When you arrive at the equestrian center, your horse seems to recognize you. He adopts a particular posture or neighs. Is he really capable of understanding that it’s you? Can he recognize faces? Does he memorize them? This is the question that researchers have asked themselves. And how does a horse recognize a person? Explanations.
The horse relies first on visual recognition
The horse’s vision is unique in that it can see 360°, but this animal is rather myopic. However, he has an incredible perception of movements, different from that of humans, but very fine. This equine sees patterns, shapes and facial features. He can therefore distinguish familiar faces from those he has never seen, but also facial expressions, to which he reacts differently depending on what they express. Moreover, visual contact is very important in human/horse communication, because the animal can carefully observe its owner or caregiver to seek information about its emotional state.
Finally, a study conducted by Lea Lansade on April 14, 2020 and published in Scientific Reports under the title “Female horses spontaneously identify a photograph of their keeper, last seen six months previously” for 6 months) reveals that not only do horses recognize our faces, but they also memorize them over a long period of time. In fact, the equines were shown the photo of a former trainer. The animal reacted and showed its gratitude even though it had not seen it for 6 months. He can also recognize a person after several years, even if he has been separated from them.
The researcher, author of the work “In the Head of a Horse”, specifies that horses recognize us whatever our clothes. It is therefore the face that they distinguish.
The equine also uses auditory recognition
Before discovering, in 2020, that horses recognized us by sight, researchers thought that man’s best conquest relied on voice, smell and behavior. Indeed, the voice is a mode of communication widely used in horse riding, particularly to make the animal move forward or stop. The horse’s hearing is very keen and he is sensitive to the tone as well as the emotions that pass through the voice. Moreover, research has noted that equines are particularly sensitive to children’s voices. Indeed, a study published on August 13, 2022 under the direction of Plotine Jardat, entitled “Horses form cross-modal representations of adults and children”, proves to us that these Animals can associate children’s voices with their faces and distinguish them from adults. In addition, their heart rate increases when they hear children’s voices, which is not the case with those of adults. This implies that their emotional reaction is more pronounced. They are also very sensitive to baby-talk (when we talk to them like babies), which makes grooming easier, if we rely on the study of March 18, 2021, conducted by Léa Lansade and devoted to this subject.
Likewise, a horse reacts differently when it hears its owner’s voice: it is indeed capable of recognizing it.
Speaking gently to your animal is therefore important to build a relationship of trust and complicity.
Horses also use their sense of smell to recognize people
Our equines’ sense of smell is also a powerful detector. Not only does it allow him to recognize his owner or his groom, but it also helps him to feel his emotions (and in this case, the term feeling is understood in the first degree). He knows how to distinguish joy from fear, because we produce different smells depending on our emotions. We are talking about chemoreception, that is to say chemical perception, which we find in many mammals. Regions of their brain are specifically dedicated to processing odors and are very ancient in evolution. This is confirmed by the February 25, 2023 study entitled “Horses discriminate human body odors between fear and joy contexts in a habituation-discrimination protocol”. habituation-discrimination).
Even in the absence of visual or sound stimuli, the horse can recognize us just with its nose and sense what state of mind we are in!
Recognition through behavior
In addition to their senses, horses, very routine animals, rely on habits and behaviors to recognize the humans around them. Thus, they associate certain people with specific activities such as meals, exercises or grooming. Our horse can also distinguish the different ways in which we handle him and can recognize us through our gestures, our way of asking them for their foot to clean it, our way of brushing it, and, of course, of riding it. Even our approach next to him, holding the halter or the net, is perceived by our mount!
They also associate us with the rewards we bring. So, if you are in the habit of offering him a carrot when you come to see him, your equine will not fail to associate you with his treat. But what works with positive attitudes touching his stomach is also effective when it comes to simple caresses and sweet words. It is repetition, associated with positive emotions, which creates a bond in the animal’s head. This is why it is important to remain consistent in your attitudes and routines, as this strengthens your horse’s ability to recognize. So, he is more comfortable and confident with you if you are consistent in your approach towards him.
The bond is also created through shared moments
All the good times you experience with your horse become anchored in his memory and are associated with positive emotions. Whether in training, in competition, during simple rides or career tours, shared experiences contribute to the rider’s recognition by their mount. As, in addition, it is an animal that feels and memorizes human emotions, it then recognizes the person with whom it shared them, whether joy or stress.
If you provide regular and gentle care to your animal, such as grooming before each session, a stronger bond is created. This is why it can be a shame to just come and ride him and let the groom groom him. The horse becomes attached to the one who treats it with affection and provides it with care.
In all cases, horses have a very good memory of events and the people associated with them.
The horse recognizes its owner by different combined means, whether visual, olfactory, auditory, but also through habits, events, gestures and experiences. This recognition testifies to his ability to become attached to his rider. The human/horse relationship can be very strong, hence the need to build it on a foundation of gentleness, trust, understanding and respect.