Our new work on horses focuses on the role of a range of cognitive abilities in social success.  In particular, we are exploring their abilities to read emotional and attentional cues in conspecifics and humans.

Following on from our original work on cross-modal individual recognition of conspecifics in horses (awarded the PNAS Cozzarelli Prize in 2008: see link to paper below), we have recently demonstrated that horses are also capable of cross-modal recognition of individual humans – correctly matching different human handlers to playbacks of their voices (Proops & McComb, 2012: §see press release and paper)
Facial expressions in horses

We are currently working with an international team to investigate the facial expressions that horses use.  We are beginning by documenting exactly how horses can move their faces in a systematic and detailed way. 
Can you help us?
To do this, we need many, many hours of video footage of horses pulling different facial expressions.  If you have some video of your horses that you would like to share with the project, we would love to hear from you.

It doesn’t matter what situation the horses are in.  If you have videos of horses doing something interesting or unusual with their face (like flehem) this will be very useful.  However, if you have video of horses that look like they are not doing a lot (even if they are sleeping), this may still be valuable.  We want to try and get footage of horses in every situation possible. 

We are also particularly interested in expressions pulled when horses are in fear or pain, because of the potential implications this may have in veterinary and welfare practice.  However, obviously we do not want to cause any fear or pain to any horses.  If you happen to have some video that has been captured opportunistically, i.e. when horses have encountered these situations in their daily lives, we would be very grateful if you would share it with us.   We would also be interested in hearing from any veterinary practices that would be interested in participating in the project. 

So, if you have some video where there is a clear view on the horses’ face and you are willing to share this with the project, then please e-mail these to Jen Wathan at: j.wathan@sussex.ac.uk.  
Ideally video will have a close up view of the horse’s face, that is either from the front or the side – you do not have to be able to see the whole of the horse’s face at once.  It also does not matter how long or short the video is, even a few seconds will be gratefully received!  By e-mailing video to us, you are agreeing that we can use this footage in the project.  This may include manuals and publications, however it will never be used for commercial use or gain. 

If you would like more information about this project or our other work please browse the rest of this website, or contact j.wathan@sussex.ac.uk with any specific questions.   

We look forward to hearing from you! 
This research is funded by the University of Sussex, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, and a University of Sussex Alumni travel grant, awarded to Jen Wathan. 

Horse-horse interactions: Individual vocal recognition

Individual recognition is considered a complex process and although it is believed to be widespread across animal taxa, it is difficult to demonstrate conclusively. Individual recognition requires not only discrimination at the individual level, but also the recognition that current sensory cues to identity match stored information about that specific individual. We used a novel cross-modal, expectancy violation paradigm to provide clear and systematic evidence that a nonhuman animal - the domestic horse - is capable of individual vocal recognition. Subjects watched a herd member being led past them before the individual went out of view and a call from that or a different associate was played from a loudspeaker positioned close to the point of disappearance. When horses were shown one associate and then played the call of a different associate, they responded quicker and looked significantly longer in the direction of the call than when the call matched the herd member just seen, an indication that the incongruent combination violated their expectations. Thus horses appear to possess a cross-modal representation of known individuals containing unique auditory and visual/olfactory information and are capable of individual vocal recognition. We suggest that this paradigm provides a powerful way to study individual recognition across a large number of species.

Proops L., McComb K., & Reby D. (2009). Cross-modal Individual Recognition in Domestic Horses (Equus caballus). Proceedings of The National Academy of Sciences 106, 947-951. pdf.

Horse-horse interactions: Acoustic structure of whinnies

Whinnies, the long distance contact call of horses, are rich and complex vocalizations. Although most of us are familiar with the sound, surprisingly little research has been conducted into their acoustic properties. Our aim is to develop a detailed description of these calls and to identify the acoustic features that have the potential to encode individual identity.

Horse-human interactions: Attention attribution

The ability of domestic animals to understand human communication is a topic that interests both researchers and pet owners alike. To date most work has focused on the extraordinary ability of dogs to read human cues but very few comparisons have been made between the social skills of dogs and other domestic animals. We tested the ability of horses to choose between an attentive and non-attentive person when choosing whom to approach for food. Horses were found to be highly sensitive to human body cues. They also showed some ability to use human pointing and tapping gestures to locate hidden food but were unable to use gaze or body orientation cues alone. These results taken together suggest that domestic horses are also very sensitive to human attentional cues, including gaze. By exploring the nature of horse-human interactions it is hoped that this research will not only tell us more about the relationship between people and domestic horses but also about how these skills have been shaped by the selective pressures of domestication.


School of Psychology