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Your Horse and Your Happiness

The View

You’ve surely heard about the power of positive thinking.

Whether or not your eyes roll at the idea, it seems that study after study tells us that optimists, in general, do better than pessimists. Fewer sick days. Lower anxiety. Less stress. The benefits go on.

So how about when it comes to our horses?

To say that we have run hundreds of stories in TROT, over the years, where an underachieving horse begins to improve for his positive thinking owner, trainer or groom – is surely a modest estimate. It is a recurring theme that is somewhere in virtually every issue we run. This is not to say that replacing realism with fantasy will magically turn a low level claimer into a Breeders Crown winner. But positive thinking seems to play some role in success.

Most of us would agree that a horse feeling good about himself is more likely to perform, and stay healthy, than one who isn’t. But is it possible that how the humans around him feel and behave could play more of a role than we think it does?

Psychologists at Sussex University, confirmed in a study, published in Biology Letters (February 10, 2016) that the answer to that could quite possibly be, “Yes”.

Not only did they confirm that horses can read the emotions of those around them, but the study found that the physical reactions of horses change because of the moods of the people they interact with – even if those mood changes are expressed as subtly as a shift in facial expression.

“What’s really interesting about this research is that it shows horses have the ability to read emotions across the species barrier,” said Amy Smith, in an article in The Guardian. Smith is a doctoral student in the university’s mammal vocal communication and cognition research group. “We have known for a long time that horses are a socially sophisticated species but this is the first time we have seen that they can distinguish between positive and negative human facial expressions.

“The reaction to angry facial expressions was particularly clear – there was a quicker increase in their heart rate, and the horses moved their heads to look at the angry faces with their left eye.” The left eye is generally associated with scary or threatening situations.

The study found that horses are so intuitive that not only can they read emotions of the people around them, but they can even sense it from photos of people. It also found that horses may have a better ability to sense subtle human facial expressions than dogs and chimpanzees – two animals considered to have very high awareness of human behaviour.

“These findings raise interesting questions about the nature of emotional expression recognition, including the relative roles of learning and innate skills in its development,” the scientists said.

As December rolls around, we always find ourselves talking about joy and happiness. But, quite frankly, the words, “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year” may lose a bit of impact when you hear it repeated 100 times every day.

Perhaps the mantra for horsepeople this year should be to look after yourself, focus on your own happiness and well being, surround yourself with positive energy, and walk into the barn each morning with the goal of giving out as much positivity as you take in.

Not only will you be happier and healthier for it, but your horses will be too.

Darryl Kaplan
[email protected]

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