I recently read an article about a study Psychologists completed at Sussex University regarding the horse’s ability to read emotion in a human’s face. The scientists reported that horses are able to distinguish between positive and negative emotions in humans, based on their facial expression. One of the notable reactions to the human’s angry facial expressions was a quick increase in the horse’s heart rate.
I found this information very interesting. Being so involved with horses, and seeing how in tune they are to other aspects of human emotion, I always assumed horses could recognize some aspect of human emotion. It’s nice to see that research now proves it. That being said, I think it is important for people who own and work with horses to think about how this new information will affect their interactions with their horses.
The horse that spooks at the judge’s stand when showing. The horse that won’t cross a shallow creek on the trail. The horse that nips at you when it’s feeding time. The horse that nearly pulls your arm out of it’s socket when lunging. The horse that won’t load in your friend’s new trailer for a ride. How do you react to these situations? Are you helping your horse or is your reaction making things worse?
I am jokingly criticized by my family and those close to me about the lack of emotion I display. Don’t take this to the extreme, when big events and life changing things happen I feel like I react in a typical manner. However, on a day to day basis, I tend to remain very level headed and objective in my encounters. Where my humorous, playful, and social, husband, may view this as detrimental. I believe my horses thank me for it.
I am not one to become frustrated or angry with the horse for not responding to something in the way I was intending for him to. I operate in a very sequential and rhythmic pattern, following a specific set of principles and methods which I believe help to alleviate the need for me to react to a horse’s behavior in some negative emotion. There is a quote by Buck Brannaman which reads, “It’s been a long time since I was afraid. Fear has to do with helplessness. The only thing that conquers it is knowledge. When you learn about how a horse thinks and makes decisions, that helplessness goes away.” I feel that the same can be said for negative emotions such as frustration and anger. You see a lot of people reacting with frustration and anger at their horses. When the handler runs out of knowledge and doesn’t understand well enough how the horse operates, to better assist their horse in the task at hand, anger and frustration can easily surface. It is best to keep those emotions at bay and seek help when you need it. I don’t have all of the answers, and I’m really not sure anyone does. But I believe it is in the horse’s best interest to remain calm, focus on the task, and try to determine what you can do to help your horse, rather than react quickly in a way that may hinder progress.
Gaining that knowledge, and gaining education of any kind, involves reflection. I encourage everyone reading this to take a moment to reflect on this new study, which now proves that horses can read negative emotions, and ask yourselves, “Does this change the way I interact with my horse?”
I am a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA), who has taken my knowledge in Applied Behavior Analysis, and the methodology of expert horse trainers, to create an Equine training program that is anything but average. Working with my own horses has led me to discover my passion for not just training horses, but practicing quality horsemanship. For the best interest of the horses, I hope to spread this interest in quality horsemanship.