The Subtle Ways Horses Ask Humans for Help

horses ask humans for help

Story at-a-glance -

  • Through the process of domestication, many animals learn to become skilled communicators with humans, and horses are likely among them
  • New research revealed horses are capable of asking humans for help
  • When trying to reach an inaccessible bucket of hidden carrots, the horses looked at their caretakers, stayed close by them and nudged them, signaling that they needed a helping hand

By Dr. Becker

I've written a lot about dogs' close ties to humans and their ability to understand (and even mimic) our facial expressions, moods and more. But this is not to say dogs are the only animals with this close human bond. Like dogs, horses have been in close proximity, physically and emotionally speaking, with humans for thousands of years.

Through the process of domestication, many animals learn to become skilled communicators with humans, and horses are likely among them. A study involving horses and one of their favorite foods — carrots — has added new evidence that horses are even capable of asking their human friends for help.

Horses Send Signals to Humans When in Need of Help

Researchers from Kobe University in Japan hid carrots under a bucket and then made the bucket inaccessible to a group of eight horses.1

The horses' caretakers then entered the scene, unaware that food had been hidden nearby. The horses didn't just stand there — they began to ask their caretakers for help using visual and tactile clues.

In other words, the horses looked at their caretakers, stayed close by them and nudged them, signaling that they needed a hand to get to the carrots. The behaviors continued for a significantly longer period of time than they did when no food had been hidden.

In a second experiment, the researchers then examined whether the horses altered their behaviors based on the caretakers' knowledge of the hidden food.

It turned out that the horses signaling behaviors significantly increased when the caretakers had not seen the hiding of the food, which suggests that "horses alter their communicative behavior toward humans in accordance with humans' knowledge state."2

The study reveals that horses likely have high social cognitive ability that likely developed during their domestication that occurred some 6,000 years ago.3 For anyone who has enjoyed a relationship with a horse, this probably comes as no surprise.

Horses Can Read Your (and Other Horses') Facial Expressions

Like dogs, compelling research also suggests that horses are able to read and understand human facial expressions.

Researchers from the Mammal Vocal Communication and Cognition Research Group at the U.K.'s University of Sussex and colleagues showed photographs of people with different facial expressions to 28 horses.4

They were able to spontaneously discriminate between happy and angry facial expressions in the photographs, revealed, in part, because the horses typically viewed the angry faces with their left eye (which means the image was processed in the right brain hemisphere, which processes threatening stimuli).

Study co-author Karen McComb, Ph.D., a professor of Animal Behavior & Cognition at the University of Sussex, told Discovery News:5

"It gives us a real insight into how they are viewing the situation and shows clearly that they see it as negative … The way in which their heart rate increases also backs this up.

So being in a negative mood around horses is not something that goes unnoticed and is likely to have negative impacts on behavior and physiology."

Separate research also found that horses can distinguish between the facial expressions of other horses, as well. They were more likely to approach photographs displaying horses with positive, relaxed facial expressions and avoid those displaying aggressive facial expressions.6

The horses heart rates also changed accordingly when they viewed positive or antagonistic horse facial expressions in the photos.

"Thus horses," the researchers wrote, "an animal far-removed from the primate lineage, also have the ability to use facial expressions as a means of gaining social information and potentially regulating social interactions."7

Leanne Proops, Ph.D., who co-authored both studies, explained to Seeker that horses seem to have complex cognitive and social abilities:8

"For instance, there is evidence that when a handler or rider becomes stressed, this can lead to a corresponding increase in stress levels in the horse. Horses will also apparently console a companion in their own herd."

The Human-Equine Bond

Horses make up an important part of human history, with references as far back as the Neolithic Age. Horses were also thought to be hunted for meat during the Paleolithic Era, and during this time the domestication process may have begun.9

Later, horses were depended on to transport goods and people. They were work animals that stood alongside soldiers during World War I (when an estimated 8 million war horses were killed)10 and have also been exploited for entertainment and racing.

Somewhere along the way, however, horses became highly valued for their companionship and loyalty. Today, about 1.5 percent of U.S. households have horses as pets,11 and they've also grown in popularity at therapy animals.

Research has shown, for instance, that caring for horses lowers stress levels in children, and equine-assisted therapy programs are available that may help people with a variety of conditions, from depression and anxiety to autism and dementia.

As we continue to reveal more about the complex human-equine relationship, it's clear that the bond runs deep. Some scientists have even described it as a state of co-being, in which each partner evolves to fit better with the other.

As Anita Maurstad, Ph.D., professor and researcher in the Department of Cultural Sciences in the Tromsø University Museum at the University of Tromsø in Norway, explained to The Horse:12

"As riders get to know their horses, they attune to them — they learn both mental and somatic (physical) ways of acting versus their partner … Horses, too, attune to their humans; thus, co-being is a good analytical concept for speaking about these aspects of the relationship.

… Action and response between the species bring about riding as a collaborative practice, where bodies become in sync. And sync is a product of intra-action in that both are changed through a process of training from the meeting between the two — literally flesh to flesh."