.

US gives threatened status to northern long-eared bat

7 hours ago

The federal government said Wednesday that it is listing the northern long-eared bat as threatened, giving new protections to a species that has been nearly wiped out in some areas by the spread of a fungal ...

Mice sing like songbirds to woo mates

8 hours ago

Male mice sing surprisingly complex songs to seduce females, sort of like songbirds, according to a new Duke study appearing April 1 in the Frontiers of Behavioral Neuroscience.

A new crustacean species found in Galicia

8 hours ago

One reason that tourists are attracted to Galicia is for its food. The town of O Grove (Pontevedra) is well known for its Seafood Festival and the Spider Crab Festival. A group of researchers from the University ...

Ants in space find it tougher going than those on Earth

10 hours ago

(Phys.org)—The results of a study conducted to see how well ants carry out their search activities in space are in, and the team that sent them there has written and published the results in the journal ...

Rats found able to recognize pain in other rat faces

10 hours ago

(Phys.org)—A team of researchers working in Japan with affiliations to several institutions in that country, has found that lab rats are able to recognize pain in the faces of other rats and avoid them ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Jim4321
2.3 / 5 (3) Aug 04, 2014
Uh, horses put their ears back when they are about to attack or they think that something is about to attack them. This is presumably to keep their ears from being bitten off if they get in a fight. Obviously, one of the first things a horse does when meeting a conspecific is decide whether the other horse is in attack mode -- ie by looking at the position of the ears. Similarly, subordinate horses will monitor the ear position of the dominant horse to see if they are about to get chastised for something --for example, getting in front of the dominant horse, or getting better feed than the dominant horse etc. Its amazing what gets published these days. Next thing, there will be an empirical survey about the social perception concerning the possibility that rocks fall.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.