Why the long face? Horses can sense negative and positive emotions

In this podcast, Dr. Elodie Briefer talks to us about her work at ETH, Zürich. Her team looked at the response in domestic horses to whinnies (high pitched neighing) from both familiar and unfamiliar conspecifics. They showed that horses can perceive acoustic cues to both valence and familiarity present in whinnies and that this is similar to the perception of linguistic rhythm found in humans.

Emotional perception regulates social interaction and animals need to know whether or not they should approach or avoid another. It’s important, therefore, to see if different animals perceive emotions in a similar way.

Elodie and her team played positive and negative whinnies to a group of domestic horses. They chose familiar sounds (from horses at the same farm) and unfamiliar from horses elsewhere. They learned that horses reacted differently to familiar and unfamiliar whinnies and perceived the difference between positive and negative in familiar whinnies but not in unfamiliar.

As a result of this, there may implications for animal welfare. Elodie suggests that horses should be kept in pairs rather than in individual housing so that they can express their social behaviours.

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