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My granddaughter and I were watching a couple of our horses in a paddock. One horse had tears flowing from his eyes, and this prompted her to ask, “Why is your horse crying?”
Horses don’t cry as an emotional response, but they shed tears when their tear ducts are blocked. However, horses express emotions with their actions; for example, they pen their ears when mad, and yes, horses miss you when you are away from them.
Many people believe horses cry because they shed tears. But the tears aren’t shed in sadness but rather caused by an eye condition.
Horses don’t cry.
Crying is shedding tears in response to an emotion, such as sadness, anger, or happiness. A horse can produce tears that flow down its face. But this doesn’t equate to crying.
However, I get that some people consider the flowing of tears is crying, so we need to be more precise when we ask the question, “do horses cry.” Are we asking if horses cry tears in response to a situation? If this is the question, then the answer is no; horses don’t cry.
But if the question is broad, such as do horses shed excessive tears that flow down their faces, then the answer is yes, horses cry. There are three types of tear production: basal, psychic, and reflex.
Basal tear production is regular eye moisture
Basal tear production is the regular, and constant moisture needed for the proper functioning of eyes. Failure of the creation of basal tears is a severe eye condition that must be treated, or permanent damage could result.
Psychic tear production occurs in response to emotional stimulus
Tear production that occurs in reaction to an emotional stimulus, such as pain or sadness, is called psychic tear production. Humans are the only species confirmed to stimulate tear production based on psychic responses.
Tears produced because of an irritant is reflex tear production
Increase tear production with an irritation of the eyes or sinus is a reflex tear production when we see horses cry its not an emotional but actually reflex tear production caused by an irritant or blocked ducts.
Do horses have feelings?
When my granddaughter gets close to the pasture, our horses lift their heads and start whinnying. These actions make me feel that the horses are displaying their joy to see her.
Horses have feelings. We know this because they signal their attitude both vocally and with body language. A French research team published a 2018 peer-reviewed study of a horse’s ability to vocalize emotion.
What the researchers were able to extrapolate from their study is a horses’ snort is a signal of positive emotion. You can read the article here, “An unexpected acoustic indicator of positive emotions in horses.”
If we assume that horses have feelings, the next question is, do they have the same range of emotions that humans have? Scientific studies don’t provide an answer to this question.
We must rely on our experiences and the experiences of others to make a reasonable guess of which emotions horses possess. Most horse people believe they display fear, anger, curiosity, confusion, sadness, and happiness.
Horse don’t have high-level emotions
Emotions such as guilt, embarrassment, and respect are too high-level feeling for horses. Knowing a horse has emotions is another nugget of information we can use to help us communicate with them.
The key for us is to be able to read signs of emotions given by a horse. However, horses cry because of sinus congestion and blocked tear ducts, not as a show of emotion.
Horses express emotions with their Ears
Horses are herd animals, and they communicate feelings to the members of their herd in various ways. One of their methods is through the positioning of their ears. Some emotions a horse conveys with its ears are comfort, fear, anger, and danger.
When you see a horse with his ears pinned back, you need to be aware that he is mad, ears forward let you know he is attentive, and ears flopped down may mean he is bored or tired. To learn more about the signals horses send with their ears read this article, we wrote: “What does a Horses Ears Tell You.”
Horses express emotions with sounds
Horses use a simple variation of snorts and squeals, neighs and nickers, to convey mood changes:
- Snorts: The horse holds his head high, and powerfully blows out, threw his nose while keeping his body tense. This is a sign of curiosity and fear, its a warning signal.
- Squeals: A horse will make a high pitched squeal with his mouth closed or partially closed. Horses do this when they are in pain, or when a mare is sending signals to a stallion.
- Nickers: Horses have three nickers, the greeting nicker, the courtship nicker, and the maternal nicker. All are comforting greetings, but with varying undertones.
- Neighs: This is a sing of curiosity; it begins with a squeal and ends with a nicker. Horses often neigh when they are separated from a herd.
- Roars: Horses roar when they are angry, it usually only occurs in the wild.
- Blows: This is the signal letting you know he feels good. It’s a simple release of air through the nostrils.
