Horses share some surprisingly similar facial expressions to humans and chimps, according to new University of Sussex research.
Mammal communication researchers have shown that, like humans, horses use muscles underlying various facial features — including their nostrils, lips and eyes — to alter their facial expressions in a variety of social situations.
The findings, published in PLOS ONE Aug. 5, suggest evolutionary parallels in different species in how the face is used for communication.
The study builds on previous research showing that cues from the face are important for horses to communicate, by developing an objective coding system to identify different individual facial expressions on the basis of underlying muscle movement.
The Equine Facial Action Coding System (EquiFACS), as devised by the Sussex team in collaboration with researchers at the University of Portsmouth and Duquesne University, identified 17 “action units” (discrete facial movements) in horses. This compares with 27 in humans, 13 in chimps and 16 in dogs.
“Horses are predominantly visual animals, with eyesight that’s better than domestic cats and dogs, yet their use of facial expressions has been largely overlooked,” said the study’s co-lead author, doctoral researcher Jennifer Wathan. “What surprised us was the rich repertoire of complex facial movements in horses, and how many of them are similar to humans.
“Despite the differences in face structure between horses and humans, we were able to identify some similar expressions in relation to movements of the lips and eyes.
“It was previously thought that, in terms of other species, the farther away an animal was from humans, the more rudimentary their use of facial expressions would be,” said co-lead author Professor Karen McComb.
“Through the development of EquiFACS, however, it’s apparent that horses, with their complex and fluid social systems, also have an extensive range of facial movements and share many of these with humans and other animals.”
She added that a systematic way of recording facial expressions would have a wide range of applications, including better information for veterinarians and improved animal welfare practices.