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Sussex Study: Horses can read our body language

Horses can tell the difference between dominant and submissive body postures in humans, even when the humans are not familiar to them, according to a new University of Sussex-led study.

The findings enhance our understanding of how animals can communicate using body posture across the species barrier, and are specifically helpful for informing horse handlers and trainers about the ways horses perceive human body language.

Psychology researchers worked with 30 domestic horses to see whether they were more likely to approach a person displaying a dominant body posture (involving the person standing straight, with arms and legs apart and chest expanded), or a submissive posture (slouching, keeping arms and legs close to the body, relaxed knees).

They found that even though the horses had been given food rewards previously by each person when in a neutral body posture, they were significantly more likely to approach the individual displaying a submissive rather than a dominant posture in follow-up trials.

Co-lead author of the study, psychology doctoral student Amy Smith, said: “Horses are often thought to be good at reading human body language based on anecdotal evidence such as the ‘Clever Hans effect’. However, little research has tested this empirically. These results raise interesting questions about the flexibility of cross-species communication.”

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