Talking Horses? Reading Horse Facial Expressions



If his mouth doesn’t say it, his face surely will. Twister was always such an expressive horse. He would draw, ears pricked, eyes soft, and lips relaxed as he approached his human partner. It was clear, Twister was pleased. It was also clear when he was afraid. The white sclera of his Appaloosa eyes would show like the morning sun as a tell-tale sign of his concern.

We understood many of Twisters facial expressions. Still, he left us to wonder about much of what he was saying, yet was never heard by human eyes. He was the leader of the herd. So much in control, he rarely exhibited any behavior beyond an ear flick. We often referred to his ruling the herd by Jedi mind tricks. His language was too discrete for our untrained eyes. Careful observation and study opens human eyes, enabling communication with the horse using their language. Many horse students have a growing vocabulary on which to draw.


Still, our understanding of the subtleties of this language is deepening. Researchers at the University of Sussex, have made interpreting horse facial expressions easier (Jen Wathan, 2015). Studies have documented human facial muscles, expressions produced, and what emotions those expressions indicated. But no such data had existed for the horse, until recent years. In the August 2015 issue of PLOS, scientists describe EquiFACS (Equine Facial Action Coding System). Using EquiFACS they identified expressions based on facial musculature and muscle movement. This marks the first documentation of all facial configurations of the horse.

With the intricate muscling of the human face, we have the most cataloged expressions at 27. Dogs, our companion predators, have 16 and chimpanzees 13. Cats come in with a whopping 21, albeit, due to a wide range of whisker and ear movement. Many were not expecting the researcher’s findings rendering the horse with 17 varieties. Yet, those of us in the horse lover’s community would have expected no less.

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