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 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




  • Stephanie M Sellers

    Erin, what a great article. Love how it portrays horses as thinking and caring, because they are. Spielberg is well aware of this as an avid equestrian and has created a priceless masterpiece on the horse and human bond in ‘War Horse’.
    You may enjoy Henry Blake’s book, ‘Talking with Horses’. He proves horse intelligence and their telepathy.
    I have only proven to myself through years of experience that horses are such and yes, they do grieve over horses and people. They also teach one another things humans have taught them just nature teaches them in herd life in the wild.
    Please take a moment to read about the peril of America’s horses today due to greed, indolent breeders at Horses as National Treasure with Stephanie M Sellers.

  • stefani horton

    Horses experience loyalty, love, grief and a huge range of other sentient emotions. The very fact that question has to be asked is upsetting to me.
    Over the 50 years I have spent with horses I have many antidotes for these statements. Horses who spend many years as partners sometimes die of broken hearts when one is lost (they will not eat or drink and call out for days).
    My horse, Jiffy, saw a horse buried and worked frantically to dig her up every time he was let into that area. I am not sure what his range of thoughts and emotion were but he was very frantic.
    My teen years horse was sold when I was married and left town. He repeatedly came “home” to where I last saw him, for over two years (reported by family). He came distances in excess of 20 miles from multiple locations; crossing freeways, jumping fences and once with barb wire cuts. I am devastated to this day.
    My most hair raising experience was with my horse Beau who had a constant companion in a tiny pony, “Corky.” Corky was on his side in the field with his head in the water (a common practice of dying horses). When I came to the gate a hysterical Beau screamed and screamed in a voice I never heard before or since. He ran back and forth between me and his buddy to show the way and also pulled off my hat and bandanna and rubbed his upper lip in a circle on my face frantically and insistently. I called the vet and Corky was saved. I can not figure any explanation except that a) Beau loved Corky b) Beau knew he was sick c) Beau “knew” I could fix it d) he participated to show me the problem.
    Only people who have little or no contact with horses could doubt their intelligence and emotional capability.

  • Linda M. Poole

    My daughter has an older mare, Baby. We call her” the couch” because she is so large. She is of the old foundation quarter horse breed. My daughter won reserve champion in barrel racing on her. One day I carelessly saddled her and did not check the girth properly and when my daughter mounted her, she reared. I am only telling you what I saw as I watched as this 1200 lb. mare was about to land backward on top of my daughter. I watched, scared out of my wits, as” the couch ” twisted her massive body to avoid landing on my daughter. Some people would say that she was trying to save herself from landing on her back, but my daughter was to her left and she twisted right. I had seen my daughter ride her sitting backwards, I had seen my daughter and her best friend sitting underneath her belly during a rain storm, I had seen this mare adopt colts and fillies as her own, because she could not be bred. We have since then retired her from racing because of her eyesight and she has developed joint problems. One of the young fillies, an orphaned Appaloosa, that she adopted at 3mos. old is now her protector. She will not let Baby out of her sight. When my son was young and was put on her to ride she started walking on eggshells. My son has Asperger syndrome. I purchased an Egyptian Arabian gelding for a therapy horse, and the same thing would happen. It was like he was walking on eggshells. Loyalty and loving are two words that describe these beautiful animals!

  • Kat

    My uncle was a cavalry rider in the service. One of my dad’s favorite stories was how well this horse protected my uncle, and how when someone higher ranked tried to take him, the horse refused to move. My uncle told stories of sleeping with his “buddy” for warmth and protection, and how awesome his “buddy” was. So in my honest opinion, horses can be a lot like humans! 🙂

  • […] know what National Geographic is now reporting; there is more to the horse/human bond than meets the […]

  • Denise Steffanus

    To Stefani Horton: I’ve seen every one of those incidents happen with my horses, too. Just a year ago, my two geldings, Dawn and Royal, were playing chase and Royal slipped in the mud, fell, and slid through a fence. He lay very still while Dawn ran up and down the fence nearest my kitchen door, screaming and screaming while he watched for me. I knew immediately something was horribly wrong. I ran out, and until I reached Royal, I thought sure he was dead. Then I saw him move his head. I ran for a hammer and crowbar, and Dawn stood there with him. Royal lay there quietly until I pried the fence boards off. Then he stood up, shook, and walked away — unhurt except for lots of scrapes.

