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Horses feel emotions when they watch positive and negative horse–human interactions in a video and transpose what they saw to real life


Animals can indirectly gather meaningful information about other individuals by eavesdropping on their third-party interactions. In particular, eavesdropping can be used to indirectly attribute a negative or positive valence to an individual and to adjust one’s future behavior towards that individual. Few studies have focused on this ability in nonhuman animals, especially in nonprimate species. Here, we investigated this ability for the first time in domestic horses (Equus caballus) by projecting videos of positive and negative interactions between an unknown human experimenter (a “positive” experimenter or a “negative” experimenter) and an actor horse. The horses reacted emotionally while watching the videos, expressing behavioral (facial expressions and contact-seeking behavior) and physiological (heart rate) cues of positive emotions while watching the positive video and of negative emotions while watching the negative video. This result shows that the horses perceived the content of the videos and suggests an emotional contagion between the actor horse and the subjects. After the videos were projected, the horses took a choice test, facing the positive and negative experimenters in real life. The horses successfully used the interactions seen in the videos to discriminate between the experimenters. They touched the negative experimenter significantly more, which seems counterintuitive but can be interpreted as an appeasement attempt, based on the existing literature. This result suggests that horses can indirectly attribute a valence to a human experimenter by eavesdropping on a previous third-party interaction with a conspecific.

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We thank Fabrice Reigner and his team for allowing us to use the animals and facilities and for their assistance in taking care of the horses.We also thank Marie-Claire Blache for her help in video editing. Our research was financially supported by the IFCE (Institut Français du Cheval et de l’Equitation).


This study was funded by IFCE (Institut Français du Cheval et de l’Equitation; grant: Cognition-équitation).

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Correspondence to Miléna Trösch.

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All applicable international, national, and/or institutional guidelines for the care and use of animals were followed. All procedures performed in studies involving animals were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institution or practice at which the studies were conducted.

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Trösch, M., Pellon, S., Cuzol, F. et al. Horses feel emotions when they watch positive and negative horse–human interactions in a video and transpose what they saw to real life. Anim Cogn 23, 643–653 (2020).

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  • Equus caballus
  • Social cognition
  • Social eavesdropping
  • Human–animal relationship
  • Emotional contagion