Why the Long Face? Horses and Humans Share Facial Expressions

Horses use some surprisingly similar facial expressions to humans and chimps to communicate: Study

2 min read

Horses use some surprisingly similar facial expressions to humans and chimps to communicate, according to a new study. 

Researchers from the University of Sussex have shown that, like humans, horses use muscles underlying various facial features - including their nostrils, lips and eyes - to alter their facial expressions in a variety of social situations.

The findings suggest evolutionary parallels in different species in how the face is used for communication.

The study identified 17 “action units” (discrete facial movements) in horses, this compares with 27 in humans, 13 in chimps and 16 in dogs.

Horses are predominantly visual animals, with eyesight that’s better than domestic cats and dogs, yet their use of facial expressions has been largely overlooked. What surprised us was the rich repertoire of complex facial movements in horses, and how many of them are similar to humans. Despite the differences in face structure between horses and humans, we were able to identify some similar expressions in relation to movements of the lips and eyes. What we’ll now be looking at is how these expressions relate to emotional states.

—Jennifer Wathan, the study’s co-lead author, doctoral researcher

The researchers analysed video footage of a wide range of naturally occurring horse behaviours to identify all the different movements it is possible for horses to make with their face.

“It was previously thought that, in terms of other species, the further away an animal was from humans, the more rudimentary their use of facial expressions would be,” said co-lead author Professor Karen McComb.

“Through the development of EquiFACS, however, it’s apparent that horses, with their complex and fluid social systems, also have an extensive range of facial movements and share many of these with humans and other animals.

“This contributes to a growing body of evidence suggesting that social factors have had a significant influence on the evolution of facial expression,” she said.

The study was published in the journal PLOS ONE.

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