Last Updated on February 23, 2022 by Allison Price
Understanding how your horse sees the world is key to shaping his performance and gaining his trust.
You see that little speck of light shining through the gap in the indoor arena’s roof? Hawkeye arches her neck every time she passes and skirts the border as if it were a rattlesnake. With the sun’s movement, the sliver grows in size and shapes. The mare seems to regard each little difference as a new snake. She leaps sideways when a simultaneous sound is made, such as the sound of sand sliding on the grain.
These behaviors are normal and reflect how horses’ visual systems are wired into their brains. Although we can help horses overcome these problems, it is impossible to make them disappear. We can’t make horses see the same things we do. Our perception of horses’ visions will determine how we react to their fear.
Cognitive psychologists have demonstrated that our sight is constructed using information from our eyes and knowledge from our brains since the 1960s. There are two possible outcomes: the eye or the brain. Blind people still see images and dreams even though their eyes are damaged. A person whose eyes are healthy but whose visual cortex has been damaged can see lights and shadows, but cannot make sense of them. People who are brain-blind may be able to grasp a cup of coffee or navigate around objects. This is despite not being able to consciously perceive the world. Blindsight is not only for humans, but also cortically blind animals.
Sometimes, a tiny bit of the visual cortex can be so impaired that even though they have normal vision, their owner suddenly cannot see color, shape, or movement. Imagine crossing a busy street with normal eyes but a brain that cannot perceive motion. A series of still images is created when cars travel 60 miles per hour. They’re still there, but at different places.
Gerald Edelman, a neuroscientist, said it best: “Every perception of the world is a creation.” Unfortunately, horses perceive the world in a different way than we do. Both species transmit visual information from the eyes to the brain. The human brain transmits six times more neural information in the reverse direction to the sensory relay station, which captures the incoming views. This wiring is the infrastructure for perceptual interpretation. It’s the result of knowledge being combined with the eyes’ images of the outside world. Your horse or you? It’s likely your horse, even though I hate to tell the truth. Your brain is more susceptible to illusions and assumptions that his brain.
Equine vision differs from human vision in nearly every way. This includes acuity, range and detection of peripheral movement. Understanding your horse’s vision will help you to influence his performance and earn his trust. This understanding will allow you to create training methods that work with your horse’s vision system, rather than against it.
Horses can often appear to have exceptional vision. Horses can raise their heads and flare their nostrils to give the impression of having great vision. This remarkable display of intelligence and sensitivity, sometimes called “the look of eagles”, is due to the way equine vision works. The horse is focusing on the bird’s position and trying to improve his vision by elevating his head and expanding his eyes. Because he can’t see the stationary details clearly, he pricks his ears. To enhance his sense of smell, his nostrils open to increase the size.
Eight times more than humans, the eyes of an equine are eight times bigger than their human counterparts. In fact, they are even larger than any other land mammal. However, horses’ acuity (the ability to distinguish fine detail and focus on the center of the visual fields) is much worse than ours. Reading is an excellent example of this acuity. Your eyes can detect tiny differences between the black marks on a page. For example, you can clearly see the difference between an “e”, and a “c”.
Normal human vision is 20/20 according to convention. The distance that a normal person can see is 20 feet. It is the same distance as what you can see at 20 feet. Meaningless, right? Until we compare them, the numbers don’t really tell us much. The average horse’s acuity ranges from 20/30 to around 30. He can only see details from 20 feet away, while we can see them from 30 feet away. To see the same details, a horse must be at least 50 feet away. That’s something!
Any rider should consider a 50 percent deficit. Imagine how a horse looks when you take him to the jump. It’s sharp, clear, and bright for you. It would make you nervous if the color was fuzzy or faded. Equestrians are often surprised to see photos that show horses jumping. Even in sunlight, the horse’s view is blurry, hazy and dim.
Like people, horses have different acuities. Nearsighted horses make up 23 percent, meaning they can’t see detail clearly until they are close to an object. Farsighted horses, on the other hand, are able to see details as they move closer to an object. Only 43 percent are farsighted. Horses with slightly less vision will be able to jump well, and this ability allows them to excel at disciplines such as jumping.
As the lens of the eye loses flexibility with age, so does your acuity. Anyone over 50 can confirm this. Around age 7, horses have the best acuity. It is still developing at this age, and then it starts to decline. Long convex noses of horses, such as many Standardbreds or Thoroughbreds have better vision than horses with shorter concave noses like Arabians.
