Social Referencing in the Domestic Horse
Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, Department of Neurology, 04103 Leipzig, Germany
Physiology Weihenstephan, Technical University of Munich, 85354 Freising, Germany
Leibniz Institute for Farm Animal Biology, Institute of Behavioural Physiology, 18196 Dummerstorf, Germany
Authors to whom correspondence should be addressed.
Received: 11 November 2019 / Revised: 6 January 2020 / Accepted: 13 January 2020 / Published: 18 January 2020
Daily horse handling is associated with a risk of injury. It is not clear how much (a) handlers’ emotional expressions (happy versus anxious) or (b) breed type influence horses’ behavior in new, potentially threatening situations and thus contribute to risks. We therefore assessed how horses responded to a novel object when a human handler introduced the object either with a positive (happy) or a negative (anxious) emotional expression. We found that horses in the positive condition seek more proximity to the object compared to horses in the negative condition. Furthermore, horses in the negative condition showed more vigilance towards the object (i.e., increased number of gazes) than horses in the positive condition. Independent of condition, we found in thoroughbreds less human-directed contact (interaction and gazes) than in warmbloods and ponies. We conclude that the handlers’ visual and acoustic emotional expressions affect horses’ responses to unfamiliar situations.