Do Horses Have Feelings and Emotions?
If you’ve ever had pets, you may have experienced that impression that they can sometimes understand your state of mind. And the reality is that they do. Studies have shown that dogs, cats, and even horses can assess and understand human emotions.
No, it’s not telepathy or a sixth sense that’s only specific to animals, like some may suggest. They do it the normal way, the way an infant does it – assessing the human’s voice tonalities and facial expressions.
Our pets have lived with us for thousands of years, which gave them time to understand our physiology and the basics of human communication. They know how a human face looks when sad, angry, or happy, and they can recognize smiles.
They can even understand the meaning of that baby talk that you use to communicate with your infant. Dogs and cats will generally bond with people who pet them, use baby talk, and smile a lot since they inspire trust and safety.
But what about horses? Can they express feelings and emotions? If they do, what type and how can we tell? The following article will discuss horse intelligence and how there may be more to these animals than meets the eye.
Emotional Intelligence in Horses
Emotional intelligence refers to the ability to express, identify, and regulate one’s emotional display. Humans embody the concept the best since our evolved brains can express a variety of emotions, including happiness, content, anger, anxiety, fear, etc.
It’s also a known fact that most mammals can express these emotions, too, just on a different scale, which is also true for horses. We, humans, identify these emotions better in animals like cats or dogs because we have interacted with them the most. At the same time, we see horses as fewer pets and more working animals; we don’t take our time to socialize with them the way we do with cats.
Nevertheless, horses are highly intelligent animals, capable of displaying a wide range of emotions. They aren’t as many or as complex as in humans, but they are enough to help us understand their state of mind.
Several studies have looked into the emotional intelligence of horses and determined that they tend to express their emotions orally. The study determined that horse whinnies have two frequencies:
- A low frequency that indicates the emotion’s intensity
- A high frequency which, together with its varying duration, indicates the emotion type (positive or negative)
Nickers, for instance, fall into the lower frequency, while squeals fall into the higher one. The study compared the horses’ vocalizations with their behavior and determined that:
- An aggressive or irritable behavior produced more squeals
- A calm, excited, or playful behavior produced more nickers
This consistency shows that horses can understand their emotions and differences and regulate their behavior accordingly.
But can horses understand and identify human emotions? The answer is yes. Another study that aimed to answer this very question assessed the horses’ ability to recognize human emotions. The horses were given pictures of human faces expressing a given emotion and paired with a human voice expressing a given emotion.
The study observed that horses looked at the pictures for longer when the facial expressions didn’t match the emotions expressed by the voices. Similarly, the horses paid closer attention to faces of strangers expressing negative emotions than to those of their caretakers.
The study concluded that horses could differentiate between different positive and negative emotions and correlate them with human facial expressions. This denotes significant emotional intelligence and emotional comprehension.
Horse Emotions and Feelings
Horses are capable of emotions and feelings, just not to the level of humans. Like all other animals, horses can only experience simple emotions like fear, confusion, happiness, depression (yes, this is a simple emotion), or rage. Humans can also experience more complex emotions like greed, respect, shame, or embarrassment.
These differences come from our brain’s layout and development. The ‘emotion center’ is the cortex which is the most developed in humans. In essence, you can assess a brain’s intelligence and power by its many folds and size relative to the body.
Having a large brain isn’t enough to guarantee high computing power or intricate thinking. Elephants and blue whales have massive brains, far larger than that of humans. But they have was less folds, making their brains inferior to ours.
That being said, while the horse can experience emotions that we can identify and feel ourselves, they experience them differently. Horses are incapable of assessing their own emotions or rationalizing them in any way; they just feel them and act accordingly. By comparison, humans can hide them when convenient or combat them and, eventually, train their brains to overcome them.
Here are some of the emotions that a horse can express:
It doesn’t take much to make a horse happy. The horse, like any other animal, has primary needs that influence its state of mind. These include the need for food, water, clean and dry bedding, safety, and companionship. Their brain will also release endorphins when riding, communicating, or playing with them or when they enjoy the company of other horses.
