Do Horses React to Face Masks?

By Terry Golson

Wearing a face mask is expected of everyone who works and rides at my barn. People are still cheerful and friendly, but the masks themselves are having an effect on our interactions. We are keeping a distance from each other, (seeing someone in a mask is a clear reminder.) The masks engender wariness which creates social separation. The mask use is especially difficult for me because of my hearing loss. I am deaf. With cochlear implants I have very good hearing, but it’s dependent on clear acoustics. The masks muffle sounds and I’m not able to lip read what I miss.

We humans are learning to adapt to this new normal. What about the horses? This is now what Tonka sees.


Does this matter to him? Horses recognize and respond to human facial expressions. There have been a couple of studies over the years that confirm what horse people know. Facial expressions alone clue our horses into when we’re angry (it makes them worried.) It’s also clear that horses can identify individual humans.

But, are facial expressions the most salient information for the horse to decide what mood a human is in? Horses have expressive faces and surely they read each other’s tense lips and furrowed brows. However, that’s not all they see. They see posture, gestures, flicks of tails and ears. Movement patterns. There’s a big difference between a resting cocked hind leg and one about to strike.

I knew that Tonka would recognize my voice, but what would he think of my approach? Would he be able to gauge how happy I was to see him with my face covered?

He was.


There was no double-take. No fear. He knew I was his person. Tonka made his silly happy face (he reminds me of Shaun the Sheep. Watch on Netflix. It’s a happy place.)

The other horses were happy to see me too. The only horse I ever give food treats to is Tonka (it’s not okay to feed other people’s horses.) They love me anyway. It’s not simply my body language. We have conversations through touch. I said hello to Kenny and rubbed his jaw. If he could, this 17hh warmblood would have cuddled up in my lap. The lack of my facial expression didn’t matter a whit. What was very interesting was that he took a deep whiff of my shirt. Perhaps there should be a study about whether horses know our moods by how we smell.


We’re not the only ones wearing masks. Horses wear masks to keep bugs off. Someone has been rolling in the mud…


Perhaps because our horses are used to seeing each other with their faces covered, humans in face masks aren’t so strange to them? They certainly are used to reading their horse friends’ body language while their faces are hidden.

Have you returned to your barn wearing a mask? What’s been your experience?


By the way, masks are freaking out other animals. Dogs, especially ones with a reactive history, need to be trained to feel safe around people wearing face coverings. If you have a dog, take the time to pair seeing you in a mask with delicious and fun things. (Toss kibble! Play ball!) If you are used to interacting with your neighbor’s dogs, don’t assume that they’ll still be their normal friendly selves. Even our dogs need help getting through these times.

12 thoughts on “Do Horses React to Face Masks?

  • Penny Cameron

    My horse doesn’t care about my mask but does take offence at my new rubber gloves (which I wear when I touch anything but her so that I don’t have to try and remember all of the doorknobs, etc, I’ve handled). I don’t know whether it’s the colour (fluorescent green) or the fact that they smell bleachy.
    She has become somewhat clingy. I am not riding her (because of the possibility of accidents happening) but I spend way more time grooming her and walking her in hand. Our visits are much less agenda driven and more companionable. This has been a huge lesson for me.

    • Terry Golson Post author

      My guess is that the smell of the gloves bothers her. Green is not a bright color to horses, but it might be that the luminescence of the gloves is startling. “Clingy” is an interesting term. It has connotations that might get in the way of understanding exactly what’s going on with her. Can you break that down into specific things she does? Is she standing closer? Following you around? I love that you’re seeing the companionable aspect of this time! When you do start riding again, let me know if that affects your in-saddle relationship.

  • Lynda

    I’m the ONLY one at my barn with a mask, and it irks me. I don’t go most days because although there was supposed to be only two or three people at a time, they would show up with a spouse and kids because they were bored. I’ve got to say it ticks me off that I limit my barn time because OTHERS are so inconsiderate and rules haven’t been enforced….

    • Terry Golson Post author

      Frustrating for you. Since this is likely to be case all summer, perhaps you can find a slot of time that no-one is around. Or figure out how to avoid people. A friend has moved all of her gear into her trailer, so is grooming and tacking up away from others.

  • Robin

    I’m deaf too. 🙂 Bilateral sensorineural, severe to profound. Meningitis in kindergarten. I wear one aid, read lips, no signing.

    • Terry Golson Post author

      My cochlear implants have totally transformed my life. Hearing aids weren’t effective and I’m a terrible lip reader! You can read more about my CIs – use the “search this site” button on the right.

      • Robin

        Thanks, I’ll check it out 🙂 I had a consultation for a CI but decided against it.

        • Terry Golson Post author

          If it’s been awhile since you asked about CIs, know that the surgery is much easier! My second surgery was quick, uncomplicated, no shaving of hair, and the recuperation time was a week.

  • Gin

    My horses are at home so i don’t wear a mask at the barn, but in the winter if it’s 20 degrees or less, which isn’t very often, I tie a bandana over the lower part of my face and they don’t seem to even notice anything different.
    I think they could tell some of human moods by smell, surely they can smell fear.

    • Terry Golson Post author

      I agree. I’m surprised that the scientists have been so focused on the question of – do horses recognize faces. They’re quite excited to document that horses seem to recognize photographs of humans that they know. They infer some things from that that I’m not sure I would… I think that in real life, the horses know us by the whole picture (so to speak!)

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