Horses Read Our Body Language: New Study

Perceptive humans who have interacted with horses already know this to be true but now researchers have demonstrated it scientifically: Horses actually read our body language and use this information to determine whether they should approach us or hang back.  The best summary for why this is important came from one of the study’s authors:


Results like these encourage us to be more conscious of the signals we exhibit when interacting with horses and other animals to facilitate a smooth animal-human relationship.”  -Clara Wilson, study co-author


Horses can read our body language even when they don’t know us

Horses can tell the difference between dominant and submissive body postures in humans, even when the humans are not familiar to them, according to a new University of Sussex-led study.

The findings enhance our understanding of how animals can communicate using body posture across the species barrier, and are specifically helpful for informing horse handlers and trainers about the ways horses perceive human body language.

Psychology researchers worked with 30 domestic horses to see whether they were more likely to approach a person displaying a dominant body posture (involving the person standing straight, with arms and legs apart and chest expanded), or a submissive posture (slouching, keeping arms and legs close to the body, relaxed knees).

They found that even though the horses had been given food rewards previously by each person when in a neutral body posture, they were significantly more likely to approach the individual displaying a submissive rather than a dominant posture in follow-up trials…


 “Evolutionarily speaking, animals — including humans — tend to use larger postures to indicate dominance, or threat, and smaller postures to indicate submissiveness. Horses may therefore have an instinctual understanding of larger vs. smaller postures.”  -Dr. Leanne Proops, co-author (University of Portsmouth)


Journal Reference: Amy Victoria Smith, Clara Wilson, Karen McComb, Leanne Proops. Domestic horses (Equus caballus) prefer to approach humans displaying a submissive body posture rather than a dominant body posture. Animal Cognition, 2017; DOI: 10.1007/s10071-017-1140-4