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How do horses ‘feel’ people?

You've probably heard people say 'horses can smell your fear' or that horses have the special ability to read and feel our emotion. Although it might seem a little mysterious, it's actually all very scientific. The survival instincts that horses developed many years ago make them very good at reading us.

  1. Understanding synchronisation

Horses naturally synchronise their adrenaline level with surrounding members of their herd (or humans who are nearby). This is a survival instinct as horses need to be able to communicate to each other instantly and silently of a danger in order to have a higher chance of survival. When horses are around someone who is scared, they immediately pick on it. Similarly, they will also synchronise with a person who is calm. In other words, they don’t only know if you are scared, they feel it.

This is why horses are good at teaching people to control their own emotions, not at the surface but in depth. They mirror your emotions.

2. Intuition

Horses are very good at sensing the intention of people. You have probably heard of horses which were much easier for a child to handle than an adult. Similarly, horses used as therapy for disabled people seem to know that they are vulnerable and will be very calm and protective of them. It is probable that horses can tell that these people have no agenda to harm, and will ‘adopt’ and take care of them.

3. Autism

Autistic people are very much like flight animals/horses: they are often non-verbal creatures of habit, prone to repetitive behaviour which brings them solace. They, like horses, will show a strong flight reaction to sudden loud noises. Autistic people often dislike eye contact, both are highly distractible.

Autistic people also have an ‘into-pressure’ type response. This means they crave pressure stimulation and don’t like the kind of soft touch which is pleasant for non-autistic people.

4. Acute sense of observation

The horse has the largest eyes of all land mammals. He has a very keen sense of observation as well as acute smell and hearing sense, on which he depends to spot predators and run away. Horses are constantly observing what happens around them and have an excellent memory.

A recent study by Sussex found that horses could also read facial expressions and differentiate between a happy and angry expressions. The research is here:

For all these reasons, horses have been extensively used in equitherapy to help mentally and physically disabled people. They are also used in corporate leadership programs, as well as in mental wellbeing programs.

** part of this blog was written using information from Monty Roberts' theory class notes **

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