Do horses perform social referencing with their owner?

Elena Sutter, Jessica Martin, Charlotte Woolley, S Maigrot, Sabrina Briefer-Freymond

Research output: Contribution to conferenceAbstractpeer-review


Social referencing is a phenomenon which was first observed in infants and their primary caregiver. In uncertain situations, infants use the emotional expression of their caregiver towards an object, person or situation to orientate their behaviour. This process allows to precociously recognize dangerous situations. Social referencing has also been observed to happen between animals and humans. A study, published in 2020, found that horses use social referencing with humans. The emotional expression of an unknown experimenter inuenced vigilance behaviour and positioning with regard to an unknown object in horses. In this study, we tested 60 horse-human dyads in three uncertain situations. In contrast to the above mentioned study, horses participated with their owner who was considered to act as an equivalent to a primary caregiver. Dyads were confronted in a randomized order with three unknown objects. In every test run, the owner had to express either a positive (happy), a negative emotion (fear) or a neutral emotion towards the object. The criteria required for social referencing to be observed were the display of referential looks (RL), i.e. a look towards the object briey followed by a look towards the owner or vice versa, gaze alternation (GA), i.e. a series of three looks between owner and object, and behavioural adaption according to the displayed emotion. RL could be observed in 96% of horses and GA in 62%. Furthermore, RL and GA had an signicant effect on the time horses spent interacting with the object, as well as on latency to approach the object. Results concerning behavioural adaptation with respect to the exhibited emotions are still pending. Nonetheless, the outcomes of this study allow the interpretation that horses actively look at their owner to gather additional information when confronted with an unknown object. Findings on this subject matter are relevant because they allow us to gain a deeper knowledge on the cognitive abilities of equines and the complex relationships they form with humans
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 3 Sep 2021
EventEuropean Association of Animal Science 72nd Annual Meeting
: EAAP 2021
Duration: 30 Aug 20213 Sep 2021


ConferenceEuropean Association of Animal Science 72nd Annual Meeting
Internet address


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