Here We Go Again

wrappedinhorses_bvcIt’s happening again. Science is proving what we knew all along. This time it’s horses’ awareness of human emotion–though the study, on closer examination, isn’t actually about emotions. It’s about facial expressions. Specifically, one (male) human’s expressions as shown in photos.

That’s the same group that proved that horses have facial expressions, and those expressions reveal emotions.

It’s good that the studies are narrowing the ranges of variables. That makes it easier to draw conclusions, and reduces the number of possible interpretations of the data.

I do wonder if the scientists doing the studies have also noted that horses are able to recognize two-dimensional images, and interpret the emotions expressed by those images. That has its own significance. Consider that for a horse, the world is much more nuanced than it is for humans, with a far broader range of sensory input, and a much more refined sense of spatial relations and body language. The one sense that “wins” in humans over horses is sight–and that’s the one this study examines.

Basically it’s asking horses to demonstrate that they can match humans at their own game, and by taking away all advantages of equine senses, still “prove” that they can identify human expressions. And the crowd goes wild, because who knew?

Horse people knew, of course. And have been told, “Oh, you’re just anthropomorphizing–projecting your human emotions on animals.”

It’s nice to finally be validated. Not that we needed it for ourselves, but now when the human supremacists get going, we have links and studies to send them, and Actual Scientific Proof.

It’s getting harder and harder to cling to the idea of humans as something far above and apart from the animals, when study after study shows that animals share numerous traits once ascribed strictly to humans. Emotions being one. I can remember as a kid being told that “Animals don’t feel the way we do–they don’t feel pain as strongly, they don’t feel love, they don’t have emotions as such. They’re a lower form of life, and humans are unique and distinct.”

Don’t feel love. Right.

Don’t feel pain? Hokay.

It’s not a hierarchy any more. It’s a continuum, with complex interrelations between and among species. Science is demonstrating what humans who interact constantly and knowledgeably with animals have known all along.

I just have one quibble about the latest. Did it have to be a male face? These days, so many more women than men are involved with horses. Did the study have to define “human” as “male”?

That’s an old bias all on its own. Which just goes to show, the more aware we are of our assumptions, the more we realize how far, and how deep, they go.

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About Judith Tarr

Judith Tarr is a writer, a freelance editor and writing mentor, and a lifelong horse person. She lives near Tucson, Arizona, where she raises and trains Lipizzan horses. Her new book, Forgotten Suns, is out now from Book View Cafe. Yes, there are horses in it.
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4 Responses to Here We Go Again

  1. I was thinking that about the male face, but maybe to the horse it’s just a face. I wonder what, if anything, they think of our gender varieties.

    • Judith Tarr says:

      They are aware of it. It’s a myth that stallions react to menstruating women, but as with dogs, abused or mistreated horses may have negative reactions to people of the same gender as the abusers.

      Women tend to make better stallion handlers than men, as well. It seems, from observation, that a woman comes across as an alpha mare, but a man is a potential rival. The hormones are the same, after all.

      • That’s interesting. I know dogs react to the smell of people, and also hearing. Two of my rescue dogs were badly abused, and were terrified of males. I thought that was a smell thing rather than a facial recognition thing, especially as one would react before seeing a strange man in the house. I figured that had to be either smell, or hearing a strange male voice, or both.

        That’s fascinating about the women being better stallion handlers.

  2. My semi-psychotic horse disliked men. Which wasn’t that big a surprise, considering that sometime before I got him he’d been thrown to the ground, had his mane roached, and got branded. (In the early 1960s, doubtful that any of that had women involved. Could have been, but I kind of doubt it.)