Some of the signs suggesting that your horse is happy include:
- Relaxed mouth – Horses have very expressive mouths with massive meaty lips. A relaxed, content and calm state will come with relaxed lips, soft and round nostrils, and a lack of tension in the muscles around the mouth. The horse’s jaw will also hang loose, with the lower lip hanging lower than the upper one. When the horse is stressed, fearful, or angry, it will display a tense mouth with tight and drawn nostrils.
- Relaxed tail – The horse will wing its tail slowly from side to side in the cadence of its walk. The horse should generally hand down freely as compared to when the horse is stressed and swing it nervously from side to side.
- Walking – When stressed, the horse will walk around nervously or even gallop in short bursts. It will also raise one of its hind legs and hit the ground heavily when walking.
Obviously, the horse’s state of mind will largely depend on its relationship with you. If you want your horse to remain happy, relaxed, and positive, you should:
- Avoid overworking – Horses are fast and powerful animals, causing a lot of people to ignore their limitations. The horse can overheat when working for too long or be forced to handle strenuous tasks. Don’t work your horse for more than 1-3 hours per day at most and only moderately. This will also depend on the breed since some breeds are more prone to health problems due to overworking than others.
- Groom your horse – Grooming your horse, especially after intense physical activity, is a must. The horse will sweat profusely, and the sweat will dry out and cause itching. The post-workout grooming will relax your horse and release endorphins in the process. It will also help you bond with it.
- Remain calm and in a good state of mind – Horses can sense human emotions, which means that your state of mind will influence that of your horse. Only interact with your horse if you are calm, relaxed, and positive, and your horse will capture that energy immediately.
- Provide proper care – The horse needs adequate food, plenty of freshwater, and soft, warm, and dry bedding. This means you need to clean the stable daily and replenish the bedding whenever necessary. Your horse will be able to sleep well and enjoy its space a lot more.
- Ensure companionship – Horses are herd creatures. They enjoy the daily company of other horses or even other animals, so long as they can trust them. If you can, buy your horse a companion so that they can interact and bond with each other. It will keep your horse mentally and emotionally balanced, as horses groom each other and exchange emotions and feelings.
Horses can experience sadness, usually as an effect of boredom. More importantly, they can experience depression as well, showing distinct physiological symptoms. Some of these include:
- Lack of reaction to sounds – Studies show that only 50% of the horses with signs of depression would react to other animal sounds, whether familiar or not. By comparison, over 90% of healthy horses would react distinctively to the same sounds, moving their heads and eyes, and swinging their ears.
- Abnormal immobility – Horses with depression tend to move their head, neck, and ears a lot less than their healthy counterparts. The depressed horse will often seem oblivious to outside stimulus, appearing apathetic and absent.
- Rare blinking – Sad and depressed horses have long pauses between blinking, leading to fixed staring.
There may be many reasons for sadness in horses, including overworking, injuries, untreated illness, and improper living quarters. If your horse shows signs of sadness or depression, assess these aspects, and you might find the cause.
Horses can feel fear, and they will express it via specific behaviors. The reasons why they may experience fear vary. These include changing their stable and living quarters, bringing other animals around them abruptly, and even sensing fear in other horses.
But can you tell if your horse experiences fear? Yes, you can. Some of the tale-telling signs include:
- Facial signs – The eyes will widen, the nostrils will flare and tighten, and the head will move up and backward. Sometimes you can even notice active shaking.
- Behavioral signs – The horse may refuse to stand still and will try to distance itself from the perceived threat. Some horses may even grow aggressive if they feel they have no escape route available.
You can calm the horse by creating a calm and relaxing environment and even resort to desensitization training. This refers to introducing the horse to a variety of objects and situations that may trigger the fear response. The horse will soon become familiarized with them, making it less likely for them to experience fear or distress.
Yes, horses can feel surprised as well. It’s more like that jerky feeling that you experience when confronted with the unexpected abruptly. They might get scared for a second and exhibit a fear behavior but will calm down if there’s no perceived threat.