To learn more about how horses communicate through sounds, read our article here. Learning the signals horses use to communicate helps us to understand them better and makes training them much more natural.
Horses express emotion with their eyes
A study of equine facial expression performed at the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom determined horses convey emotions with their eyes. The following are some of the expressions they charted:
- Upper eyelid raiser and white eye increase: The raising of the eyelid and increasing the exposure of the white is a sign of fear.
- Raised inner brows: Horses don’t have an eyebrow like humans, but they do have an expression that raises the inner corner of the eye. When a horse raises his inner corner of the eye, it is expressing feelings of sadness or fearfulness.
But the reason horses cry isn’t a sign of emotion but rather a result of a blocked tear duct.
Can Horses Sense When You are Afraid of Them?
Our horses are exposed to our grandchildren daily, and they are incredibly calm and patient around kids. However, they had a friend over one day, to ride, and the horses acted entirely out of character.
Horses sense fear from a rider. It’s unclear if the horse picks up on fear or inexperience. However, the reaction by horses is somewhat surprising, based on a study of horses exposed to people afraid of horses.
The study published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior monitors humans, and horses’ heart rates while in a round pen. The round pen included persons afraid of horses and those comfortable around horses.
The humans were blindfolded, and the horse allowed to walk around the subjects. What the study found was that horses reacted differently around each group.
The horse’s heart rate dropped when near the sensitive subjects, and they also lowered their heads. These two reactions of the horses display a calmer demeanor around nervous human subjects.
The study concluded horses in the presence of people who are afraid of horses are not at an increased risk of danger. Horses are individuals and are massive, unpredictable animals, so be vigilant around horses and follow safety precautions when around them.
Interesting Fact: Horses can’t smell fear in humans, but they can smell fear in other horses.
Do Horses Remember You?
We went to a rodeo one weekend and competing was a paint horse we sold to a family. It had been many years since I’d seen the paint horse, but when I approached, he treated me like an old friend.
Horses remember people, especially the ones that have treated them well. Horses also remember their training after many years.
We once had a farrier put his arm over the muzzle of each new horse he shod. One day I asked him about this practice, and he told me that he does this to allow the horse to get his scent.
He believed once a horse got a good whiff of someone, the horse always remembered the person. Recent research has confirmed that horses do remember people for long periods.
Good memory is an inherent trait from herd socialization, and horses relied on their minds to recognize pleasant horses of other herds and ones that were threats.
The study involved vet examinations followed by treats for some horses. Others were examined and not given treats. The horses’ given treats behaved much better after gaps of treatment of eight months and gravitated to the person who provided the horse the treats.
The researchers determined that horses learned, behaved, and memorized better when learning was associated with a positive stimulus. Training this way is similar to how a dog is trained. Using a treat with training can be effective because of horses’ unique skills.
Other studies show the horse as having a highly effective memory for both good and bad experiences. Testing has shown horses can recall past experiences and react to them readily.
Do Horses Know Their Names?
I can go out in my pasture and call a horse’s name and every time they come, or none come. I continue to address my horses by their names, but I don’t know if they understand.
Horses may recognize their names when said by their owners. But horses are very attuned to reading human body language and audible tones and could be reacting to sounds and not words.
A horse recognizes the pitch and tone in their owners’ voice when being called. If another person called the horse by the same name, it’s likely the horse won’t respond.
Do Horses Miss Their Owners?
Some of our horses are more sensitive than other ones. If we are gone for a few days, one horse gets excited on our return, and the others don’t seem to react any differently.
Most horses, when they hear their caretaker or owner’s voice, start getting excited immediately. It’s easy to recognize your horse’s joy upon knowing you’ve returned after an absence.
But, if you see tears, it’s not related to sadness, horses cry or instead shed tears because of blocked tear ducts, it’s not an expression of emotion.
How do You Tell a Horse You Love Them?
- The best way you can show a horse that you care for them is to groom them daily;
- Next, make sure they are adequately fed, and provide a treat once a day;
- Don’t overwork your horses, find a happy medium when it comes to training;
- Provide a clean and safe environment for them;
- Make sure they have proper health care, feet, teeth, worming, and shots.
- Spend some time hand grazing your horse.