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?
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.