The Smiling Horse, The Lazy Horse & The Misbehaving Horse

an·thro·po·mor·phism: the attribution of human characteristics or behavior to an animal or object.

It is important to distinguish between two types of anthropomorphism. One is fairly innocent and may merely be used as a way to relate to animals (a) the projection of what may be perceived by some as being strictly human emotional states (or actions) onto an animal; while the other has the potential to be quite harmful (b) the projection of reasoned thought and intention to an animal.

Here are two examples of each type.

Do Animals Experience Emotions?

The short answer is, yes. Most mammals share a similar basic brain structure, which implies they can fully experience emotion. However, non-human mammals lack the large frontal lobe that is unique to humans, the area of the brain responsible for critical and analytical thinking, i.e. animals are not capable of reasoned or intentional thought (McGreevy & McLean, 2010; McGreevy, 2012).

Emotional states of contentment, excitement, agitation, fear, anxiety, depression, et cetera, on the other hand, are clearly observable in animals. Where the line of anthropomorphism is crossed is perhaps when alternative language is used. When animals are described with words that may be perceived as being more human-centric, words like mad, happy/joyful, sad instead of agitated, content, depressed.

The Smiling Horse

A very common and harmless example of the projection of human behaviour onto horses is the misinterpretation of the flehmen response as a smile. No, when a horse curls its upper lip and shows its teeth it is not smiling or being silly! As much as we’d like to think that’s the case, what is actually happening is the horse is responding to pheromones produced by another horse or possibly a human, or a novel scent. The vomeronasal (olfactory) organ is located in the upper palate of all animals. When a horse curls its lip, it is taking in more air to direct to the vomeronasal organ to identify the scent (McGreevy, 2012).

The Lazy Horse

Examples of potentially dangerous or harmful instances of anthropomorphism abound! The human tendency to attribute horses with more advanced mental abilities than they possess is quite common and potentially dangerous. To illustrate, I’ll begin with an example that occurred with a horse I used to lease.

When I began the lease, the horse’s owner asked me to do some groundwork with him in the round-pen, warm-up exercises to make sure he was calm prior to riding. He wasn’t an overly energetic or excitable horse by any means, but he was kept in a stall that was much too small for him at the time and had limited turnout. As a result, he tended to have a bit of pent-up energy when taken out of the stall.

I was warned that he could be stubborn and lazy and sometimes didn’t want to do his warm-up. I was told to keep at himmake him listen and show him who’s boss. This carried over to riding as well. There were times when I could barely get the horse to walk, never mind trot or canter. At the time, it never occurred to me that the problem was my improper communication and cues, rather than the horse’s perceived stubbornness or laziness.

It wasn’t until I read the book Equitation Science by Paul McGreevy & Andrew McLean a couple of years ago that I began to properly understand what was actually going on. Both anthropomorphism and equitation science have also been prevalent topics in several of the courses I’ve taken in Equine Studies through the University of Guelph.

This human tendency to place blame on the horse and attribute it with a motivation or reluctance to work is, unfortunately, ingrained in the horse world.

Once I became aware of this, I asked more questions of the horse’s owner, about how she applied her cues, vocalizations, et cetera, and problem-solved with the horse. I also read a lot more about learning theory. It helped to a degree. Part of the issue with this particular horse was simply that he was too big for me. He was a 17h draught-cross and was quite broad across the back. I am far more comfortable on a more slender riding horse, preferably in the 14.5 to 15.5h range. Surely my comfort level also had a negative effect on my riding and ability to apply clear and consistent cues.

The Misbehaving Horse

A horse’s actions and reactions are based on instinct, natural and learned behaviours, or in response to pain or fear (a flight response). For example, when a horse ‘throws’ a rider off, there could be a number of reasons for it, but malicious intent, dominance, or testing the rider is not one of them. The horse was most likely startled by an unexpected sound or object or was reacting to another averse stimulus.

Much like ascribing a horse with malice, the belief that horses have the cognitive ability to work in partnership with humans and have a desire to please are false constructs with potentially negative welfare consequences.  Such beliefs imply that horses are being disrespectful or disobedient if they are not behaving in the way that is expected of them or required at a particular moment, and may be used as justification for punishment. However, horses do not understand punishment, and such actions will merely result in negative associations that can create fear and shape unwanted behaviours, making a horse dangerous to handle or ride (McGreevy & McLean, 2010; McGreevy, 2012).

Take-home Message

A horse’s failure to perform is never intentional. More often than not it is the result of physical discomfort, a lack of proper training, an ill-timed or confusing signal, or an unbalanced rider.


McGreevy, P. (2012). Equine Behaviour: A Guide for Veterinarians and Equine Scientists, 2nd ed. Edinburgh: Elsevier.

McGreevy, P.D. & A.N. McLean. (2010). Equitation Science. Wiley Blackwell.