I advise against surprising your horse on purpose. May horses are instinctively built to react aggressively when the fight-or-flight response kicks in.
Horses can and will express anger in given situations since it’s in their nature. Anger can be useful in many situations, helping them fight back against predators, fight for the right to mate or protect their herd. The problem is when they express anger towards humans.
The horse will often get angry due to injury, frustration, fear when fighting over food or water, during mating if sensing any contenders, etc. They may also get angry due to their caretaker’s poor treatment. This requires you to assess the situation to understand what caused that behavior.
When the horse gets angry, it will display a series of physical and behavioral signs, such as:
- Pinning its ears to the back of the head
- Displaying a tight muzzle and lips
- Make its teeth visible as a sign it’s ready to bite
- Lower its head and swinging it from side to side
- Stomping his feet
- Cocking or raising one of its hind legs, signaling that it’s ready to hit
- Pawing with the front legs, etc.
If you notice any of these signs, provide your horse with some space. This will allow it to calm down and prevent any unfortunate situations that may involve your body and the horse’s legs and teeth.
Can Horses Hate Someone?
Yes, horses can dislike someone or even nurture emotions like hate or fear towards them. This never happens randomly, like many people tend to suggest. In reality, they have been unable to discover the cause, especially since they are the ones involved and, therefore, biased.
But what does hate mean? Unlike the simple dislike, which may be temporary, hate refers to the long-term aversion towards something or someone. We, humans, can hold a grudge and hate people for years. Apparently, horses can do that as well, and it’s easy to understand why.
Horses can recognize people that have influenced their lives one or another easily over the years. They will recognize the person’s face, voice, mimicry, and smell, and if the horse associates the person with something bad, those memories will endure.
There are many reasons for a horse hating on a person, including:
- Poor riding experience – All horses typically have their own riding patterns. They are used to some riding form, and breaking that form can lead to discomfort. If the person is too heavy or doesn’t know how to ride and makes the horse uncomfortable, the horse will hate the experience. Force the horse to repeat it, and you can see how the animal will develop aversion towards you.
- Untreated injuries – The horse may have untreated injuries that you may not be aware of. Riding it while ignoring the signs of discomfort will make the horse associate you with its pain. As a result, the horse may start to not only hate you but the riding experience as a whole.
- Bad interactions – Horses will dislike, fear, and even hate people who mistreat them. There are a lot of individuals treating horses like objects, not realizing that they are capable of deep and lasting emotions. The horse won’t forget the person who mistreated it. It will remember its smell and voice and will react aggressively whenever the person is around. Sometimes, they may hold that grudge for a lifetime.
Do Horses Feel Guilt?
Many people are tricked into believing that horses can express guilt, but that’s not the case. When I say tricked, I’m not referring to someone tricking them, but them falling prey to circumstances. Your horse’s attitude after stepping on your foot isn’t guilt but empathy. Horses can manifest empathy since they can sense human emotions.
The horse doesn’t know that it is the cause of your suffering. All it knows is that you are suffering and tries to calm you down.
Other than that, guilt is a complex emotion, and horses are unable to experience it. They don’t know that they’ve done something bad, so don’t scorn them since they won’t understand. They will just think you are mean to them.
Can Horses Feel Shame?
No, they don’t. Shame, just like guilt, hatred, or greed, are complex human emotions. Only humans can experience them. The horse, like all animals, will only experience basic, simple emotions that tie in with their survival.
Their cortex isn’t developed enough to experience complex emotions like shame. You haven’t seen many horses with trousers, have you?
Do Horses Feel Disgust?
Yes and no. Horses can’t experience disgust as a product of their own brains, but they can sense disgust in humans. Several studies have concluded that horses are extremely proficient at reading human emotions, especially negative ones.
During the study, horses exposed to human faces showing disgust would avoid looking at them. It’s unclear whether that’s because they didn’t like the human making the expression or resented the expression itself.
Simply put, while horses can’t experience a variety of negative complex emotions themselves, they can sense them in people. What’s more important is that these emotions can affect them. Showing a negative state of mind around your horse will also affect your horse’s state of mind. The same goes for being positive.
