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Horses give functionally relevant responses to human facial expressions of emotion: a response to Schmoll 

The paper demonstrates that horses show a quicker increase in heart rate when presented with photographic stimuli depicting angry versus happy human faces. We also use lateralized looking at each stimulus as a means of investigating how the image is perceived and found a strong left gaze/right hemisphere bias to angry stimuli but no significant lateralized response to happy or significant difference between responses to angry and happy. While we accept that a more extensive exploration and discussion of the results would have been useful, our original findings still stand.

Horses Can Read Human Facial Expressions

The authors speculated that horses may simply have been applying an ancestral ability to read the facial expressions of their own species “onto a morphologically different species,” in this case, humans. While these latest findings probably come as no surprise to those who work with horses on a daily basis, they are one more piece in the increasingly complex picture of the emotional language humans share with other species. Horses’ ability to read faces perhaps also refines the explanation for horses’ therapeutic and even spiritual effects on humans, documented in our art and stories since the first etchings on cave walls.

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From Animal Behavior to Human Health

Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) has been shown to be effective in recent meta-analyses with an improvement of mental health, quality of life, and a decrease in the sense of isolation. Reduction of depressive symptoms in human beings is one of the most beneficial outcomes of AAT. For relapse prevention in depression, conventional mindfulness programs such as mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) proved to be useful, but are often difficult to learn and produce high dropout rates in high risk patients. For this patient group, the teaching of mindfulness skills was facilitated by using sheep in an open pilot study. Six partially or unstable remitted patients with early trauma participated in eight group sessions of a nature and animal-assisted mindfulness training. The approach was feasible and highly accepted by participants with no dropouts. The results show a decrease of depressive symptoms and rumination, an improvement of overall mindfulness

skills, but not of acceptance skills. Further studies using randomized controlled designs are warranted.

Keywords: animal-assisted therapy, depression, mindfulness

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