Schrimpf, A., Single, M., Nawroth, C. 2020. Social referencing in the domestic horse. Animals 10(1), 164.
Dogs and cats use human emotional information directed to an unfamiliar situation to guide their behavior, known as social referencing. It is not clear whether other domestic species show similar socio-cognitive abilities in interacting with humans. We investigated whether horses (n = 46) use human emotional information to adjust their behavior to a novel object and whether the behavior of horses differed depending on breed type. Horses were randomly assigned to one of two groups: an experimenter positioned in the middle of a test arena directed gaze and voice towards the novel object with either (a) a positive or (b) a negative emotional expression. The duration of subjects’ position to the experimenter and the object in the arena, frequency of gazing behavior, and physical interactions (with either object or experimenter) were analyzed. Horses in the positive condition spent more time between the experimenter and object compared to horses in the negative condition, indicating less avoidance behavior towards the object. Horses in the negative condition gazed more often towards the object than horses in the positive condition, indicating increased vigilance behavior. Breed types differed in their behavior: thoroughbreds showed less human-directed behavior than warmbloods and ponies. Our results provide evidence that horses use emotional cues from humans to guide their behavior towards novel objects.