Horses can form deep and long lasting connections with their human keepers according to new research from France.

The experiment, led by Léa Lansade of the French National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and Environment, found that horses were able to identify their keepers when presented with a photo of them and a random human about 75 percent of the time.

The results were surprising not just because they suggest horses form emotional attachments to their human companions, but because it shows horses understand photographs as symbolic representations.

According to a new study from France, horses seem to be able to recognize photos of their human handlers, and can even identify former handlers they haven't seen or worked with in six months or more

According to a new study from France, horses seem to be able to recognize photos of their human handlers, and can even identify former handlers they haven’t seen or worked with in six months or more

Past research has shown horses can identify their keepers based on smells or sound cues, according to a report in Scientific American, but Lansade’s study is the first to show two-dimensional images can also have significance to horses.

These results show that horses have advanced face-recognition abilities, and are able, like humans, to differentiate between a photograph of a familiar and unfamiliar individual, even when the faces did not belong to their own species,’ the team writes. ‘Moreover, they have a long-term memory of human faces.’

For the study, the team set up two computer screens to display a random selection of novel human faces.

When the horses pressed one screen with their noses they would be rewarded with a treat, which helped to teach them the basics of how to interact with the test equipment.

Over the course of 32 sessions with 11 horses, the researchers began to integrate photos of the horses’ current handlers into the selection of unfamiliar faces.

To avoid any potential for learning effects, the researchers randomized the distribution of treats, so that sometimes the horse would be rewarded for nudging the familiar photo and sometimes they wouldn’t be.

The team suggests future research could look at whether horses can also identify photos of humans they've had negative experiences with in the past

The team suggests future research could look at whether horses can also identify photos of humans they’ve had negative experiences with in the past

The team found that regardless of treat, the horses selected the photo of their human handler more than 75 percent the time.

In the next phase of testing, the researchers began introducing photos of the horse’s previous human handler, who they hadn’t seen or worked with in at least six months.

The horses still selected the familiar face 75 percent of the time, suggesting the animals had the ability to form long term attachments.

As a control, the team used the same set of photos on a group of horses that had no past experience with any of the specific human handlers, and found the selection rate was much closer to random chance.

The results are encouraging and the team suggests future research could investigate whether horses will display a similar long-term memory response to humans that they’ve had negative experiences with in the past.

By Mirabel

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