What’s in a whinny? According to an Equine Guelph study, a whinny speaks volumes

GUELPH – Straight from the horse’s mouth, a recently published study out of the University of Guelph has looked at the way humans interpret the vocalizations or meanings of vocalizations of a whinny to decipher horse-speak. 

It turns out, people have a good understanding of equine vocal expressions, but can always learn more.

“Understanding the vocalizations that horses do use can help us understand their underlying emotional state and when we pay attention to those things, then we can work to make their life better,” said Dr. Katrina Merkies, researcher and associate professor at the University of Guelph, who published the study alongside masters student Haley Belliveau.

“In today’s world, more and more emphasis is being put on animal welfare and the recognition of animals as sentient beings,” Merkies said. 

“As their caretakers, it’s our responsibility to provide the horses that we interact with a good quality of life, and to do this, we must be able to understand how they function and what their needs are and what their desires are.”

Noting similar animal vocalization research had been done in other species, Merkies and Belliveau put their focus on horses. 

Merkies figures there are approximately 12 vocalizations of a horse, including snorts, nickers, snores and sneezes, but the whinny is the most common – and therefore  the focus for this research.

She explained that a whinny can express things such as fear or happiness. Understanding the difference can help horse owners or caretakers to know how to solve issues that cause upset, or to repeat the scenarios that make the horse happy.

Asked if horses are good communicators, Merkies said amongst their herd, they are.

“They’re social animals. They live in herds, or bands, and they have to communicate very well in order to be able to live together,” she explained, noting a focus on body language.

“They are so keen to pick up the slightest, smallest little muscle tension or flick of a tail or just a little turn of an ear, and they read it, they see it, and they know right away what it means. So yes, they are amazing communicators, and they use, obviously, the same communication with us, but we’re not as good at reading it.”

Merkies said horses use different vocalization to communicate with each other too. For instance, a whinny could be the sound of happiness when reuniting with a friend, or negative when feeling separated from them. 

“Different whinnies can communicate the size, sex and social status of the caller. That whinny will tell them information, whether it’s a male or female horse, how large they are, probably whether they’re immature, young or older,” she said.

The study, titled Human Ability to Determine Affective States in Domestic Horse Whinnies, included an online survey where participants were asked to categorize 32 equine whinny audio samples as positive and calm, or negative and excited. 

The audio was collected from a variety of sources, including open sources on the internet, as well as Merkies’ past research on the weaning of foals, where she’d captured distress calls from foals and mares when they were separated. 

But the research also involved sound bites from popular television programs and movies, including the animated film Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron by DreamWorks Animation. This brought up the influence of anthropomorphism, where human characteristics were put on the fictional equine characters.

“Anthropomorphism is a knife edge, so it can help us because if we can empathize with an animal based on how we feel as a human, that might be a good thing. But on the flip side, if we anthropomorphize and we expect an animal to feel the way that we would that could be a bad thing,” Merkies explained. 

“So in the movies, obviously, the vocalizations are highly anthropomorphized, the stories and the scenes are highly anthropomorphized. And it can be a good thing to help us in real life, so if we know that a horse is in distress, and we hear this whinny we can associate that sound with a problem. When we hear that sound from a real horse in real life, we might think, ‘Oh, there’s a problem,’” Merkies said. 

“But it can, of course, go the other way, where if the movie or show is depicting a horse doing something very anthropocentric, like rescuing a human from a raging river or something like that, and nickering or snorting. Horses don’t usually do that.”

At the tail end of this research, about 65% of the time participants were correct in determining if a whinny was the result of a positive or negative situation. The survey calculated 309 participants from 12 countries. 

Of the respondents, 60% were female, which Merkies anticipated given the equine field is female dominated. She notes that, as in past scientific studies on vocalizations in cats and pigs, women were more proficient at categorizing vocalizations than men.

Yet, one of the more surprising findings in the research was determined by age of the participants, with older people rating horses’ whinnies as more highly aroused than younger people. 

“Perhaps it’s because people who are older have more life experience and it may influence how they view the world,” Merkies said.

“Maybe they’re more attuned to emotional content and vocalizations, or, it could simply be that hearing in older people has deteriorated and they were unable to discern the differences in the vocalizations, but that was one of our interesting findings.”

So, what’s in a whinny? A lot. Understanding the whinny and interpreting the reasons behind it will help human-horse interactions. For Merkies, the lesson is simple: pay attention.

“Pay attention to the horse and listen. Watch and try to understand what it is that they’re trying to tell us because they’re always telling us lots of stuff. And if we can just pay attention to the subtle things or the subtle differences in their vocalizations, we could probably learn a lot about how they’re experiencing the world,” Merkies said.

“And if we understand their affective state, we can either help them feel not distressed, for example, or we can make their life better by repeating enjoyable experiences.”

To learn more about the study, visit youtu.be/oFWv3og4w1U.

Next up, Merkies is working with PhD student Amir Sarrafchi on his study titled, The Effect of Touch in Human-Horse Interactions. They are seeking participants for the University of Guelph research trial. For more information, email kmerkies@uoguelph.ca.

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