Does your horse respond when you call their name but completely ignore someone like the farrier, vet, or a complete stranger?
Do they run toward you when you open the pasture but play hard-to-catch for your friends and family?
Sometimes this type of selective behavior is a coincidence, but we have to ask—do our horses really recognize us? And more importantly, can they distinguish us from someone else who might throw them hay or get in the saddle?
We all want to think that our horses can tell us apart from all the other humans in the world. But without speaking their language, it's impossible to know for sure. We do know, however, that there are several studies that suggest horses recognize the people close to them in much the same way they recognize other horses in their herd.
Combining Visual and Auditory Cues
In 2012, animal behaviorists published a study that found horses are capable of recognizing and distinguishing humans through auditory and visual cues. Lead researcher Dr. Leanne Proops explained it's similar to how humans have the ability to match a person's face with their voice.
She told Horse Illustrated,
"When we hear a familiar voice, we form a mental picture of who spoke. We match visual and auditory cues to recognize specific individuals."
For the study, researchers had two people stand on either side of the horse. One person was familiar to the horse, and the other was a stranger. They then played a recording from a hidden speaker of either the familiar person's voice or the stranger's.
Their findings show that the horses often looked toward the familiar person when they heard that person's voice. This indicated the horse recognized the voice and knew which human it belonged to.
When the horse heard the unfamiliar voice, they didn't seem to make connections toward either of the people standing near them.
Researchers also did this experiment with two people the horse already knew. The test was to discern if horses could distinguish between two familiar voices and match each voice to a familiar face. Most of the horses passed the test, indicating horses use multi-modal memory (memory involving more than one sense) to identify humans.
Outside of a lab, this experiment is similar to how your horse comes when you call them but chooses to ignore everyone else. They recognize your voice, match that voice to your face, and then make the connection that you're someone familiar and trustworthy.
Dr. Karen McComb, co-author of the study, suggests horses developed this skill as a means of self preservation. Like dogs, horses have a long history of interacting with humans. They're also prey animals with a strong instinct to protect themselves. McComb theorizes that the ability to identify humans evolved from a horse's need to know whom they can trust.
Recognition Through Reinforcement
There's another theory that states horses don't recognize individual humans as much as they recognize a human's repetitive actions.
For example, if you come into the barn every morning to dish out hay, your horse learns to expect your arrival. The same goes for your regular turn outs, rides, and exercise. Your horse acknowledges these interactions, and your routines can reinforce your familiarity in your horse's mind.
But what happens if you're sick one day, and you send a friend to go turn out your horse? If your friend does everything you usually do, will your horse understand that your friend is not you?
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These are questions that we can't fully answer. Past studies combined with anecdotal evidence from countless horse owners, however, suggests horses are indeed capable of discerning the difference between different handlers. There's a lot of mystery still left to uncover. But that shouldn't stop any horse lover from enjoying the incredible bond they share with their horse.