Can Horses Become Depressed?
Yes, horses can experience depression to a certain degree. Depression will manifest itself differently to horses than humans due to the latter’s complex brain. Human depression intermingles with the brain’s capacity to reflect upon itself and the world around it, often exacerbating the effects of depression.
This condition is simpler with horses but damaging nonetheless. Horses can experience depression for a variety of reasons, including:
- Social isolation – Horses are herd animals enjoying each other’s company. Social isolation will hurt them, causing them to become apathetic and sad.
- Chronic conditions – The horse won’t always show signs of disease or physical discomfort other than those linked to depression. If the horse appears to lack energy and appetite and shows little movement, you may want to speak to a veterinarian.
- Inadequate lifestyle – Overworking, prolonged isolation, abuse, improper living conditions can worsen the horse’s state of mind.
- Boredom – Horses are intelligent creatures in need of mental stimulation just as much as people do. Boredom can affect horses, making them stressed, irritable, and lethargic.
- Unpredictable environment – Horses like predictability, similarly to humans. Changing the training, stable feeding schedule, or handlers will put them in a constant sense of tension. They won’t be able to relax since they don’t feel safe, and this permanent state of stress can lead to depression.
There are several signs that horses will display when depressed, including:
- Remaining immobile with minimal physical activity for long periods
- Doesn’t sleep too well or irregular sleeping patterns
- More susceptible to infections, showing a more ineffective immune system
- Constant fear and anxiety
- Decreased appetite
- Dull stare, rare blinking, and immobile head and ears
- Reduced reaction to the handler and lack of interest in anything happening around it
If the horse exhibits any of these signs, you need to act fast. Here’s what you can do:
- Go for a veterinary check-up – You first need to check whether your horse suffers from any chronic condition that may cause discomfort and pain. Sometimes the treatment is simple, but the benefits and relief it may bring are enormous.
- Improve the horse’s social life – If you can, bring your horse in the open with other horses. These are social animals that love each other’s company. If it’s depressed, your horse may not react immediately, but you should see significant changes in its behavior shortly.
- Understand the cause – If your horse shows signs of apathy, depression, or discomfort, understanding the cause will lead to a quick and easy solution. Maybe the stable is dirty and unwelcoming, or maybe the horse wants to spend more time outside. Try to give your horse the option to choose where it wants to be occasionally. This could improve its state of mind considerably.
Do Horses Love Their Owners?
Yes, horses can love their owners. Horses recognize people by smell, appearance, and the sound of their voice. With time, they will develop emotional attachment towards their handler. On the flip side, they can also manifest aversion towards their owners if they are constantly mistreated and overworked.
To prevent that, treat your horse fairly and with empathy, and it will return the favor. Clean its stable, ride it occasionally, provide sufficient food and water, and never forget grooming. Grooming your horse, just like riding, allows you and your horse to bond with each other.
Do Horses Have a Soul?
One can only guess. People have always believed in a human soul, and many religions offer countless perspectives on the matter. Whether horses have souls is as much of a guess as in the case of humans.
The concept of soul is a religious idea supported not by facts but by the believer’s willingness to believe it as true. I would say it doesn’t matter if horses have souls or not, just as it doesn’t matter for humans.
I believe we should treat each other with decency, compassion, and respect, whether we believe they have a soul or not. In this sense, religious people are doing awful things to their brethren and atheists who don’t believe in the afterlife, God, or souls, living moral lives. And vice-versa.
This tells me that, whether we believe in souls or not, the only thing that matters is how we treat each other.
Your horse may not have a soul, but it can feel pain, fear, joy, and excitement. Show your horse love and appreciation, and it will return the favor.
Horses can express simple emotions and will bond with their handlers over time. Their lifestyle will also influence their state of mind. If your horse shows signs of depression, anger, or aggression, seek out the cause and look for solutions.
A healthy and happy horse will perform better than a depressed and beat one in both competitions, racing, and in general.