It's long been understood that horses are very perceptive to human body language, which is why leadership training using equines has become all the rage in the last decade. New research out of the University of Sussex now proves that horses can tell the difference between dominant and submissive body postures, even when the humans are unfamiliar to them.
The study used 30 horses to see if they were more likely to approach a human in a dominant body posture or one who was in a submissive posture. The person in a dominant posture stood straight up, with arms and legs held apart and a puffed-out chest; the submissive person slouched, with arms and legs close to the body.
All the horses used in the study had received a treat by a person in a neutral body position prior to being exposed to both dominant and submissive body postures; the horses were much more likely to approach the person in a submissive stance than a dominant one in follow-up trials.
These findings were reported in Animal Cognition, and it is believed that they will help both horse trainers and horse handlers in understanding how horses perceive humans who work with them.
The horses used in the study were from three riding centers in East Sussex and Suffolk. The handlers were all women of similar size and dressed the same. A neck warmer covered their faces so that the horses could not read their facial cues.
Four trials were completed and it was shown that the horses preferred approaching the woman using the submissive body posture, rather than a preference for a specific handler or side. No horse showed a preference for a person in a dominant posture, showing that horses can differentiate between the different postures.
Horses generally avoid dominant members of their herd, yet follow them to food and water sources, which indicates that the issue is likely to be much more complex than what was shown in the study. More research using additional body postures is needed.
Read more at HorseTalk.
Read the short communication here.
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