Horses use their eyes and ears to communicate with each other. They play close attention to the direction of their equine friend’s ears to work out what they are thinking. According to a new study conducted by researchers at the University of Sussex, the swiveling ears have become a very useful communication tool. The study appeared in the journal Current Biology.
Horses rely on visual cues from their stablemates
The University of Sussex researchers Jennifer Wathan and Karen McComb have been studying animal behavior to find out how communication and social skills evolved. Ms Wathan said being sensitive to what others are thinking is a fundamental skill from which other skills develop. The behavioral experiment on horses shows that they gather key information from their stablemate’s ears.
A total of 72 horses were involved in the experiment. Each of them had to rely on visual cues to choose where to feed. Scientists led each horse to a point where it had to choose one of the two buckets. The wall behind the buckets had life-sized photograph of a horse’s head facing either of the two buckets. In some cases, researchers obscured the eyes or ears of the horses in the photograph.
The direction of ears indicates mood of the horses
If the ears and eyes of the horse in the photograph were visible, the test horses chose the bucket toward which the gaze and ears of the horse in the image directed. But if the eyes of ears of the horse in the picture were covered, the test horses chose a bucket randomly. Horses can easily rotate their ears through 180 degrees. However, Wathan said, in our “human-centric” world, we have overlooked the importance of mobile ears in animal communication.
Horses have very rich relationships and social lives. The direction of ears of a horse indicates their mood. When the ears are pinned back, the animal is angry. But when they are flopping down, the horse is relaxed. When something catches the interest or attention of a horse, it raises its ears and pivots them to whatever it is that captured its attention.