Updated: May 20, 2020
The relationship that Milo the Unicorn and his human helpers have is pretty spectacular. Our sparkling steed absolutely thrives on human contact and loves to "ham it up" by photo bombing his helpers and making super silly faces at the camera. Yes, he does know what "cheese" means!
Milo started smiling for the camera back in 2019 when he noticed that people would raise up a camera or a phone, say "cheese," and that the humans near him would show their teeth and smile. Being a rather smart horse, he tried it one day too. His helper laughed at his silly face, praised him heavily, and gave him a carrot... thus accidentally reinforcing the behavior but also teaching Milo what it was.
Milo the Unicorn now connects cameras to smiling and carrots. His trademark "smile" where he opens his mouth and shows his teeth is not in any way mean, aggressive, or anything other than mimicry of a human happy emotion.
He also does this natural silly behavior regardless of if he has a halter, bridle, or anything else on his face and is in no way in any form of discomfort or pain (just to be sure we had two equine dentists and two veterinarians check!). They concluded that he primarily smiles for the positive reinforcement of human attention and happiness. He has recently discovered that if he "photo bombs" his helper with a smile in a photo that people laugh even more. Milo the Unicorn loves to see people laugh!
Horses are socially intelligent (meaning that they, like humans, display traits that help them to connect with others). Horses can tell what human facial expressions and human emotions are. This super-social trait is likely why they were one of the first pets / domesticated animals, becoming family members and inter species herd members to humans in Kazakhstan between about 3,500 and 3,000 B.C.
Similar to dogs, which became pets and companions to humans early on, horses also have developed the unique ability to communicate through human-style facial expressions. Overall, horses can make 17 facial movements -- which is three more than our relatives, the chimpanzees, and just 10 fewer than humans. These complex movements are typically used in combination by a horse throughout their body such as a lick / chew motion, leg position, tail use, eye blink or roll, sigh, snorts, whuffs, ear movements, muscle tension, or more. A person, like one of Milo's helpers, who spends a great deal of time with horses, and, in particular, is bonded emotionally to a horse both emotionally and through earnest observation, can "read" these body combinations and tell what the animal is thinking or "talking" about.
Certain horses, like Milo the Unicorn, are very "chatty." That means that they actively want to participate in dialogue with human helpers. While they have learned to read humans, such as identifying where a person is pointing, they have also learned to use their body language to do things like point, signal, or otherwise express themselves back to us. This physical communication lets horses and humans learn and grow with each other by emotional connection founded on respect and attention.
As an example, when Milo's helpers create games for him to play they are helping him to satisfy this emotional need - the need to be recognized as a thinking, feeling, individual with likes and dislikes... basically the respect and understanding that you might want for yourself. Thankfully for Milo, his team understands that he's amazing and strives to make every day happy and satisfying for him, whether it be driving him around LA to see new things, giving him interesting flowers to sniff, taking him out to explore new trails, or indulging him in a game of Simon Says.
Photo Credits: Suzanne Gonzalez