A new study from the University of Sussex has discovered that horses are able to suss out the difference between dominant and submissive human body language and postures, even if they don't know them.
Researchers worked with 30 domestic horses in an experiment to test this. The study involved two people who stood in different positions in front of the horses, one slouching, with their legs together and arms tucked away adjacent of their body, displaying a more submissive posture, and another person whose arms and legs were spread wide, with their back straight in a more dominant position.
They were both women of a similar size, dressed in similar pieces of clothes, including a scarf that hid part of their face, so facial expressions could be hidden. They then took it in turns to feed the horses.
Their results, published in the journal Animal Cognition, revealed that even after being fed by both people in a "neutral" position, the horses were still more likely to go to the person who was stood in a more submissive posture.
The body language of humans is able to be read by horse due to the anecdotal evidence such as the 'Clever Hans effect',
"Horses are often thought to be good at reading human body language based on anecdotal evidence such as the 'Clever Hans' effect," co-lead author and psychology doctoral student, Amy Smith said in a press release. “However, little research has tested this empirically. These results raise interesting questions about the flexibility of cross-species communication."
Co-author Dr Leanne Proops of the University of Portsmouth explained that humans and animals use similar postures when showing signs of dominance or threat, making themselves larger, or using more reserved and smaller position when showing traits of submissiveness.
“Horses may therefore have an instinctual understanding of larger vs. smaller postures," Proops said.
Smith, who was also involved in the Mammal Vocal Communication and Cognition Research Group in the School of Psychology in the University of Sussex, last year co-led a study suggesting that horses could also tell the difference between when a human was happy and angry.