Can horses feel what we feel?

In a study published in the journal Current Biology in 2018, researchers from the Mammal Vocal Communication and Cognition Research Group at the University of Sussex found that horses could remember the emotional expressions that they had seen on human faces.

Horses were presented with a photograph of an angry or happy human face and several hours later saw the person who had given the expression in a neutral state. Short-term exposure to the facial expression was enough to generate clear differences in subsequent responses to that individual, consistent with the past angry expression having been perceived negatively, and the happy expression positively.

These results provide clear evidence that horses can effectively ‘eavesdrop’ on the emotional state cues that humans reveal on a moment-to-moment basis, using their memory of these to guide future interactions with particular individuals

How Do Horses Show Their Emotions?

From an impatient foot stamp to a sharply pricked inquisitive ear, horses demonstrate their feelings and emotions in many familiar ways. In this University of Sussex study, the horse’s emotional state was evaluated by recording responses to the neutral person, such as looking behaviours (lateralized and binocular looking), displacement and stress behaviours, approach, avoidance and heart rate measures.

“Other studies have shown an increase in the rider’s heart rate was associated with a heart rate increase in the horse, therefore suggesting that to some extent the horse reacted to the anxiety of the rider. There is further research which found that horses ridden by more anxious riders had higher heart rates themselves,” explains chartered sports performance psychologist Sally McGinn. “However, there are some other studies that suggest it is still difficult to identify and assess the true impact of human anxiety on horses’ stress levels and subsequent response.”

So, does this mean that if we don’t smile at our horses on the ground, they may respond negatively to us at a competition?

“If you feed early and are tired and less relaxed than normal, when you come to load your horse they will remember your grumpy or tense expression and, it would seem, already be one step ahead in the suspicious, uncooperative department,” suggests behavioural and performance psychologist Nikki Heath.

“The need to mask and manage our emotions as riders is a different order of magnitude from other sports, where we can behave in any way we like towards the equipment and it will not react (breaking tennis rackets notwithstanding),” advises Nikki, who has worked with Olympic eventers and Formula One teams. “A football or golf club will not remember that you shouted at them or prodded them harder than intended; they don’t care if you are in a rush packing them up and throwing them into the car.”

As flight animals, horses are very responsive to human body language, and an unhappy facial expression may be accompanied by tension down the rein and negative, or even aggressive body language. 

“Whether they manifest as aggression or fear, nerves are a product of adrenaline, too much or too little,” explains Nikki. Each phase of eventing requires a different form of adrenaline management.

“In cross country, for example, adrenaline is your friend if managed well and positively. Repressing it too much can have a negative effect – embracing it by turning it into excitement and anticipation rather than fear is the key.”

Controlling Our Emotions

“There is no fixed menu for coping strategies as they need to be developed for each rider,” explains Sally. “I did some work with two event riders at the end of the 2019 season and found that one rider’s physical symptoms did not match her thought processes – this rider thought she was nervous, even though her heart rate was low. A relaxation strategy would not work for this rider as that is focused on the physical symptoms, but strategies such as visualisation and self-talk could help how the rider perceives being in more control.”

There are numerous well-documented and proven interventions that can be adopted to manage our emotions when riding. “Over thinking and distraction/displacement thoughts (aka cognitive anxiety) are fundamental to all of us, and can be managed with self-discipline, active visualisation and the use of key words, through mental/attentional focus techniques or physical routines that keep you in the here and now,” advises Nikki.

“The key with any mental skill techniques is to practise, practise and practise – mental skills need to be practised just as much as riding skills,” adds Sally.

A key difference for equestrian athletes is the need to not only control emotions, but also to mask them from the horse.

“Techniques I have found useful are ones that I have employed with the acting or singing professions, where facial control and body language have a huge impact on their performance,” continues Nikki. “These involve positive thinking or reframing, invoking a more empathetic line of thought with relaxing visualisation techniques and breathing methods. These can be performed in your own preparation routines, when you are getting ready to compete, plaiting or having breakfast, for example.” 

Nikki Heath’s Tips for Reframing

Cognitive reframing is a psychological technique that consists of identifying and then disputing irrational thoughts. Reframing is a way of viewing and experiencing events, ideas, concepts and emotions to find more positive alternatives. Here’s how:

1. Recognise that you are having negative thoughts – self-awareness is the key to unlocking changing behaviour.

2. Understand the cause of the thought – the activating event. For instance, if you have had a bad training session the day before a big event that has undermined confidence.

3. What are your responses to this event: 
  • Anger – externalising by being grumpy with those around you.
  • Depression: “I can’t ride this horse, I am useless, I am going to make a fool of myself or let others down.” 

4. Depending on the situation, there are a number of options that can be used to reframe your thoughts, for example: 
  • “I had a bad day yesterday, but I did work through it and I learned some ideas for getting better work quicker, which I can use at the event today.”
  • Find some external factors that were outside of your control that might have contributed to the bad training, such as weather, feeling time pressured or an argument. 

5. Find the positives in the situation you are about to face; the weather has improved, you have more time, you like the venue and your horse has gone well there before, you have slept well. Breathe and smile – visualise yourself coping and riding through the problem. Item a. is the most powerful and effective approach but adding items from b. can bolster confidence. Only focus on the positive changes, tell yourself you have coped previously with setbacks and recall the things you did to make it work.

6. Once you know what your default emotion is and the triggers, then take some time to research the different interventions available that can help you reduce the effects in the first place. Understanding how your actions may have contributed to something frustrating or upsetting can help you recover quicker, recalibrate and not let the negative event continue to ruin the rest of your day. 

Did You Know... Physical intervention Mood states are largely driven by thoughts, but a physical state such as hormones, fatigue or anxiety can also be the primary driver.


Self-talk is a common way of helping riders  to build confidence. Many coaches use positive words such as “ride forwards” to motivate riders to ride and think in a certain way on  the approach to a fence.

Have you read about the Mental Health of Horses?

First published in the July/August 2020 issue of British Eventing Life, original words by Kate Herren