Jen’s doctoral success came straight from the horse’s mouth

Jennifer Wathan with Bartie

Jen Wathan’s doctoral research that identified how horses and humans share facial expressions created a stampede of interest last year. 

Not only did she have journalists hot-hoofing to find out more about the way horses use their lips, nostrils and mouths in social communication, she even had an inquiry from an animation artist keen to use her research tools to help create an equine character in a forthcoming adaptation of a Terry Pratchett novel. 

“The response was a much bigger response than I had expected,” says Jen, 29, who will received her Doctorate in Psychology on Thursday 21 January.  “I had riding schools and horse welfare charities interested in hearing more about the work with a view to developing training programmes. 

“And then an artist contacted me to ask if he could look at my EquiFACS system in which I was able to categorise facial expressions of horses.” 

After taking a first degree in psychology and a masters in neuroscience, Jen planned to work with stroke patients.  She changed direction when she heard about work going on at the University of Sussex’s in animal communication. 

“I hadn’t realised how much was being done in looking an animal behaviour. I could see that the methods we use to understand humans could also help us to understand horses.” 

Having learned to ride at the age of eight, and spending years working part-time as a groom, her chosen field of study was a natural progression. “I did it because I found it interesting.” 

Her PhD supervisor, Professor Karen McComb, says that Jen’s study has contributed to an important body of work.  "With EquiFACS we can now document the facial movements associated with different social and emotional contexts and thus gain insights into how horses are actually experiencing their social world. 

“As well as enhancing our understanding of social cognition and comparative psychology, the findings should ultimately provide important information for veterinary and animal welfare practices.” 

Jen, who lives in Gloucestershire, is now is hoping to broaden out her work with other animals and has just returned from a conservation project in Madagascar with her partner, Andy Bamford, who is a conservation scientist.

By: James Hakner
Last updated: Monday, 18 January 2016