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Concept: Wild horse


Although previous studies of horses have investigated their facial expressions in specific contexts, e.g. pain, until now there has been no methodology available that documents all the possible facial movements of the horse and provides a way to record all potential facial configurations. This is essential for an objective description of horse facial expressions across a range of contexts that reflect different emotional states. Facial Action Coding Systems (FACS) provide a systematic methodology of identifying and coding facial expressions on the basis of underlying facial musculature and muscle movement. FACS are anatomically based and document all possible facial movements rather than a configuration of movements associated with a particular situation. Consequently, FACS can be applied as a tool for a wide range of research questions. We developed FACS for the domestic horse (Equus caballus) through anatomical investigation of the underlying musculature and subsequent analysis of naturally occurring behaviour captured on high quality video. Discrete facial movements were identified and described in terms of the underlying muscle contractions, in correspondence with previous FACS systems. The reliability of others to be able to learn this system (EquiFACS) and consistently code behavioural sequences was high-and this included people with no previous experience of horses. A wide range of facial movements were identified, including many that are also seen in primates and other domestic animals (dogs and cats). EquiFACS provides a method that can now be used to document the facial movements associated with different social contexts and thus to address questions relevant to understanding social cognition and comparative psychology, as well as informing current veterinary and animal welfare practices.

Concepts: Psychology, Muscle contraction, Horse, Domestication, Wild horse, Equus, Equidae, Donkey


The aim of our study was to explore the association between dominance rank and body condition in outdoor group-living domestic horses, Equus caballus. Social interactions were recorded using a video camera during a feeding test, applied to 203 horses in 42 herds. Dominance rank was assigned to 194 individuals. The outcome variable body condition score (BCS) was recorded using a 9-point scale. The variables age and height were recorded and considered as potential confounders or effect modifiers. Results were analysed using multivariable linear and logistic regression techniques, controlling for herd group as a random effect. More dominant (p = 0.001) individuals generally had a higher body condition score (p = 0.001) and this association was entirely independent of age and height. In addition, a greater proportion of dominant individuals fell into the obese category (BCS ≥ 7/9, p = 0.005). There were more displacement encounters and a greater level of interactivity in herds that had less variation in age and height, lending strength to the hypothesis that phenotypic variation may aid cohesion in group-living species. In addition there was a strong quadratic relationship between age and dominance rank (p < 0.001), where middle-aged individuals were most likely to be dominant. These results are the first to link behavioural predictors to body condition and obesity status in horses and should prompt the future consideration of behavioural and social factors when evaluating clinical disease risk in group-living animals.

Concepts: Regression analysis, Horse, Wild horse, Equus, Equidae, Donkey, Pony, Domestication of the horse


The Eneolithic Botai culture of the Central Asian steppes provides the earliest archaeological evidence for horse husbandry, ~5,500 ya, but the exact nature of early horse domestication remains controversial. We generated 42 ancient horse genomes, including 20 from Botai. Compared to 46 published ancient and modern horse genomes, our data indicate that Przewalski’s horses are the feral descendants of horses herded at Botai and not truly wild horses. All domestic horses dated from ~4,000 ya to present only show ~2.7% of Botai-related ancestry. This indicates that a massive genomic turnover underpins the expansion of the horse stock that gave rise to modern domesticates, which coincides with large-scale human population expansions during the Early Bronze Age.

Concepts: Horse, Tin, Domestication, Neolithic, Wild horse, Domestication of the horse, Bronze Age, Central Asia


Whether non-human animals can recognize human signals, including emotions, has both scientific and applied importance, and is particularly relevant for domesticated species. This study presents the first evidence of horses' abilities to spontaneously discriminate between positive (happy) and negative (angry) human facial expressions in photographs. Our results showed that the angry faces induced responses indicative of a functional understanding of the stimuli: horses displayed a left-gaze bias (a lateralization generally associated with stimuli perceived as negative) and a quicker increase in heart rate (HR) towards these photographs. Such lateralized responses towards human emotion have previously only been documented in dogs, and effects of facial expressions on HR have not been shown in any heterospecific studies. Alongside the insights that these findings provide into interspecific communication, they raise interesting questions about the generality and adaptiveness of emotional expression and perception across species.

