Horses Have Facial Expressions For Frustration And Disappointment

New research finds horses have facial different expressions for frustration and disappointment.

Researchers at the University of Lincoln have found that horses show both frustration and disappointment with facial expressions.

The study, titled “Recognising the facial expression of frustration in the horse during feeding period” was published in Applied Animal Behavior Science and authored by Claire Ricci-Bonot, and Daniel Simon Mills. (source)

For the study, horses were trained to expect a food reward, and their facial expressions recorded and analyzed when no reward was forthcoming.

The researchers found that the horses exhibited specific facial expressions for both frustration and disappointment.

  • A frustrated horse is more likely to show the whites of its eyes, rotate its ears and to turn its head to the left.
  • A disappointed horse will blink, show its tongue, lift its nostrils and move its jaws from side to side as if chewing.
  • No specific facial expressions to show anticipation of a reward were detected in the horses.

The Study

Horses Playing
Horses are social animals that communicate in a number of ways, including facial expressions.

Thirty one horses of various ages and breeds were used in the study. Twenty of the horses were female, eleven were male, and of the males, ten were geldings.

Initially, the horses were introduced to the testing equipment and trained to anticipate food after having been led into a stall.

(One of the horses appeared not to understand the relevance of being led into the stall, and was not used in the experiment.)

The testing equipment consisted of a feeder with two sliding covers, one opaque, one clear.

The researchers poured horse pellets into the container with the clear cover closed. After 10 seconds, the clear cover was opened, allowing the horse access to the food.

Once the horses were accustomed to the procedure, the tests to measure their reaction in various situations could begin.

The horses’ responses were filmed and analyzed according to the Horse Facial Action Coding System (EquiFACS) – an established means of objectively measuring the facial expressions of horses.

  • Anticipation was measured in the ten seconds between the food having been poured, and the clear cover being released.
  • Frustration was measured when the clear cover was not removed after ten seconds (the cover was eventually removed one minute later).
  • Disappointment was measured when, ten seconds after the food was poured, the clear cover was removed but the opaque cover was closed, thereby hiding the food from the horse.

What The Experiment Found


After analyzing the horses’ responses to the various parts of the experiment, the researchers found that, while the horses showed no significant change in facial expression during the anticipation stage, there was a significant change in facial expression in both the frustration and disappointment tests.

Frustrated horses were found to be more likely to show the whites of their eyes, rotate their ears, turn their heads left (perhaps in anticipation of food being poured into the feeder) and bite the feeder.

Disappointed horses were more likely to blink, lift their nostrils, show their tongues, chew (move their jaws side to side as if chewing) and to lick the feeder.

The only difference in reaction between male and female horses was that female horses were more likely to blink.


The experiment showed that, under certain feeding situations, horses did exhibit certain facial expressions in response to negative situations (extended waiting time, and failure of food to appear).

Although there were known limitations to the experiment, the team’s findings add to our existing knowledge of horse facial expressions and body language.

Such knowledge is valuable in shaping our treatment of horses and other animals in the future.

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