I’ve been asked a couple of times if I think that horses have emotions. It makes me somewhat emotional to learn that there are at least a few people out there interested enough in my opinion to ask: here goes.
If you have a horse, or work around them, it’s pretty easy to come up with a convincing answer to the question. For example, when asked if your horse loves you, you might say, “Of course – my horse loves me. That’s why he nickers when he sees me! (No, it is not the carrots.)” For some people, the answer is so obvious that they really won’t see a need for this page. For them, if you ask, “Do horse’s have emotions?” the answer is simple, and emphatic. “Yes!!!”
My personal favorite is, “My horse hates men.” This one is usually delivered with a straight face, and generally right before I’m supposed to engage in some procedure that might be unpleasant (for the horse). Far be it for me to
suppose that the, “Easy, easy, it’ll be OK,” the anxious look, or the jerking lead rope has anything to do with raising the horse’s level of apprehension; it’s gotta be me (and maybe the needle in my hand). And, of course, when I do manage to get my work done around the man-hating horse, and he’s behaved like a gentleman, it’s always, “I can’t believe how good he was.” I am still waiting for the, “Wow, Dr. R., you must be some sort of genius at handling horses!” Sometimes, you just can’t win. But I digress.
All kidding aside, the question is actually a bit complex. There may be lots of opinions but there really aren’t any answers in the scientific literature. I asked the question as to whether horses have emotions to an instructor and researcher in equine behavior, and she was unaware of any papers regarding “emotion” in horses. It would be a difficult area to research – equine cognition and equine personality are tough enough to study, and emotion would be almost impossible. That said, the term “emotionality” is often used in the literature and texts on horse behavior, but it refers more to personality, that is such things as the repeatability of responses to novel or unpleasant stimuli, or the ease of learning tasks.
There’s no doubt that horses have behaviors to which people input emotions. These may or not be an accurate interpretation of what’s going on inside the horse’s head. Of course, this differs from evaluating emotions in humans because… because… hmm… I’ll have to work on that one. Nevertheless, in trying to determine if horses have emotions, we are limited both by our own perspective but perhaps more importantly, by language. We can only use words that describe human emotions to describe the sensations of animals. When people use words like “love” or “anger” or “fear” they describe a wide range of actual emotion and thought. Just as each human perceives the world differently, it’s entirely likely that animals perceive the world differently from people. Therefore, our ideas regarding the sensations that horses experience – ideas that are based on our own experiences, then projected on horses – may be inaccurate.
So, “Do horses experience sensations of fear, love, hate, loneliness, etc.?” Personally, I think so, at least on some level. Are these the “same” feelings that people have? I have no idea, but I’m inclined to think not. I’m pretty sure that it’s a question that would be very difficult to answer. Plus, if we got an answer, people would most likely discount it anyway (“What, horses don’t love? Well, I don’t care what anyone says, my horse loves me.”)
I’m not falling into that trap anyway. You’re never going to hear me saying that your horse doesn’t love you; what purpose would that serve? And if you tell me that your horse hates me, I’m really going to pay attention, no matter what the research says.