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Equine Emotions in “War Horse”

The plot of the new movie War Horse is driven by the deep, powerful bond between a boy named Albert and his horse, Joey, who both end up serving in World War I. Watching it made us wonder: What do we really know about horses’ emotions? To learn more, NGM intern Erin Durkin turned to...

The plot of the new movie War Horse is driven by the deep, powerful bond between a boy named Albert and his horse, Joey, who both end up serving in World War I. Watching it made us wonder: What do we really know about horses’ emotions? To learn more, NGM intern Erin Durkin turned to Carissa Wickens, an assistant professor in equine science at the University of Delaware.

In the movie, Albert and Joey are separated during the war. When they meet again, Joey shows that he recognizes his former owner by responding to his call. Could a horse truly remember a human after several years of separation?

Scientists are trying to gain a better understanding of the human-horse relationship, and this 2009 study provides some evidence that adult horses are capable of forming memories of humans. Anecdotes also suggest this; I’ve heard stories about horses reacting quite negatively toward a human with whom they have had a bad experience, even after a long period of separation. However, horses also appear capable of forming positive memories of humans. In March 2010, we acquired two additional horses in our teaching herd through a donation to the university. A few weeks ago, the two horses were reunited with their original owners. A very positive and affectionate interaction took place between the family and their older gelding in particular. This horse definitely seemed to exhibit a strong degree of recognition and familiarity, despite the fact that he had not been in contact with his previous handlers for nearly two years.

Do horses experience fear?

Yes, as a prey animal, horses have a very strong flight response. This flight response had survival value in the wild, but continues to be a significant behavioral attribute of our domestic horses. Horses display both behavioral and physiological responses to fear such as widened eyes (the whites will show), elevated heart rates, and sometimes even explosive behaviors such as bolting.

What about loyalty? Would most horses help humans in war situations if they were not trained to do so?

In some situations, if a rider falls off the horse, the horse will stop for the sake of the human. However, in war there are several stressors added, so it seems likely that a horse’s flight response could overtake the loyalty it feels for a human. Police mounts would be the best present-day model for studying how a horse could be trained to respond to a rider’s needs under extreme circumstances.

When Joey enters the war, he forms a friendship with another male horse. Do horses really bond with each other?

Yes, horses can form pretty strong bonds with other horses. Young, male, feral or free-ranging horses form bachelor bands that roam together and spend time mutually grooming one another. Domestic horses kept in groups also organize themselves according to a social hierarchy and many horses tend to have a preferred herd/pasture mate. By nature, horses are social creatures and do much better when kept with at least one other horse. They can become quite anxious when they are separated from one another.

Do those bonds mean they might experience grief?

We know that horses are fairly intelligent creatures, but the degree to which a horse comprehends loss or death remains unclear. Owners have described mares that have just lost a foal as being distressed and/or depressed, but we are not sure whether the horse’s emotional and psychological state actually mimics that of our own. I think horses are capable of recognizing that a companion is missing and that can be stressful, especially for an animal that by nature has a strong herd instinct.

In one scene, Joey teaches another horse how to wear a harness by putting his head through one and looking at the other horse as if to say: This is how you do it. Is that realistic?

This seems a little far-fetched. In real life, I know owners will use other horses to help younger horses do things like riding in a trailer. They will take a horse that has already ridden in a trailer and have them go inside while the younger horse is watching, but the older horse does not “explain” this. The younger horse simply observes that the older horse is not showing a flight response, thus there is no danger.

Even if we can’t prove that they love us back, it’s pretty clear that humans love horses. What do you think is so special about these animals?

Perhaps a rather broad and simple answer is the horse’s beauty, strength, and spirit. I think our respect and admiration of horses also stems from the long history humans and horses have together. The horse played a key role in warfare, agriculture, sportsmanship, pleasure and recreation—and horses are still a very important part of our culture, perhaps even more so now that we are beginning to see the benefits of horses as therapy animals.

On a more personal level, I have felt a strong attachment to horses since I was a child, and I find it rewarding to achieve their trust. It’s strange little things that I remember about the horses I have bonded with through my life—like the smell of their breath, or the way they exhibit their eagerness to see you (particularly at feeding time). The mare I had when I was younger would often trot up to me from across the field that she shared with several other horses. For me, being in a horse’s presence is a tremendous retreat from stress. And I appreciate the fact that just like us, they seem fully capable of having bad days.

–Erin Durkin




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