POINTS OF VIEW
The eyes of horses are the most noticeable features. They are large and placed on the sides of their heads. Human eyes are smaller and more forward-looking than horses’. Horses and people see differently due to the position of their eyes on the faces. This affects visual range, peripheral motion detection, depth perception, and visual range. The 5 million years of horse evolution are what determine a horse’s ability to see. Trendy personality assessments and tie-downs won’t change this. We have to accept the way horses see the world and work with them.
Although human vision is good enough to see tiny marks on a page, it only covers a small portion of the view. Only two to three words are clear in your central vision when you read. The rest are blurred. Holding your index finger, extend your arm to the side. Look straight ahead. The finger will not be visible. It’s impossible to see your arm. Move your arm slowly toward the front. Keep your eyes on a distant point. No cheating! It is impossible to see the finger until it reaches a 45-degree angle. The human vision is limited to approximately 45 degrees either side of the nose, which makes it a total of 90 degrees.
Your horse’s hind hoof could be held straight out in front of him, so it would almost be in the middle of his vision. His 350-degree view is almost four times that of ours because his eyes are at his sides. Consider how dependent sight is on us and how vital it is for our lives. Imagine if we had four times as much vision every second of the day. We would be even more edgy!
The horse’s visual range extends from the tip of his nose to an imaginary line that runs straight back from his hip. You can see the Attack Tractor approaching from behind your shoulder. He is approaching it, perhaps at a faster pace than he is moving. Horses may see this as a chase. Every fiber of their evolutionary history tells them that running is the only way to escape a chase. Now. Now, imagine a balloon bobbing to the side of an arena. It is like a ball flying straight towards a horse’s face. Yellow balloons will shine brightest to horses’ eyes. He is not surprised that he bolts and shimes.
Although the horse can see a large area of the world around his body, it is very narrow. His vision is limited above and below his eyes. If he doesn’t cock his head, he can only see the horse’s side and not the ground or the air. Blind spots can also be caused by Equine Vision. Horses cannot see people standing in front of them. Even the most sweet horse can still kick in any direction if he is surprised from behind. That’s where that tenet of good horsemanship–approaching the hindquarters from the shoulder–comes from. It’s important to let him know you are there.
The second blind spot is located in front of the horse’s eyes, between his eye and the ground below his nose. It extends to six feet. He will be frightened by a sudden raised hand. He can’t see the grass he touches, or the bits he accepts. To sense these objects, he uses his whiskers around the mouth. Horses with shaved whiskers are at a sensory disadvantage.
When dealing with anxious horses, one of the biggest mistakes is to block their side view. A rider with forward-facing eyes assumes that a horse should be positioned for a frontal view. This position is even recommended by some equestrian websites. Hawkeye is pushed by the rider straight towards the light sand, which already scares her. The rider then attempts to get her to stop and stare at the ground, her eyes bugged like tennis balls. These demands are beyond the capabilities of horses’ brains.
Why? First, human eyes see clearly from the front. Horses’ wide-set eyes are unable to. Hawkeye only knows that her rider has been upset and she is forcing her to go forward to a location she finds threatening. Second, when Hawkeye reluctantly approaches the light-snake, it vanishes from her line of sight. This makes it even more terrifying. Third, standing still does more to increase the horse’s fear than it does to reduce it. Fourth, Hawkeye will cock her head and pivot to the side to get a better view. Her rider pulls on one of her reins and presses with the other leg. This pushes Hawkeye back to an equine position where her vision is the worst.
Fear is all in the eyes of the beholder. Although Hawkeye might be a silly creature, he is not afraid to use a cup of plastic or paper. But how would you feel if you had a large, hairy tarantula in your hair?
Let’s not forget Hawkeye. Begin by doing some groundwork. Begin by leading her towards the sliver that is visible. If she resists, don’t force it. Let her move in circles and loops at the distance that she feels safe. Next, use vicarious learning. Hawkeye can watch a friend of hers walk towards the object and then stand beside it to speak calmly. The voice will be recognized by Hawkeye. Encourage her to approach the microphone by stroking her neck. Success is only a step or two further than she desires. Give praise and then stop for the day.
