Your horse has excellent hearing and continuously swivels his ears towards different noises in the environment.
He has a large field of vision and doesn’t need to turn his head in order to see things around him (like we do).
By paying attention to which way the ears are pointing, you can guess what your horse is paying attention to.
Ears are also an indicator of the mood of your horse and learning what the different positions mean will help you understand how your horse is feeling.
Does my horse have better hearing than me?
Equine audiology is actually similar to humans. Horses hear sounds over a wider range of frequencies than we do but the decibel levels they respond to are more or less the same as ours.
Anyone who’s ever been around horses knows that a horse can often be acutely aware of something that is outside of our hearing range and react to it.
Your horse’s vision is much better than his hearing because he depends on his eyesight with his life.
His eyesight practically takes in the entire horizon and his hearing is not nearly as accurate.
Hearing serves the same role in all mammals; it allows us to detect others (since it’s mostly other animals and people who make the most noise concerning our immediate wellbeing).
Once we’ve detected a sound, our ears guide us to where the sound is coming from so that we can visually scrutinise the source and decide if it requires action from us or not.
Your horse doesn’t need a lot of accuracy from his ears, just enough to know where to direct his vision and begin examining what caused the sound.
Your horse’s ears can move independently
Your horse’s ears are shaped like a funnel, designed to locate and amplify sounds.
It’s not just the shape of your horse’s ears that help him hear better, also the muscles around his ears support better audiology.
If you’ve spent any time around horses, you’ll know that the ears can rotate independently of each other up to 180 degrees without turning the head.
Horses are constantly swivelling their ears around, listening to the environment and scanning for potential threats, even when they seem to be standing still.
They have this “extra” rotation because they are not good at locating the source of a sound.
When your horse lifts his head, starts looking around like a pigeon (at anything and everything) and swivelling his ears in all directions, he’s trying to pinpoint where a sound came from.
Your horse’s ears are a glimpse into his mind
Learning to understand horses, is very much an exercise in subtlety.
An ear flick here, the swish of a tail there or a subtle shifting of weight all tell you about what’s going through your horse’s mind.
Your horse’s ears are primarily for hearing, but they also express emotions and are used for communication.
Pinning the ears back is an expression of displeasure, aggression or a warning to someone who gets too close for comfort.
When the ears are resting relaxedly to the sides, your horse is relaxing.
Ears forward mean paying attention to whatever is in front of the horse and when the ears tip forward, the nostrils flare and the neck tenses, there is something in the direction your horse is looking that is consuming all his attention.
Body language is the key to communicating with your horse
As a prey animal, your horse prefers to stay in a herd where, in close proximity to each other, body language is far more important than vocalisation or sound.
Your horse, like all horses, relies on subtle cues to communicate with herd mates.
How the body is positioned in space and in relation to others, what the ears are expressing, the twitch of a tail and even the widening of an eye all say something (in this manner, I’ve noticed that horses and chickens are alike because chickens can sometimes use minuscule cues to communicate that are incredibly easy to miss – horses are easier to read than chickens simply for their size).
Horses that spend more time in individual stalls, as opposed to in a herd, and who may not be able to see each other can communicate more with sound than their counterparts in herds.
Hearing your neighbours moving around, rustling in the hay and snorting behind the wall, can bring some comfort to an animal that has evolved to be in close physical proximity to others.
Can issues with hearing affect my horse’s behaviour?
Horses that experience hearing loss may exhibit behavioural changes, such as not responding to voice cues – or they may be more anxious than others (especially if they’re kept alone in a stall and not allowed the reassurance of physical touch).
Hearing loss in horses can often go unnoticed or be overlooked because horses are very adept at communicating in other ways.
Relying on vision and other olfactory cues may hide the changes in hearing from the people they interact with the most.
Issues with hearing certainly don’t tend to be the first thing you think about when there are behavioural issues with a horse, and this may further work against discovering any changes in hearing.
Hearing loss doesn’t have to be a big problem for your horse
When it’s discovered that a horse has impaired hearing, handling, training and general interaction can be positively impacted.
The key to this is being aware of the changes and how they affect the behaviour of your horse.
A horse with hearing loss may not be able to respond to voice cues or sounds in the environment as accurately as a horse with perfect hearing, but is no different than any other horse otherwise and will respond to training if you adapt your practices.
You need to figure out how to communicate effectively with your horse and make more use of visual and tactile (touch) cues.
A completely deaf horse is completely functional and can work as well as a hearing horse – some very successful performance horses have been deaf.
Just as people, horses start losing some hearing as they age, though it doesn’t seem to be as significant with horses as it is with humans.
This is just something to take into consideration if you have a senior horse in your care.
Hearing loss can be caused by a number of factors, including head trauma, ear infections and brain diseases. Other causes can be temporohyoid osteoarthropathy (THO) and congenital deafness (often related to coat colour).
Has the hearing of horses adapted over the course of their evolution?
No one knows this for sure, and we can only speculate that because horses began their existence as much smaller animals than they are today, and lived in a completely different environment, that they probably were able to hear higher frequencies of sound than they do today.
As horses are today, though, they’re perfectly suited to living in large open areas where they can constantly observe their surroundings and detect changes in the overall soundscape, rather than pick out the individual sounds.
Because they’ve evolved to live on steppes and in large open areas, hearing is often less reliable than sight, as it can be compromised by things such as the wind, which can make you virtually deaf to the approach of a predator.
By living in a group, horses ensure that the individuals in a herd are spread out over a larger area, and have more eyes and ears observing the environment for potential dangers.