For many of us, owning and riding a horse goes hand-in-hand with that other (wo)man’s best friend – a dog. If you love one, chances are you love, and have, the other.

The beloved barn dog is ubiquitous at Canadian equestrian centres and horse farms, with many establishments having more than one. And let’s face it, you can’t throw a stick around a horse show without having ten dogs chase after it.

If you do have a pooch, perhaps you’ve also noticed that your dog and horse get along rather well. They may even appear playful with one another. Don’t worry, you’re not seeing the animal world through Disney-coloured glasses; a new study sheds light on what we as horse and dog owners already suspected; these beasts have a similar way to play despite their prey and predator evolution.

The study, titled, Levelling the Playing Field: Synchronization and Rapid Facial Mimicry in Dog-Horse Play came out of Italy’s University of Pisa and will be published in the May issue of Behavioral Processes. One of the authors, Elisabetta Palagi, explained that she and her researchers analyzed hundreds of YouTube videos of horses and dogs playing together, selecting 20 of the best for their study, and found two important factors that allowed the interspecies playmates to engage in similar tactics that resulted in shared play.

According to the study’s abstract, “We described the behavioral patterns composing each session by defining analogous and species-specific patterns shown by dogs and horses. The rates of self-handicapping and variability in playful actions did not differ between the two interacting subjects thus suggesting well-balanced playful tactics. The Relaxed Open Mouth (ROM, a widespread playful facial expression in mammals) was also similarly performed by dogs and horses. The Rapid Facial Mimicry (RFM) is an automatic, fast response in which individuals mimic others’ expressions (less than 1 s) that seems to have a role in mood sharing during social interactions.”

What does that mean, exactly? The dogs and horse copied each other’s actions; for example, they went at each other with an open mouth but did not actually bite, a gesture that both species used. Rolling and pawing with forelegs was also employed by dogs and horses to engage the other in frolicking around the paddock or ring. These elements proved to researchers that “shared tactics” was possible between species. Just watching a selection of these videos will make the study’s results abundantly clear and also give you several minutes of pure joy!

“It’s an important study because it shows how two animals who look and behave so differently can nevertheless manage to negotiate how to play in a way that’s comfortable for both,” Barbara Smuts, a behavioral ecologist at the University of Michigan, told National Geographic. “It’s even more noteworthy given the large size difference between horses and dogs. The dog is vulnerable to injury by the horse, and the horse has a deeply ingrained tendency to fear animals who resemble wolves.”

Palagi, the study’s co-author, also noted that despite the different in evolution between horses and dogs, the fact that both have been domesticated by humans might explain why they recognize facial expression in each other, given they are accustomed to reacting to, and mimicking our own.

So next time your horse and hound want to touch noses or otherwise hang out without you at the other end of the lead or leash, it might be that they want a playdate!

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