A new study by researchers at the University of Sussex tested the extent to which horses rely on information relayed by the eyes and ears of their fellow horses. In the experiment, horses were led to a choice of feed buckets. Each bucket sat in front of life-size photos of horses. When the horse picture had their eyes and ear covered, the real horses chose the feed buckets at random. But when the eyes and ears in the photos were visible, it was clear the horses chose to feed at a certain bucked based on information communicated by these moveable facial cues.
When the researchers set up the experiment using photographs showing ears and not eyes (and vice versa), the results suggested the direction of the ears convey a bit more than eyes do.
"Previous work investigating communication of attention has focused on cues that humans use -- body orientation, head orientation and eye gaze," said mammal communication expert Jennifer Wathan. "But no one had gone beyond that."
"We found that in horses, their ear position was also a crucial visual signal," Wathan added. "In fact, horses needed to see the detailed facial features of both eyes and ears before they would use another horse's head direction to guide their choice."
Of course, riders and caretakers have long known to look to a horse's ears to try to make sense of what the animal is thinking. And now science suggests they're looking in the right place.
The new study was published in the latest edition of the journal Current Biology.
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