Have you ever wondered how well your horse recognizes you? Meaning, beyond the faint scent of carrot bits in your pocket that alerts them to your presence in the field? I have, too. And we're not alone: this very topic has been the fodder for many research studies by equine scientists.
Previous research has shown that horses identify other horses by smell, hearing and visual details, and that they can also identify specific humans in similar ways. But excitingly, a newer study done in 2020 has gone even further to demonstrate that horses can differentiate between photographs of a familiar human and an unfamiliar human, and that they can remember a person's face for at least 6 months after not having seen them for that length of time.
In a study conducted by Léa Lansade, Violaine Colson, Céline Parias, Miléna Trösch, Fabrice Reigner and Ludovic Calandreau, eleven mares were presented with pairs of photographs: one of the face of a person they knew in real life but hadn't seen before in a photograph, and one of a different human face. With other possible variables controlled for, the horses touched the photos of the human they knew significantly more often than the face of the other person. What's more, six months later they were still able to distinguish between a photograph of the familiar person and that of an unfamiliar person.
Perhaps not shocking, but pleasantly validating, the results prove what a lot of us have at least hoped to be true: that horses have advanced facial recognition capabilities, as well as long-term memory of human faces.
So the next time you go out to get your horse, rest assured that they actually know who you are - you're not just some Jane or Joe Schmoe carrying the possibility of a treat!
Lansade, L., Colson, V., Parias, C. et al. Female horses spontaneously identify a photograph of their keeper, last seen six months previously. Sci Rep10, 6302 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-62940-w