Horses and Emotional Intelligence

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Horses and Emotional Intelligence2017-12-28T11:10:16-05:00

Horses and Emotional Intelligence

The One Masterful Trait of People With High Emotional Intelligence

Out of all the components of emotional intelligence, this one crucial trait rises to the top.

New Study Confirms That Horses Can Read Human Emotions

They might not be able to read minds yet, but a new study from the University of Sussex confirmed today that horses can recognize when you’re mad at them.

The study indicates that horses can tell the difference between happy and angry human emotion, and act accordingly when faced with them. Researchers showed 28 horses photographs of angry faces, and observed both rising heart rates and an increase in stress-related behaviors. The horses also tended to turn to look at the pictures with their left eye, a common behavior in many animals when confronted with a stressful situation.

The study marks the first time facial expressions have had a direct effect on heart rate across the species barrier — the horses were able to recognize a perceived threat from just a photograph of an angry person, with no other stimuli, something researchers haven’t observed in any other animal.

The researchers said the horses had a far milder reaction to photos of happy people. Essentially, the study proves what a lot of horse owners already knew: horses can be jerks sometimes, and they don’t care all that much when you’re happy. This horse, for example:

Still, when they’re not being mischievous, horses’ emotional intelligence is well documented. Equine Assisted Therapy has been popular for years, because proponents say the big, warmblooded animals help people slow down and relax.

It’s no surprise that horses are the first animal to definitively recognize human facial expressions. Horses have been domesticated since 3500 B.C., and Professor Karen McComb, one of the lead researchers, thinks the animals could have evolved an “ancestral ability for reading emotional cues.” Otherwise, McComb thinks it’s possible that individual horses — the 28 subjects came from riding and livery barns in Sussex and Surrey, UK — learned how to read faces in their own lifetime.

“What’s interesting is that accurate assessment of a negative emotion is possible across the species barrier despite the dramatic difference in facial morphology between horses and humans,” McComb said.

But despite the differences of facial morphology, humans love horses: we paint them to protect them from cars, and it’s no mistake that Netflix chose an alcoholic, anthropomorphic horse to explore the dark side of the human experience. Wherever we go as a species, horses will be along for the ride.

Pioneering Research: Collaborating With Horses to Develop Emotional Intelligence

Horses grazing in field

Horses grazing in field

PHOTO: Matt Barton


Researchers in the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture recently completed one of the first studies to explore how working with horses can develop emotional intelligence in humans. UK Center for Leadership Development researchers, Patricia Dyk and Lissa Pohl, collaborated with UK Healthcare nurse researchers Carol Noriega, Janine Lindgreen and Robyn Cheung on the two-year study, titled The Effectiveness of Equine Guided Leadership Education to Develop Emotional Intelligence in Expert Nurses.

“With Lexington being known as the Horse Capital of the World, it is only fitting that the University of Kentucky is conducting pioneering research in the emerging field of equine assisted learning”, said Patricia Dyk, director of the Center for Leadership Development.

The project included a control group of 10 nurses from the Neuroscience Surgery Service Line and an intervention group consisting of 11 nurses from the Trauma and Acute Care Surgical Service Line at UK Chandler Hospital. At the start of the study and again six months later, both groups took the online assessment appraising emotional intelligence. Nurses in the intervention group participated in a one-day workshop that involved experiential learning with horses.

“Each exercise in the workshop was designed to develop the four emotional intelligence competency areas of self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and relationship management,” said Lissa Pohl, research project manager and workshop facilitator.

The before and after survey results showed there was an increase in the scores of the intervention group in all four competency areas when compared to the control group. Because the sample was small, the changes cannot be directly attributed to the workshop; there are strong indications, however, that the positive change in bedside manner could have resulted from lessons learned from interacting with horses.

Marie-Claude Stockl was the co-facilitator for the workshop with the nurses. She owns the Horse Institute, and as such, facilitates equine-assisted learning workshops for corporate groups in central New York state.

“We are thrilled to get this research completed, because it builds the credibility of all organizations offering this type of learning experience,” she said.

According to Pohl, the initial results are encouraging and lay the groundwork for subsequent studies of larger and more diverse populations of nurses.

“If horses can increase our ability to understand ourselves and others better, then the healthcare industry is a perfect place for studies like these,” she said. “When nurses and doctors benefit from collaborating with horses then ultimately their patients also benefit.”

Funding for the study came from the Dorothy Brockopp Nursing Research Award, the College of Agriculture Research Activities Award and Winning With Horsepower’s online fundraising campaign. To access the full research report and for more information on contributing to this research, visit


Lissa Pohl, 859-257-2748

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