Horses read human body language — including total strangers

November 08, 2017

Which do you think is less intimidating to a horse: when you strike a dominant pose, legs spread and hands on hips à la Wonder Woman, or when you shrink your shoulders, hands in pockets and chin down?

Horses know the difference between these two poses, according to recent research from the University of Sussex in England, even if the human they’re watching is completely unknown to them. The research hopefully leads to better understanding of human-animal relations.

“The findings enhance our understanding of how animals can communicate using body posture across the species barrier,” say the authors of the study, “and are specifically helpful for informing horse handlers and trainers about the ways horses perceive human body language.”

Here’s how the study was conducted: two female handlers, dressed similarly with neck warmers to cover facial expressions that might have influenced the horses, stood a short distance apart. One would stand in a dominating pose; the other in a more submissive one. The horse — about 30 were tested in all — would be allowed to approach one of them. In most cases, the horses gravitated towards the woman displaying a submissive posture. Before each trial, the horses were given food rewards by both handlers to eliminate any kind of favoritism.

Researchers believe the preference towards the submissive pose is because in nature, more submissive creatures are safer for horses than aggressive predators that display dominant body signals.

The Clever Hans effect

One of the lead authors of the study brought up a historical issue with studies about animal smartness: the Clever Hans effect.

“Horses are often thought to be good at reading human body language based on anecdotal evidence such as the Clever Hans effect,” said Amy Smith, co-lead author of the study. “However, little research has tested this empirically.”

What is the Clever Hans effect? It’s based on a famous German horse named Clever Hans, who lived in the early 20th century. Allegedly, Clever Hans could perform simple math, and demonstrated his talents in traveling shows. However, a psychologist named Oskar Pfungst found that rather than actually performing these mental tasks, the horse was merely responding to the unintentional body language of his human trainer. The influence of humans on animals being studied for their cognitive abilities has since been known as the Clever Hans effect.

The study, like the Clever Hans effect, shows that horses understand even signals we don’t realize we’re giving off.

“Results like these encourage us to be more conscious of the signals we exhibit when interacting with horses and other animals to facilitate a smooth animal-human relationship,” said Clara Wilson, another co-author.

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