Horse and dog play tug-o-war! (Still from YouTube video, shown below)
Studies of canine play behavior have shown that emotional contagion and rapid mimicry occur between dogs, especially when dogs are familiar with each other. When one dog initiates play by bowing with an open, relaxed mouth, a friendly dog may respond the same - almost instantly. These behaviors can be compared to two human friends smiling to each other when they meet.
Although humans have observed members of different species being playful with each other, even in the wild, there is scarce scientific data on their play behaviors or how they accommodate each other at play.
But a recent study by animal researchers at the University of Pisa in Italy attempted to learn whether emotional contagion and rapid mimicry were at work between dogs and horses at play.
It turned out there are hundreds of videos of dogs and horses posted on YouTube. After sifting through many of them, lead researcher Veronica Maglieria and her team settled on 20 videos for her study that most clearly showed these elements.
Here is one of the videos. Notice how often both the dog and horse use the play bow to engage the other. As well, both animals have relaxed, open mouths.
I love how the horse lies down and rolls over to respond in-kind to the dog! The horse never uses his size against the dog and the dog never uses his potentially powerful bite against the horse.
“It’s an important study because it shows how two animals who look and behave so differently can nevertheless manage to negotiate how to play in a way that’s comfortable for both,” Barbara Smuts, a behavioral ecologist at the University of Michigan, told National Geographic about this study.
“It’s even more noteworthy given the large size difference between horses and dogs. The dog is vulnerable to injury by the horse, and the horse has a deeply ingrained tendency to fear animals who resemble wolves.”
Here is another fun "dog and pony show" where pooch is teasing a young horse, just like he would tease another dog or, yes, a human.