Horses can Communicate Using their Ears and Eyes

Horses in Navarre, Spain. Image credit: Mikel Ortega / Richard Bartz / CC BY-SA 2.0.

According to a study reported in the journal Current Biology, horses can communicate with their mobile ears and eyes. Jennifer Wathan & Karen McCombe. 2014 Current Biology, vol. 24, no. 15, pp. R677–R679; doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2014.06.023

The study challenges the earlier held notion that animals with eyes to the sides of their heads cannot glean information based on the direction of one another’s gaze.

“Our study is the first to examine a potential cue to attention that humans do not have: the ears. Previous work investigating communication of attention in animals has focused on cues that humans use: body orientation, head orientation, and eye gaze; no one else had gone beyond that,” said Dr Jennifer Wathan of the University of Sussex, the first author on the study.

“However, we found that in horses their ear position was also a crucial visual signal that other horses respond to. In fact, horses need to see the detailed facial features of both eyes and ears before they use another horse’s head direction to guide them.

Dr Wathan and her colleague, Dr Karen McComb, took photographs to document cues given by horses when they were paying attention to something. They then used those photographs as life-sized models for other horses to look at as they chose between two feeding buckets.

In each case, the horse in the photo was paying attention to one of the buckets and not the other. In some instances, the scientists also manipulated the image to remove information from key facial areas, including the eyes and the ears.

The observations show that horses rely on the head orientation of their peers to locate food. However, that ability to read each other’s interest level is disrupted when parts of the face are covered up with masks.

“The ability to correctly judge attention also varied depending on the identity of the horse pictured, suggesting that individual facial features may be important,” the researchers said. Dr Wathan added: “horses display some of the same complex and fluid social organization that we have as humans and that we also see in chimpanzees, elephants, and dolphins.

_____ Jennifer Wathan & Karen McCombe. 2014. The eyes and ears are visual indicators of attention in domestic horses. Current Biology, vol. 24, no. 15, pp. R677–R679; doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2014.06.023

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