It did not come to the surprise of anyone who works with horses that studies showed that horses can recognize their owner’s emotions. The studies showed that horses were not only able to differentiate between humans, easily recognizing their handlers. That being said, the horses have to see us in order to recognize us.
Now, this seems obvious. Duh, Elizabeth, you say- you mean the horse has to see you to recognize you? *insert eyeroll here*.
OK, I know that this seems ridiculous to say, much less write a blog post about, BUT… can your horse recognize you with a mask on?
The reason I thought about this situation is because I was trying to get Venus to come to me in the round pen. She stared at me, but refused to budge. I wasn’t sure why she was refusing to come in, and I was starting to get a little frustrated as she seemed to want to come, but just… wouldn’t. Venus is a very sensitive horse, and she often won’t come up to people unless she knows and trusts them… since I’ve been working with her for almost two years, there really isn’t a reason for her to balk at coming over. I had just read one of the studies about horses recognizing people and emotions, however, and thought, “I wonder if she knows it’s me?” So I took my mask off.
Immediately after I took off my mask, Venus walked right up. She even followed me around the round pen, until I put the mask back on, then she wandered off, because obviously I disappeared and a random human who sounded and smelled just like me took my place.
OK, so she’s not the brightest bulb. That being said, horses do read our body language, including our facial features. Remember that they they communicate not so much verbally, as humans do, but rather through body language. Facial features are just as much a part of body language as how we move, so they do need to see our faces, as well as hear our voices, in order to fully comprehend the message we are conveying.
I am NOT in any way, shape or form telling you not to wear a mask. Please, if you’re in a public place, wear a mask! That being said, you need to understand that your horse has to get used to seeing you in a mask, and you may need to use your voice more in order for your horse to understand your needs.
Not every horse is going to be Venus. Tamahome, for example, has had no issue identifying me or any of the other volunteers, and has been able to manipulate everyone (mostly me) into giving him more cookies. Gypsy is visibly more comfortable when I take the mask off, although she did recognize me without a problem. Hershey has been more like Tama- he could care less whether you are wearing a mask or a Batman costume- although the Batman costume’s mask doesn’t cover your nose and mouth, so don’t wear that.
The biggest takeaway I would like to leave with you, however, is just be aware that a mask is something different for the horse, and anything different in nature can be potentially dangerous. Just be aware that when you DO wear a mask, your horse has to find a different way to both identify you and understand what it is you want, so be patient with him. Let him know what you expect of him with your voice, since he can’t see much of your face. He can figure it out- just give him the chance.
Below is a video of Venus refusing to come in (mask on), and then coming in (mask off). I didn’t change my body language at all. Hopefully the more she works with people with masks, the better she will get at identifying people (I’m not holding my breath).