Concepts: Psychology, Mammal, Horse, Emotion, Domestication, Wild horse, Donkey, Hinny


Present-day domestic horses are immensely diverse in their maternally inherited mitochondrial DNA, yet they show very little variation on their paternally inherited Y chromosome. Although it has recently been shown that Y chromosomal diversity in domestic horses was higher at least until the Iron Age, when and why this diversity disappeared remain controversial questions. We genotyped 16 recently discovered Y chromosomal single-nucleotide polymorphisms in 96 ancient Eurasian stallions spanning the early domestication stages (Copper and Bronze Age) to the Middle Ages. Using this Y chromosomal time series, which covers nearly the entire history of horse domestication, we reveal how Y chromosomal diversity changed over time. Our results also show that the lack of multiple stallion lineages in the extant domestic population is caused by neither a founder effect nor random demographic effects but instead is the result of artificial selection-initially during the Iron Age by nomadic people from the Eurasian steppes and later during the Roman period. Moreover, the modern domestic haplotype probably derived from another, already advantageous, haplotype, most likely after the beginning of the domestication. In line with recent findings indicating that the Przewalski and domestic horse lineages remained connected by gene flow after they diverged about 45,000 years ago, we present evidence for Y chromosomal introgression of Przewalski horses into the gene pool of European domestic horses at least until medieval times.

Concepts: DNA, Middle Ages, Genetic genealogy, Horse, Population genetics, Y chromosome, Wild horse, Domestication of the horse


Signals of dominance and submissiveness are central to conspecific communication in many species. For domestic animals, sensitivities to these signals in humans may also be beneficial. We presented domestic horses with a free choice between two unfamiliar humans, one adopting a submissive and the other a dominant body posture, with vocal and facial cues absent. Horses had previously been given food rewards by both human demonstrators, adopting neutral postures, to encourage approach behaviour. Across four counterbalanced test trials, horses showed a significant preference for approaching the submissive posture in both the first trial and across subsequent trials, and no individual subject showed an overall preference for dominant postures. There was no significant difference in latency to approach the two postures. This study provides novel evidence that domestic horses may spontaneously discriminate between, and attribute communicative significance to, human body postures of dominance; and further, that familiarity with the signaller is not a requirement for this response. These findings raise interesting questions about the plasticity of social signal perception across the species barrier.

Concepts: Psychology, Species, Statistical significance, Mammal, Horse, Human anatomy, Choice, Wild horse


The domestication of the horse ∼5.5 kya and the emergence of mounted riding, chariotry, and cavalry dramatically transformed human civilization. However, the genetics underlying horse domestication are difficult to reconstruct, given the near extinction of wild horses. We therefore sequenced two ancient horse genomes from Taymyr, Russia (at 7.4- and 24.3-fold coverage), both predating the earliest archeological evidence of domestication. We compared these genomes with genomes of domesticated horses and the wild Przewalski’s horse and found genetic structure within Eurasia in the Late Pleistocene, with the ancient population contributing significantly to the genetic variation of domesticated breeds. We furthermore identified a conservative set of 125 potential domestication targets using four complementary scans for genes that have undergone positive selection. One group of genes is involved in muscular and limb development, articular junctions, and the cardiac system, and may represent physiological adaptations to human utilization. A second group consists of genes with cognitive functions, including social behavior, learning capabilities, fear response, and agreeableness, which may have been key for taming horses. We also found that domestication is associated with inbreeding and an excess of deleterious mutations. This genetic load is in line with the “cost of domestication” hypothesis also reported for rice, tomatoes, and dogs, and it is generally attributed to the relaxation of purifying selection resulting from the strong demographic bottlenecks accompanying domestication. Our work demonstrates the power of ancient genomes to reconstruct the complex genetic changes that transformed wild animals into their domesticated forms, and the population context in which this process took place.