If that fails, your friend can bring a familiar, preferably herd-dominant, horse to the object. Verify that the horse is not afraid. Slowly speak in a low pitched voice and stroke your horse’s neck as you watch her friend survive the terror. If that fails, you can move away from the object and give your horse a new task. Start building her trust tomorrow using objects she finds less frightening. You will eventually be able return to your original fear-sight and give up trying again.
If your horse seems relaxed and able to see the threat from a distance then you can walk her backwards and forwards past it before asking for a head-on approach. Encourage your horse to move forward face-first when she is comfortable. Let her sniff the object by stroking her neck. She will likely jump once or twice, but that’s okay. If you asked me to sniff a Tarantula, I would also jump. Your hand should make a soft sound against the hazard, this will help the horse learn more from her exceptional hearing. As the horse gets used to the object, gently roll it or push it around.
Let’s say the fright-sight suddenly appears while you are riding. It is tempting to just call it quits and go to the nearest ice-cream shop for some solace. Hawkeye will learn that if she strays, you will take him to his comfortable stall. Instead, keep Hawkeye on your horse and distract her by doing something that will move her away from the threat. This may seem like “letting her go with it”, but it’s just one step in a larger process. With the object in front of you, ride to a distance that the horse considers safe. You should trot in a manner that places the object closest to the horse. Keep your horse calm and relaxed.
Hawkeye should be calm and quiet when you are able to enlarge the loops while keeping her tranquil. You can then ride one foot closer to the object every time you pass it. If she passes it calmly, even if from a distance away, stroke her neck, and say kindly. To make it easier for her, if she attempts to skirt it, reduce the loop. You should move closer to her when she is ready and not when you are.
One minute might be enough to teach a simple lesson. 100 lessons could take two days. Two months. Fear should not be punished or pushed. Give the horse a 50-foot berth if she needs it to calmly negotiate an object. Her mental calm and not her distance from the frightening view is what matters most. Tomorrow, you can set the goal of composure at 45 feet. You can always take the lessons on another day if you are too tired or rushed. To forcibly ride a horse is a great way to lose her trust. Frighten her even more and then wake up with Nurse Ratched at your bed.
PREY AND PREDATOR
Equestrian eyes are beautiful and expressive of the evolutionary need for prey. Although we don’t like to be considered predators, our forward-facing eyes are a clear indicator of this. Prey animals can identify predators through sight and smell, including their eye position. The evolutionary equine brain recognizes predators when it sees a human face.
Horses see us as natural predators so human eye contact can have a warning effect. Add some stinkeye to your next verbal warning for your little gangster. It’s the human equivalent to an alpha mare’s flattened ears. If you can flatten it, it would be even more amazing. Let me know what you think. To keep your horse safe, if he moves too fast on a longe or round pen, you can look down and listen to his feet. Ask others to help him if he is anxious when entering a trailer. It can be difficult to catch. You can either look to the side or walk slowly backwards toward the horse, while speaking clearly.
Horses have evolved to be able to sense peripheral motion. Predators need to have sharp vision in the central areas of their visual field in order to move in for a kill. Prey animals don’t need to know everything they have seen. They just need to be aware of what they have seen. Horses must be able to see peripheral motion instantly, regardless of its nature, and can move quickly away from the danger zone before any predators approach. Equine eyes can also move independently to inspect one side of the world more closely than the other.
It takes the human brain half a second for each view of the world to process it and identify what it has seen. This includes shape, color, size and distance. Horses in the wild don’t need half a second to process information. He just needs to see a small movement in the bushes, and then press the gas. Each millisecond of delay can mean death. It’s okay if the movement is a bicycle and not a lion. Running from a bicycle is not a loss.
Because the horse relies on his peripheral motion detection, he will need to “misbehave” while riding. Sharpen your peripheral senses to help him. You can improve your awareness of objects behind and around your eyes by using your ears, nose, and cognitive experience. Investigate if a horse seems to be full of corn in an area that is usually calm. There is a good chance that your horse notices something you don’t and wants to tell you.
The horse’s vision is different from that of a person in many ways, including range, peripheral motion detection, eye contact, and acuity. These differences will allow you to communicate with your horse more effectively and help you train him in ways that are compatible with his senses. Keep an eye out for light-snakes in the sand.
I’m Allison, born and raised in San Diego California, the earliest memory I have with horses was at my grandfather’s farm. I used to sit at the stable as a kid and hang out with my Papa while he was training the horses. When I was invited to watch a horse riding competition, I got so fascinated with riding!