How horses use their eyes and ears to communicate

Most horse owners quickly learn that horses communicate through body language. For example, the lifting of a foot in warning, with bared teeth, making it clear that the horse doesn’t like something. But signals of the head, such as the position of the ears, can also tell a lot about the horse’s state of mind. A study in the United Kingdom provides insight into the extent to which horses use their face in communication with herd mates.  


For social animals, it is important to know what your group mates are focusing their attention on. After all, if one of these individuals spots a predator, you want to know about it as soon as possible to increase your chances of survival. Previous studies have looked at the head and eyes, but have not taken into account the mobile ears that many mammals have. In addition, in domestic horses, parts of the head are regularly covered, for instance with fly masks. Therefore, Jennifer Wathan (a PhD student) and Karen McComb (BCs, PhD, Professor of Animal Behavior and Knowledge at the University of Sussex, England) designed a study that looked at the influence of head position, eyes and ears in communication between horses.   


To do this, they printed life-size photographs of horses’ heads. These pictures showed a horse that was either uncovered, or had their ears or eyes covered. To cover these parts they used a kind of fly mask. These pictures were then hung near a bucket of feed. The horses in the photo could be positioned with their heads toward the bucket (looking at the feed), or conversely with their heads turned away from it. Test horses were released into the arena and the researchers observed which bucket the horses would eat from. This allowed them to examine which facial features seemed to drive the horses’ food choices.  


The team found that 75% of the time, the test horses chose the bucket where the model horses were uncovered. The researchers said that when the model horse had their ears or eyes covered, the choice of bucket was random. Wathan said her team was surprised that staring at the bucket (i.e., with the head facing the bucket) turned out to be important because a horse’s eyes are placed on the side of the head. But more surprising was that horses used their ears to communicate, she said.  


“We found that in horses, the position of the ears was a crucial visual signal that other horses responded to,” she explained. “Actually, horses had to see the detailed facial features of both eyes and ears before they used a horse’s head direction to help in their choice. Sensitivity to the direction of attention of others is one of the fundamental skills in communication,” added Wathan. “Being able to quickly pick up on what another individual’s attention is focused on can give you advantages that increase your chances of survival.” This is simply the basis of more complex communication and socialization.  


So what does this mean for domesticated horses? Wathan says owners can influence horses’ communication when they cover certain parts of the head as part of the tack. “It’s worth considering when making certain management choices,” Wathan said. “For example, how allergic is a horse to flies? And do they really need the fly mask? In the future, it would be interesting to further investigate the extent to which these masks affect communication with other horses in the pasture, or even with humans.”  

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