A recent study by Dr. Katrina Merkies and graduate student Haley Belliveau, from the Department of Animal Biosciences at the University of Guelph, posed the question: can people make accurate distinctions between horse vocalizations in positive and negative contexts?

The researchers gathered 32 different audio clips from immature, mature, male and female horses, with some taken from animated movies and shows. The vocalizations represented both positive contexts, such as reuniting with a herd member or expectation of being fed, or negative contexts such as separation of a mare and foal or social aggression.

The results revealed that 64 per cent of the 309 participants, from 14 different countries, were able to correctly distinguish between positive and negative vocalizations. Females were better at classifying them compared to males, perhaps because more females are involved with horses. Other demographics collected during the survey including age, experience with horses and residing country appeared to have no bearing on the results. Interestingly, vocalizations in popular media seem to accurately portray the emotion connected with a scenario, enabling even people inexperienced with horses to understand the emotional context.

“It is reassuring to know that, regardless of a person’s experience with horses, people are mostly able to accurately characterize the nature of a horse’s vocalization,” said Dr. Merkies. “This gives us insight into what a horse may be feeling, and as caretakers we can act to provide good welfare for our horses.”