Ears and Eyes Key to Horses’ Communication With Each Other

Covered Eyes, Ears Disrupted Horses' Ability to Perceive Signals from Companions in British Research Study

Ears and eyes make the horse’s head expressive to humans but also to other horses, new research shows. This seems obvious, but research was needed to see what happened when horses were deprived of eye and ear signals from their companions. (Photo by David Noah)

New research shared here today about how horses communicate also begs for us to pause and think about the equipment that we place on horses’ heads. The research did not investigate fly masks in the pasture, ear bonnets on sport horses, or blinker hoods on racehorses, but maybe we’ll start thinking about headgear in a different way.

So many questions come to mind while reading this: where do body language and vocalization fit into the communication spectrum of horses, since they very obviously use both of those and are there differences in perception of the ears? For instance, do lighter colored horses communicate with their ears more effectively than dark horses because they are easier to see? Are horses with tiny ears at a disadvantage? And how do foals assimilate the language of ear communication?

How scientific is it to test horses’ reactions using photographs as stimuli? Surely a pre-test showed that this was a valid testing protocol; that would be interesting to read in itself. Thanks to the Cell Press for help with this article.

Researchers in Great Britain have documented a way to show that horses are sensitive to the facial expressions and the attention of other horses, including the direction of the eyes and ears. The findings, reported in the Cell Press journal Current Biology on August 4, 2014 are a reminder for us to look beyond our own limitations and recognize that other species may communicate in ways that we can’t, the researchers say.

After all, human ears aren’t mobile. 

 “Our study is the first to examine a potential cue to attention that humans do not have: the ears,” says researcher Jennifer Wathan, MSc of the University of Sussex in Great Britain

“Previous work investigating communication of attention in animals has focused on cues that humans use: body orientation, head orientation, and eye gaze; no one else had gone beyond that,” she continued. “However, we found that in horses, their ear position was also a crucial visual signal that other horses respond to. 

“In fact,” she stressed, “horses need to see the detailed facial features of both eyes and ears before they use another horse’s head direction to guide them.”

 The new study also challenges the earlier-held notion that animals with eyes to the sides of their heads cannot glean information based on the direction of one another’s gaze. Wathan and the study’s senior author Karen McComb took photographs to document cues given by horses when they were paying attention to something. 

Then Wathan and McComb used those photographs as life-sized models for other horses to look at as they chose between two feeding buckets. In each case, the horse in the photo was paying attention to one of the buckets and not the other. 

In some instances, the researchers also manipulated the image to remove information from key facial areas, including the eyes and the ears. 

The researchers’ observations show that horses rely on the head orientation of their peers to locate food. However, that ability to read each other’s interest level is disrupted when parts of the face—the eyes and ears—are covered up with masks. 

The ability to correctly judge attention also varied depending on the identity of the horse pictured, suggesting that individual facial features may be important, the researchers report. 

This graph shows the effect of covering eyes or ears during the research.

Wathan and McComb plan to continue to explore facial features related to the expression of emotion in their horses, noting that horses’ rich social lives and close relationship to humans make them particularly interesting as study subjects. 

Our understanding of horses’ social lives might also have implications for their welfare. 

“Horses display some of the same complex and fluid social organization that we have as humans and that we also see in chimpanzees, elephants, and dolphins,” Wathan says. 

“The challenges that living in these societies create, such as maintaining valuable social relationships on the basis of unpredictable interactions, are thought to have promoted the evolution of advanced social and communicative skills,” she concludes. 

The original article is published under Open Access (Creative Commons license) conditions and the full paper may be read and downloaded at the cell.com website. You might especially enjoyed the supplemental material tab, which explains in more detail how the research was conducted.




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