Horses and Humans Facial Expressions

What if the horse always is known for its intelligent behavior was based on a universal language, a language that we all know how to use. A language we use in our daily lives but because we do not realize our horses use it, that causes most of the problems that we encounter with them.

I am speaking of the language of facial expression. No matter where we go in the world we know a happy smile and we know a smile that has a hidden agenda. We know the look of a sad face, a proud face, a contented face and an angry face. These are just a few of the many expressions our faces can display.

go away

Left says ‘Go away’  Right says ‘Don’t you dare’ and in the middle… Poor Sonny look at ears who does he listen to?  Now visualize these expressions as you tell someone to go away or don’t you dare.

The horse too has many expressions most caught on camera are ones of pain in a riding area where the hands holding the reins pull at the mouth rather than communicate with their body. The belief that pulling on the head to change direction or stopping your horse is the way it’s done creates many sad photos even at top level events.


Contented look Raisin the foal in the front with Mum Dakota just behind

Horses display all the other emotions too including love, anger (though very rare) embarrassment, pride, fear and the ability to cry. As do all other animals, we just don’t take the time to see it. This being the case, they can very easily read our facial expressions, body language, and energy forces.

The question I ask is why is science so late in grasping this idea.  I’m referring to the recent article Horses can recognise human expressions.  It’s even hit TV news.  Enjoyed being on the BBC Radio Kent   presenter was Steve N Allen   TWITTER: @bbcradiokent  FACEBOOK: BBC Radio Kent


For thousands of years, people who are at one with the planet and nature understand and see the simplicity of the universal language ‘facial expression’. We see it in photos on Facebook, Flickr, YouTube, Instagram and so much.  We see happiness, sadness, excitement so why really is it surprising to science that they are just discovering that horses can read human facial features.

Take the facial challenge…. It’s selfie time!! Set up your camera device preferably with a delay timer, then pull as many emotion faces as you can. Make sure you include, happy, sad, excited, serious, angry, frustrated and a sad inside but smiling anyway to try and fool people.  Have a look back through your photos and compare the differences in each photo, you’ll see that each look is quite unique and easily recognizable.

All the faces you pull except the latter your horse knows and uses themselves, if they can read the faces of other horses that use the same expressions as we do, then surely reading not only the human face but also that of other animals is the same. I say not the latter as horses have no social peer pressure to smile when feeling sad, that is a human thing from years of ingrained upper lip bad habits thinking you’re judged by others or you don’t trust those around you enough to be able to say something is wrong.  Horses express themselves as they feel at each moment of their lives living in the now.

I saw on Facebook and video shared of a gorilla trying to touch the tummy of a pregnant lady through its cage glass. You could see all the emotions that us humans would also display, compassion, love, affection as this gorilla was stroking and kissing the glass where the pregnant lady was standing.  Do a Google Search ‘Gorilla kisses pregnant lady’

From the science experiment mentioned above for horses recognizing facial expressions in a photograph why is it puzzling to science that they think it is a possibility that a horse, who can recognize and understand that it is himself/herself they see in the training mirror in the riding area and not another horse, could not recognize and distinguish image in a photograph?

I have concerns regarding the testing method. The report shows they tested 28 horses in confined conditions repeatedly showing an angry face on each side of the horse to see how it reacted. If you Google the video for it, you’ll see the horses were in head collars and we’re being held by a handler in a stable/stall. Doesn’t this type of testing come under the realms of abuse? If the horse could in their terms recognize the angry face, why was the photograph angry at the horse? Horses always do things for a reason, so if it’s standing and being good in its stable with its handler why be angry with it, which is was the picture was saying to the horse ‘I’m angry with you’.

Now this is where I say the intelligence of the horse is greater than the scientists who were performing the experiment. You will see in the video footage of the experiment that the horse only reacted slightly when it saw the angry face then realised it was not real so the horse did not respond further! There was no energy behind what they saw meaning that horses can tell the difference between what is real and what is an image. An interesting observation would be to see what they do recognize in images photos of other horses, fruit etc and see how they interact with the different types of objects.

BamBam smile

BamBam cheeky smile, this is what it looks like in here.


BamBam to Barney over stepped the mark

BamBam to Barney, ‘you’ve over stepped the mark this time’. Barney ‘I know :(‘  Can you imagine this look on a mum or dad telling their child off?



Longing – Notice the puff blown out lips and the half closed eyes. He was watching ours play!  Do this yourself blow out your lips and feel really sad or longing for something to be different.


Each have a different expression, can you see?


So…. Science is just realising something that horse owners, especially those who are into natural horsemanship, for thousands of years already know….. Our horses respond to our facial expressions, but not just ours, everyone they meet.    There is much more to it than that though and if you’re willing to learn as you would do a foreign language, French, Spanish or Urdu, then it’s possible to learn the Equus language.  It involves blinks of the eyes, movement of the ears, movement of the tongue, movement of the head and body and the sounds they make, each lip blow has a sound and meaning.

Have a try with your horse or any horse you meet. Get the attention of the horse by looking gently directly into its eyes, without touching it and keep out of its space.  If it does not look at you with both eyes, it is partly saying ‘I am not interested’, so step forwards then move your head from side to side of the horse until you have both eyes looking forwards at you, you are asking for its attention.  Smile with your mouth and eyes and breath out a relaxed breath and in your head say ‘Hello’  then wait!  The horse recognizes that you want to communicate,  keep gentle breathing and see what your horse does next! Watch for the changes in facial expressions.

Be interested to hear in your experiences, tweet me @Equine_MH or post a comment below!

Happy Horse Chatting!


What is the facial expressions saying?


6 thoughts on “Horses and Humans Facial Expressions

  1. Cecilia Alexanderson

    Something must be wrong with me – tears are coming in my eyes, reading this…. It always does when experiencing that magic of interaction between humans and animals. Especially horses….. They are the most loving and trusting creatures and it humbles me to tears every time… 💜
    Thank you!

  2. Louise Brereton

    Hi, I met you briefly this morning with Maisie the cob. I was so in awe of how you communicated with her and vice versa.

    I have a few problems leading my cob to the field, I am sure he is trying to be my boss and my communication skills need work so that he will see me as a leader and want to work with me and have a positive relationship. I have found this read very interesting and will definatley be viewing your youtube videos that you mentioned about how a horse communicates.

    Thank you for providing us with all this insight.

      1. Louise

        Hi Melanie, I think I have connected with you on Facebook now (following you), I am not fantastic with social media.

        That is definatley something I would be interested in, Nancy was chatting about it a bit earlier.

        Exciting experiences to come 🙂

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