People separated from their horses during the coronavirus can take heart: a study in France shows that horses are able to recognize their caregivers by looking at a photograph of their face, even when they haven’t seen those people in six months.
A 2012 study was one of the first to suggest horses are capable of recognizing specific humans. Research involving 32 horses showed that in most scenarios, horses have the ability to match a familiar person’s face with their voice. When the horses heard a familiar voice played through a loudspeaker, they could recognize that familiar sound and looked toward the human it belonged to. This evidence suggests that horses don’t think all people are the same. They’re capable of distinguishing between different humans, and behavior suggests they even pick out their favorites.
Now it appears that people can recognize two-dimensional representations of familiar people.
The study, led by Léa Lansade of the French National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and Environment, studied 11 3-year old Welsh mares, who were trained to use a touchscreen in a facial recognition test developed by the researchers.
Two different tests were conducted. First, the researcher showed the horses two photographs of faces simultaneously. At first, all the faces were unfamiliar, but four were repeated often enough for the faces to become familiar to the horses. The unfamiliar faces were never repeated. The horses were given a treat when they selected a familiar face by putting their nose to a touchscreen. All the photographs were of women.
Once the horses understood the “rules”, the researchers showed photos of the horse’s caregivers opposite the faces of strangers. The horses were given a reward whichever face they touched.
The study team found that the horses touched the faces of keepers 75% of the time, whether it was their current keeper or one they had not seen for six months. This suggests that horses have advanced human face-recognition abilities and sophisticated socio-cognitive skills. Photographs give no additional clues to identity such as voice, behavior or odor. In fact, many animals — including dogs, who can recognize human faces in real life — have trouble recognizing photographs.
Certainly, horses are aware of different people and their faces. Yesterday, a friend of mine came to visit the horses. She wore a mask and Freedom was very concerned about coming close to her. He appeared to find her unrecognizable as a human because he isn’t usually so reticent.
Horses are so adept at remembering faces that it makes you wonder what else the remember about us. Keep that in mind next time you go to the barn. And for all horse owners who are unable to visit your horses, send the caregivers selfies to share with your horses!