Horses Can Identify and Remember Their Humans

Study show that horses can select the correct photo of their keepers, even ones they hadn’t seen in months.

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©. @jenlpalmer / Twenty20

Ask anyone who has loved a horse and they’ll likely agree: The bond between humans and horses rivals that of people and dogs. As Herman Melville once said, “No philosophers so thoroughly comprehend us as dogs and horses.”

But how well do horses really know their keepers? We already know that horses are capable of identifying other horses based on olfactory, auditory, or visual cues; but more was revealed when a group of researchers set out to explore horses’ ability to recognize human beings and on the basis of what cues.

Ethologist Léa Lansade of the French National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and Environment, and her team designed a study in which 11 horses were trained on a “discrimination task.” Here, the horses (all female) learned to choose between two photos on a computer screen. After the training phase, the faces of the horses’ keepers (also all female) were presented side by side with unfamiliar faces to see whether the horses could identify the faces of the people they knew.

And indeed, the horses were able to identify the faces of their keepers 75 percent of the time, which is significantly more than chance. Remarkably, they were also able to accurately identify former keepers whom they had not seen for six months. “Overall, these results show that horses have advanced human face-recognition abilities and a long-term memory of those human faces,” write the authors of the study.

Prior research has shown that horses can remember tasks learned two years earlier; one small study even found that horses were able to correctly recall complex problem-solving strategies seven years on. Meanwhile, other research has found that horses could remember the interactions they had with human beings five months previously. But the French study shows that beyond remembering what they have learned or human interactions, horses also have an excellent memory of people and particularly of their faces.

“The fact that the horses recognized the photograph of a person they had not seen for six months shows that they have a good memory for faces, a fact that was unknown until now,” the authors write, calling the horses’ long-term memory capacities the most noteworthy finding of the research.

So what’s the point? Why are scientists teaching horses to touch screens with their noses in the first place? Well, the more we are able to rethink how animals think, the better able we are to treat them appropriately. As the authors conclude, the degree to which domestic animals “can demonstrate sophisticated socio-cognitive skills and are sensitive to subtle behavioral cues of conspecifics and humans should be taken into account in our everyday interactions with these animals and raises new ethical issues in relation to how we manage livestock in general.”

And with that in mind, in conclusion we'll give the mic to Will Rogers who famously quipped, "Whoever said a horse was dumb, was dumb."

The study, "Female horses spontaneously identify a photograph of their keeper, last seen six months previously," was published in Scientific Reports.