    Lassie isn’t the only pet who runs for help.

  • […] Tweet Here’s an interesting story we saw today about War Horse: Equine Emotions in “War Horse” – National Geographic […]

  • Joleen Loijens

    I have a sorrel gelding named Flame whom I’ve had since he was 8 months old. At the time of the incident about to be told he was 7 years old and not broke. He was at that time very aggressive towards people and horses alike. He would chase and back horses into corners and kick them, particularly my favourite one. I had a bay gelding that I used to ride and do EVERYTHING with. He was my best friend. But suddenly three years ago my beloved bay gelding passed away (found out my ex poisoned him). Anywho, when Pk (the bay) died, Flame went out and laid next to his body until I came with a forklift the next day to take him to be buried. The only time I ever saw him get up was when he went to chase the other horses away from the body. He would let me go out and talk to him and even let me sit on him while he was laying down and sob over the loss of my beloved boy. I feel to this day that even though he was so aggressive he was protecting him for me. I was sure of this after an accident I had with my OTTB. After coming off of the OTTB, he chased him away and stayed with me until I was able to get up. He is now broke and only 1 1/2 people can ride him. He will allow no others. Unfortunately I’m the 1/2 and my trainer is the rest 😛 He is a very unusual boy but I have no doubt that they have a connection to their “people”. Even if the connection does seem a little odd.

  • Megan Thiel

    RE: Grief and horses

    I’m not sure if I would say horses can feel grief, granted I’m not saying they can’t but more so that I’m unsure of it. I have this paint mare who is 23 years old. Usually I can take her anywhere. Games, shows, trail rides. But for some particular reason, if I don’t bring another of my horses along, she becomes so stressed out that she gets bloody noses, rears up in her stall, paws at the ground, she even almost went through a trailer window. If I bring another of my horses along, she’s perfectly fine. For example, at my county fair a few years ago, I brought two horses: my paint and a gelding. Anytime I would take my gelding out, she would rear up in her stall, and almost cut herself on a few loose nails. But as soon as I brought him back, she would calm down, as long as she could see him. Even with my friend’s horses, (she is with them quite often, sometimes up to months at a time), she still stresses out.

    I’m not sure if I would characterize these acts of grief, but they are certainly very similar. If I were to ever sell her, I’m not sure if the new owners would get a similar reaction because of her being separated from the rest of my herd or not.

  • Monica Webb

    Thank you for this beautiful interview. I was a horse-crazy girl that never got over her passion for all things equine. I’ve taught, showed, ridden trails, and am happy to have three horses in my backyard today.

    I have witnessed several incidents showing just how bonded our horses are to us. One night I walked out into the pasture with a flashlight. I saw the horses grazing quietly with a coyote nearby. As soon as they saw me, my mare immediately turned on the coyote, chasing it away. One night I fell asleep in a giant pile of hay in the barn. The alpha gelding came and stood over me, protectively, until I woke up. I have also been awestruck by the life changing effects horses have on humans with emotional and physical challenges.

    Horses have worked for us, as Wickens mentions, in warfare, work, sport and recreation – simply because we asked it of them. Every time a horse does something new, or something difficult, just because I ask, I am appreciative of that compliance.

    But despite their loyalty and companionship, we as humans are increasingly poor stewards of their welfare. Last month, three legislators manipulated the Appropriations bill to use taxpayer funding for the immensely cruel business of horse slaughter on U.S. soil, despite the fact that close to 80% of Americans opposed to the practice. It is a shameful reflection on our society today that we tolerate such brutality and turn our backs on an animal whose destiny has been so closely entwined with our own.

  • Stephanie

    The movie War Horse and this article are much needed at at time when just recently the language protecting horses from USDA meat inspections was taken off the new Agriculture Committee Spending Bill. This means that horse slaughter plants could reopen within the next 12 months on our own soil. I find it absolutely insane that we are still killing species for profit or to sell to other countries as a delicacy. Of course horses feel grief, pain, pleasure, and confusion and depression just like us.

  • […] social bonds with other horses. To read the whole interview, conducted by Amanda Fiegl, visit the National Geographic website. comments: 0 » tags: CANR News, Carissa Wickens, Cooperative Extension, equine, […]

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