…. one more reason to act mindful.

“You can’t rely on a horse that obeys by fear. There will always be something that the horse is more afraid of than the rider. But if it trusts its rider, it will ask him what to do if it is afraid.”

– Antoine Pluvinel, 1555-1625

Frauke Musial & Celina Skogan

Science is re-discovering the importance and complexity of the equine mind. A knowledge, that riding masters of all ages where very well aware off. Today, Frauke is discussing a study where the most recent technical possibilities are used to test the equine’s mental reaction on human voices.

Historically, riding masters were usually working for a lord or a king and/or their army, were responsible to educate the equine not only for pleasure, but also for cavalry use. We need to keep in mind, that during this time, serving the cavalry meant one on one combat. Under these conditions, not only the physical movability of the equine, but as well its mental state and willingness, was a vital factor for survival and victory. Imagine a warhorse that reverses, and runs away the moment, it becomes aware of the enemy! Especially in potentially threatening situations like this, the bond in between human and horse was fundamental. The education of the horse, it’s training for these situation had to be conducted mainly by the nobleman himself, as otherwise the horse wouldn’t rely on him in those crucial moments. Training and education was performed by the supervision of a riding master. This peculiar bond of love and closeness between the human and equine often went so far that the horse of a nobleman was buried together with or next to its master.

A lot of this knowledge apparently got lost, somewhere in the last century, together with the knowledge of how to reach and to work with the equine body and mind. Next to the loss of an enormous amount of knowledge during the World Wars, the human mindset of seeing the world through the industrialization glasses has changed the approach to nature in general and towards horses in particular. What once was a viable, lifelong relationship in between man and equine, became a random, often easy changeable usage of the equine. There is little time for uptraining and preparing a horse for it’s job, though. Keep in mind that in old days, a youngster was mature after the stallion teeth grew out (in between 4,5 to 6 years), and 10 years of education were seen as normal until its full capacity was reached. How many horses do you know today, who have a lifelong relationship with their rider, and only are trained by one single person? That is true for all areas, competing as well as leisure riding. The relationship between the human and the horse has changed and the horse has in many cases transformed to an object of consumption and into a status symbol. Going along with this phenomenon, a lot of handling and training issues appear.

What science says:

It has been only since a few years that the same non-invasive electrophysiological methods (electroencephalography, known as EEG), that are used to investigate human brains, are available for research on domestic animals, including the horse. The first published research results out of this methodological breakthrough are most fascinating and show that there are surprising similarities across species.

One very consistent finding across species is the so called “lateralization” in the processing of emotional stimuli. Lateralization means, that the two sides of the brain, the left and the right brain, process the emotional content of a stimulus differently. In humans e.g., stimuli with a negative emotional valence (“valence” in neuroscience describes the quality and significance of a stimulus or situation) are processed in the right hemisphere of the brain (mostly in the more frontal parts), while stimuli and experiences with a positive valence are processed in the left hemisphere (the left side of the brain, and here also mostly in the more frontal parts). This dominance of the right part of the brain for negative emotional valence has not only been shown for humans, but for several other species such as cats, monkeys, dogs, and horses. What is fascinating is, that the animals responded to vocalizations with a positive and/or negative valence likewise, independent of whether these vocalizations were from members of their own species, or of other species (for an overview see [1]).

In case that these findings of brain functions and emotional communication across species, where not fascinating enough, studies investigating human-animal interactions using vocalizations and measuring brain functions are even more interesting! It has been shown that dogs, as well as horses, meaning two species with a common history with humans of thousands of years, react to emotional human voices with lateralization of brain activity identical to that of humans: Human voices expressing sadness and fear were processed in the right hemisphere, while expressions of e.g. happiness were processed in the left hemisphere [2], [3]. These studies suggest that both species, dogs and horses are sensitive to the emotional content of human voices.

The study we are discussing in particular today [1] investigated the emotional behavioral response as well as the associated brain activity in response to human voices paired with a food associated positive or negative experience in 21 horses. The results showed a clear association of memories with a positive or negative valence to human voices reflected in the behavioral patterns (negative: ears back, turn away; positive: ears to the front, attentive) as well as brain activity lateralization. Thus, a clear association of past positive or negative interaction with corresponding memories.

In conclusion, horses build long lasting representations of humans including all sensory modalities. This means, that they build individual representations of humans according to how they look like (visual cues), their voices (acoustic and vocal cues), and even though this is less researched, how they smell (olfactory cues). This representation and the associated emotional appraisal, meaning the evaluation of “is this a friendly human or have I had negative experiences with her/him?” is constructed out of the emotional valence of past interactions. Studies show that horses trained with positive reinforcement (wanted behaviors are praised or associated with food) are more interested in humans and seek more social contact with them. The results of positive reinforcement as a training method stand in clear opposite to punishment or pressure-release as training methods, which elicited more stress in horses and resulted in less contact seeking behavior. These training related effects were still present after 6-8 months. In addition, the effect generalized to unfamiliar persons [4, 5].

What does this mean for us equestrians and everybody handling horses? These results provide hard data and confirm neurophysiological what many dog owners, but likewise many horse owners have reported anecdotical: Dogs and horses understand and react to our emotions, in their own way, but distinctively (see also our blog “Horses can read our emotions”).
These results have fundamental consequences for the training associated animal welfare. Training methods need to build upon positive interactions and a positive, friendly, and save training atmosphere and environment. This will not only build upon the horses’ needs, it will furthermore facilitate good training results. Using forceful training methods with pressure and punishment will most likely not result in the wanted effects, and in addition, based upon what we know out of equitation science, these training methods violate the horses’ nature and are detrimental for the horses’ well-being.

As already Newcastle stated in his book in 1658 “A horse needs to be taught like a boy that is taught to write and read”. The ancient academic way of teaching that e.g. Newcastle represented, considered these facts and builds upon a well thought through structure for both, human and horse.

Today, we humans often like to buy a “quick and easy fix”. Instead of developing into a horseperson and educating themselves, it is popular to invest into a “10-step program”, a system or opinion. But there is no one to pay, no system to buy, that can be used without reflection on an individual.

In the daily interaction with your horse, consider that horses are very aware of the fact that we are different species. Yet, they are interested in starting a conversation and social interaction with us, ready to learn our language and to detect our wishes. A major part of successful training is building a mutual language that both, horse and rider, understand. A horse will not understand a new “signal” better, just because you are shouting louder. The real challenge is putting effort into learning to build up a mutual language. A mutual understanding is opening the door not only to communication, friendship and finally gymnastics. It is opening the door as well to shared activities, like riding, jumping, cross country riding or whatever you two decide you enjoy.

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  1. d’Ingeo, S., et al., Horses associate individual human voices with the valence of past interactions: a behavioural and electrophysiological study. Sci Rep, 2019. 9(1): p. 11568.

2. Siniscalchi, M., et al., Lateralized behavior and cardiac activity of dogs in response to human emotional vocalizations. Sci Rep, 2018. 8(1): p. 77.

3. Smith, A.V., et al., Domestic horses (Equus caballus) discriminate between negative and positive human nonverbal vocalisations. Sci Rep, 2018. 8(1): p. 13052.

4. Fureix, C., et al., How horses (Equus caballus) see the world: humans as significant “objects”. Anim Cogn, 2009. 12(4): p. 643-54.

5. Sankey, C., et al., Reinforcement as a mediator of the perception of humans by horses (Equus caballus). Anim Cogn, 2010. 13(5): p. 753-64.