Why horses are so in tune with human emotion
Ryan Tehini, MA
Anyone who has spent extended periods of time around horses will agree that they are remarkably astute at reading and responding to human emotions. In fact, in the scientific world, their ability to recognise emotions in people’s voice and facial expressions has been found to be comparable to that of dogs and primates. This begs the question: what makes horses so efficient at reading and responding to human emotion? The answer to this question is provided by the emerging scientific field of Interpersonal Neurobiology, which posits that horses have the keen ability to decipher human emotion because they uniquely possess an abundance of a specific class of brain cells, known as mirror neurons.
What are mirror neurons?
Mirror neurons are a class of brain cells that allow people to recognise and empathise with emotion seen in other living things. Essentially, they afford us the ability to adopt another person’s point of view and see things from their perspective.
In order to wholly comprehend mirror neurons, it is necessary first to have a brief understanding of motor-command neurons. Motor-command neurons are cells that fire when a specific action is performed. For instance, one cell will fire to lift your arm, a second will fire when you grab a chocolate, and a third will fire to put the chocolate in your mouth. In examining these motor-command neurons in monkeys, researchers in Italy noted something quite peculiar. They found that some of the neurons would fire not only when a monkey performed an action, but also when he watched another monkey perform the same action. This was astounding because it showed that these neurons were communicating intent. As it was eloquently put by Dr Ramachandran, a neuroscientist out of San Diego, the higher functions were essentially saying “The same neuron is firing in my brain as would be firing if I were reaching for a banana. Therefore that monkey must be intending to reach for a banana.” The neurons that fire when we are not directly performing an action, but watching it, are mirror neurons, and they are nature’s own virtual reality simulators. Mirror neurons are responsible for things like second-hand embarrassment, feeling sad when others cry, and getting scared when you watch a horror movie even when you know you are in no direct danger.
Horses and mirror neurons
In terms of horse neurobiology, it has broadly been theorised that horses have the most mirror neurons in the animal kingdom and that the system by which they pick up on our emotions is largely similar to that found in dogs. However, unlike dogs, few studies have investigated horses’ awareness of human emotion, but the few that have, have demonstrated very promising results.
In this regard, recent studies have indicated that horses are so in tune with human emotion that they can detect and remember even the subtlest changes in facial expressions. More impressively, horses could even detect when a person’s tone of voice was incongruent with their facial expression (e.g. someone was smiling while yelling) and when it was congruent (e.g. someone frowning while yelling).
All of these results are likely the result of mirror neurons and provide a brief window into understanding these complex animals, and how they are so adept at non-verbal communication.
An evolutionary basis
It is suggested by evolutionary psychology that horses are notably fluent in non-verbal communication because they are prey animals in the wild. Thus, horses had to develop ways of communicating amongst themselves that did not give away their position to predators. This adaptation is thought to have caused horses to become particularly skilled at non-verbal communication and the reading of subtle emotion and may have even caused the maturation of mirror neurons.
Horses and humans
The wealth of mirror neurons in horses means that they are especially empathetic and proficient at building relationships with each other and with people. The result of this is that horses and humans can engage in social communication on a neurological level. As we have seen, horses can not only read human facial expressions, but they can also remember a person’s previous emotional state. This alone is an impressive feat, but horses do one other thing that is seldom seen outside of human cognition: they adapt their behaviour according to the emotion. The emotional intelligence of a horse is such that they do not just read and understand human emotions, but they remember emotions, accurately interpret them, and adjust their behaviour based on this information. Furthermore, horses can do all of this even in people with whom they have had no prior interaction.
While it is commonly known that horses are socially intelligent animals, this was the first time any mammal has shown to have this particular ability (other than humans). This means that even though horses and people are unable to communicate directly through language, the line of communication between horses and people is uncommonly strong and coherent when compared to other animals.
These results have had far-reaching consequences, not just in the equestrian world, but also in that of animal-assisted therapy. Over the past decade, horses have become increasingly common in assisting people with grief, trauma, and other life adjustments. The logic behind this is that horses are particularly good at picking up the most subtle emotions in people, and they adjust their behaviour to soothe adverse emotions. This assists people in learning new ways to self-regulate, as the empathetic and accepting nature of the horse in interaction with the patient has been found to promote positive psychological wellbeing through stress reduction. There is an abundance of horse-person interactions that have been considered therapeutic, ranging from mounted activities (such as riding) to unmounted activities (such as caring for the horses). In fact, the ancient Greeks would often prescribe horse riding to improve psychological and physical wellbeing. While the integration of animal-assisted intervention into mainstream health is somewhat lacking, it has recently gained a fair degree of empirical recognition in promoting mental health. If animal-assisted therapy interests you, I recommend reading some of the work done by Dr Nicoleen Coetzee, from the University of Pretoria.
All of this is indicative that the non-verbal nature of horses’ communication, coupled with the abundance of mirror neurons they possess, allows them to be remarkably in tune with human emotion. These findings have had significant ramifications within the field of sport psychology, and in the coming months, this section will further explore the field of sport and performance psychology as it directly pertains to the horse rider.