Horses don’t love us as much as we love them: study

Buttercup giving you the colt shoulder?

Folklore would have humans believe that we have a special bond with horses, dating back some 6,000 years to the grasslands of Eurasia. Yet, while this consistent relationship has been largely positive from Homo sapiens’ standpoint — after all, horses work for us, compete for us and provide us with emotional support — a new study has revealed that these majestic ruminants are mare-ried to no one.

Turns out, they’re just using us, too.

Veterinary researchers from Sweden’s Linköping University set out to determine whether or not horses could “love” humans, in the sense that they form an attachment to a particular person and reciprocate affection.

While observing 26 horses, their owners and several other human controls, researchers found that horses frequently exhibited higher heart rates while separated from any human, “irrespective of whether it was the owner or the stranger,” the authors explained in their report to be published in Applied Animal Behaviour Science next month.

Their findings suggest that horses consider humans “safe havens” and are soothed in our presence, but they aren’t especially attached to one person over another.

Researchers put this to the test by putting the horses in stressful situations — in this case, leaving them alone in an unfamiliar pen — and assessing how the horses reacted with each human. “Even if horses are trained to be alone they still respond with higher heart rate when socially separated from others,” the authors wrote.

Researchers compared horses to dogs (still humans’ best friend) who “become stressed during separation from their owner, and … seek proximity and comfort upon reunion.”

“In addition, dogs repeatedly reveal behaviors such as increased play and exploratory behavior together with their owner,” the researchers wrote. “To our knowledge, this has not been documented in horses.”

Initially, the researchers hypothesized that a strong connection might be based on positive reinforcement. Previous studies had shown that horses responded more readily to humans when rewarded with food, as opposed to humans without food, and thought this mutually beneficial exchange may promote deeper bonds between the two species.

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