Horse Psychology Tutorial: Part 4 The Horse’s Senses

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Horse Psychology Tutorial - Part 4 The Horse's Senses

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The Horse’s Senses
Part 2 of an 8-part series on horse psychology by trainer Gina Gaye Muzinich of the Morgan Horse Ranch

1. Sight

Sight has been a prime feature of the horse’s survival due to his ability to see at night and to see objects on both sides and to the rear of his body simultaneously. This is possible because a horse’s eyes are rather large and are set wide apart on the sides of the head. This type of vision is called monocular vision. Horses have a small blind spot directly in front and directly behind. They cannot see anything in these two spots without turning their heads. These blind spots should be entered with caution. Do not approach horses directly from the rear. Always speak to, and keep your eyes on the horse and his expressions if you choose to pass behind.
Horses adjust their range of vision by lowering and raising their head. It’s held high to see far and low to see close. They also use “binocular vision”, which is when they focus both eyes on a distant object in front of them. Horses loading into a trailer may lower their nose to the floor to smell it for identification, and then raise their head before entering so that they can attain the head position that gives them the best possible vision.

Each angle or position from which the horse sees an object creates a different picture of that object. As far as the horse is concerned, different pictures mean different objects; and horses naturally react cautiously to different and new things. Some horses show no fear of objects positioned to one side of them and then are suddenly terrified by the same objects when they face them head on. Some horses may fear water puddles not only because of the scary-looking reflections, but because they perhaps cannot see how deep it is. Not all horses have perfect eyesight due to the size and shape of the eye, yet usually they can see things we don’t.

I knew of a horse who when harnessed up to the buggy, would turn his head to look back at the people seated in the buggy behind him. He saw the buggy from the front corners of his eyes and was not afraid because he was familiar with seeing it that way. However, when his blinders were mistakenly removed before detaching him from the buggy, and because his head and neck were in the normal straight forward position, he saw the buggy through the back corners of his eyes. The horse had never seen the buggy that way before, so he ran to get away from it and broke loose.

Since a horse cannot see obstacles near her feet unless she tilts her head, she must remember where the obstacles are while traveling over them. She should be allowed some time and free rein to investigate objects and terrain.

Horses are considered color blind, but now it is suggested that they do see some degree of color. White or black objects can be seen by the horse very distinctly. Objects that do not move convey very little information to the brain. A sitting bird or rabbit may be seen readily by the rider, but remain obscure to the horse until the object moves or the horse smells it.

Horses see movement instantly and react according to training, temperament, experience, and confidence in their handler. When the object moves, depending on how close it is to the horse, she might suddenly bolt, jump, rear, or spin.
With most horses, it might be a good idea to get an object to move before the horse and you are too close to it. If the object is an animal, try to scare it enough so that it moves a little. If it is a hiker resting on the trail side, call to them from a distance and ask them to wave their hand or speak to the horse so she sees the person. Some riders prefer asking hikers to remain perfectly still so the horse can pass them without fear. I don’t usually recommend this because if the person accidentally moves or makes noise by slipping or sneezing right when the horse is passing them, the horse’s reaction could be more dramatic.

2. Feeling

Horses are very sensitive. They can feel an ant crawling on them. They can feel it when you turn your head to one side or the other while riding them. Some horses feel it when your focus of attention changes. If you apply “meaning” to any movements that you make, the horse will be able to respond to them in time. Some folks have taught their horses to perform without wearing bridles. Instead the horse feels the rider’s hips subtly tilting forward to ask for a stop. The horse feels the rider’s head turn and leg squeeze to ask for a turn. Sometimes horses become alert for no “apparent” reason. Often this is because they may feel vibrations from things like distant vehicles, earthquakes or the hoof beats of running horses which they cannot see or hear.

3. Hearing

The hearing of most horses is good. Horses hear high tones that are not perceptible to human ears. Fear of parades, loud machines, or gun shots, may in part result from actual pain to the horse’s ears. A particularly alert horse will move his ears around often to locate the direction of the sound. Getting the horse accustomed to sounds is an important safety precaution. Even a familiar sound may scare the horse if it happens suddenly.

4. Scent

Horses have a good sense of smell. Domestic stallions that are downwind from mares in estrus can identify them from great distances. Researchers in England found that horses that were put into closed horse trailers, driven in loops, and then unloaded, were able to head directly homeward from a downwind distance of five miles. If you have a scent on you similar to someone who once abused or frightened a particular horse, that horse may fear you.

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