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Study Surprises: Horses and Dogs Understand Each Other When Playing Together

Horse and dog playing together
Does Your Horse Have a Good Dog Friend? Photo: Canva Pro

Many horse enthusiasts are also fond of dogs and may own one too. Some often bring their dogs along when visiting their horses, and it might even seem like your horse and dog are good friends. This exact phenomenon has been explored by a team of researchers. Their research revealed that the two different animal species actually understand and trust each other during play.

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The study was conducted by a research team in Italy at the University of Pisa, where they aimed to investigate the relationship between the two animal species. To do this, the researchers examined 20 different videos of horses and dogs playing together, observing various patterns.


Both horses and dogs engage in self-handicapping to level the playing field. They do this by downplaying their own strengths, such as when the dog refrains from using its teeth or claws during play, or when the horse bows or lies down. The animals do this to make their play more fair. This can be likened to when an adult gives a child a head start in a race – again, to keep the play fair.

The researchers believe that their play and relaxed communication could not occur if the animals did not trust each other. Photo: Canva Pro.

This is very interesting, as horses are naturally flight animals, and dogs are predators. But when they play together, this is 'forgotten', and they are suddenly on the same level. It's quite special to see, as it clearly shows that the animals are only interested in playing with each other, and that they trust each other. This trust is particularly evident when they, for example, lie down on their backs, as this is a very vulnerable position for an animal.

Veronica Maglieri, a member of the research team, told The Horse, "If it were not in a play context, it would be dangerous for the animals. So the fact that they do this shows that they blindly trust each other."

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The research also shows that horses and dogs actually mirror each other, performing what is described as rapid facial mimicry, where the animals mirror each other's facial expressions in less than a second. This appears to play a role in how the animals communicate their mood during the actual play.

Additionally, the researchers also discovered what they describe as relaxed open mouth, which is a common playful facial expression among mammals and indicates that the animals are comfortable in the situation and want to play.

Horse and dog relaxing
The researchers hope that horse and dog enthusiasts will particularly enjoy seeing their animals interact in this way. Photo: Canva Pro.


The conclusion is that horses and dogs can indeed understand each other and therefore can play together without the play becoming too rough for any of them. This result thus shows that horses and dogs share the same play language. This leads the researchers to further question whether other mammals can also understand this play language, and if it could potentially be a more universal play language than previously thought.

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Read the full study here: Levelling playing field: synchronization and rapid facial mimicry in dog-horse play


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