Concepts: DNA, Genetics, Natural selection, Horse, Population genetics, Domestication, Wild horse, Domestication of the horse


The rich fossil record of equids has made them a model for evolutionary processes. Here we present a 1.12-times coverage draft genome from a horse bone recovered from permafrost dated to approximately 560-780 thousand years before present (kyr bp). Our data represent the oldest full genome sequence determined so far by almost an order of magnitude. For comparison, we sequenced the genome of a Late Pleistocene horse (43 kyr bp), and modern genomes of five domestic horse breeds (Equus ferus caballus), a Przewalski’s horse (E. f. przewalskii) and a donkey (E. asinus). Our analyses suggest that the Equus lineage giving rise to all contemporary horses, zebras and donkeys originated 4.0-4.5 million years before present (Myr bp), twice the conventionally accepted time to the most recent common ancestor of the genus Equus. We also find that horse population size fluctuated multiple times over the past 2 Myr, particularly during periods of severe climatic changes. We estimate that the Przewalski’s and domestic horse populations diverged 38-72 kyr bp, and find no evidence of recent admixture between the domestic horse breeds and the Przewalski’s horse investigated. This supports the contention that Przewalski’s horses represent the last surviving wild horse population. We find similar levels of genetic variation among Przewalski’s and domestic populations, indicating that the former are genetically viable and worthy of conservation efforts. We also find evidence for continuous selection on the immune system and olfaction throughout horse evolution. Finally, we identify 29 genomic regions among horse breeds that deviate from neutrality and show low levels of genetic variation compared to the Przewalski’s horse. Such regions could correspond to loci selected early during domestication.

Concepts: Evolution, Horse, Wild horse, Equus, Equidae, Donkey, Domestication of the horse, Przewalski's Horse


It has recently been shown that some non-human animals can cross-modally recognize members of their own taxon. What is unclear is just how plastic this recognition system can be. In this study, we investigate whether an animal, the domestic horse, is capable of spontaneous cross-modal recognition of individuals from a morphologically very different species. We also provide the first insights into how cross-modal identity information is processed by examining whether there are hemispheric biases in this important social skill. In our preferential looking paradigm, subjects were presented with two people and playbacks of their voices to determine whether they were able to match the voice with the person. When presented with familiar handlers subjects could match the specific familiar person with the correct familiar voice. Horses were significantly better at performing the matching task when the congruent person was standing on their right, indicating marked hemispheric specialization (left hemisphere bias) in this ability. These results are the first to demonstrate that cross-modal recognition in animals can extend to individuals from phylogenetically very distant species. They also indicate that processes governed by the left hemisphere are central to the cross-modal matching of visual and auditory information from familiar individuals in a naturalistic setting.

Concepts: Species, Mammal, Horse, Wild horse, Equus, Equidae, Donkey, Domestication of the horse


Referential communication occurs when a sender elaborates its gestures to direct the attention of a recipient to its role in pursuit of the desired goal, e.g. by pointing or showing an object, thereby informing the recipient what it wants. If the gesture is successful, the sender and the recipient focus their attention simultaneously on a third entity, the target. Here we investigated the ability of domestic horses (Equus caballus) to communicate referentially with a human observer about the location of a desired target, a bucket of food out of reach. In order to test six operational criteria of referential communication, we manipulated the recipient’s (experimenter) attentional state in four experimental conditions: frontally oriented, backward oriented, walking away from the arena and frontally oriented with other helpers present in the arena. The rate of gaze alternation was higher in the frontally oriented condition than in all the others. The horses appeared to use both indicative (pointing) and non-indicative (nods and shakes) head gestures in the relevant test conditions. Horses also elaborated their communication by switching from a visual to a tactile signal and demonstrated perseverance in their communication. The results of the tests revealed that horses used referential gestures to manipulate the attention of a human recipient so to obtain an unreachable resource. These are the first such findings in an ungulate species.

Concepts: Horse, Gesture, Wild horse, Odd-toed ungulate, Equus, Equidae, Donkey, Domestication of the horse