Study says horses make faces like humans, no offense intended

Why the long face? A new study from the University of Sussex says horses use their lips and eyes to express emotion much like humans do.

Danny Gallagher
Danny Gallagher
CNET freelancer Danny Gallagher has contributed to Cracked.com, Mental Floss, Maxim, Break.com, Mandatory, Jackbox Games, Geeks Who Drink and many, many other publications in his never-ending quest to bring the world's productivity to a screeching halt. He lives and works in Dallas. Email Danny.
2 min read

Enlarge Image
Wipe that grin off your face, Trigger. Getty Images/EyeEm

Has anyone ever accused you of having a horse face? Well, now you can throw that mean description right back at them, because it turns out that all human and horse faces may be similar.

Equines show their emotions in social situations by making expressions that "are also seen in primates and other domestic animals," researchers from the University of Sussex said in a study published August 5 in the journal PLOS ONE.

The researchers mapped out horses' facial expressions with a system they developed called the Equine Facial Action Coding System or EquiFACS (not a website that lets horses check their credit scores) that tracks muscle movements on video.

This system helped the researchers identify 17 "Action Units" or facial movements in various parts of horses' faces. Some of these movements, such as the raising of the upper lip and the widening of the eyes, turned out to be very similar to facial movements that humans make.

Karen Mccomb, a professor of animal behavior and cognition at the University of Sussex, said in a statement that horses have "complex and fluid social systems" and these results support the idea that "social factors have had a significant influence on the evolution of facial expression."

The similarity of movement doesn't mean horses are experiencing the same emotional states humans would be when making the same expressions. However, Mccomb said, such research gives "insights into how horses are actually experiencing their social world."

Researchers from the Ethology and Animal Welfare Unit at ETH Zurich's Institute of Agricultural Science published a study in April in the journal Scientific Reports saying horses express emotion with their voices by varying the frequency of their whinnies and neighs.

As Mccomb points out, the understanding gained from this sort of research could lead to better care for horses. I personally hope this path leads all the way to a talking horse. It would be a real bonus if it could also grant wishes.