Horse Behaviour

Understanding your horse: an overview of the equine senses

To see the world from your horse’s point of view, you literally need to know how your horse takes in the world.

We, humans, evolved to be hunters and gatherers. This meant getting good at chasing down prey that could run away very quickly, and learning how to tell what stuff was edible and which wasn’t.

Horses, on the other hand, have evolved to run away from any potential threats as well as to eat a lot of the stuff around them.

Given these differences, it’s clear that your horse’s senses are going to have nuances that are distinctly different from yours.

Sight is the most important equine sense.

For a prey animal, like your horse, good vision means the difference between life and death.

Seeing trouble coming from far away is the best way to make sure you get away before the predator even gets close.

Your horse has a long, narrow head with eyes on the sides of the head. This means your horse has a wider field of view than you do.

When her head is facing forward, your horse has a nearly 180-degree field of vision. She can see in front of and almost all the way around her body, with a few blind spots at the very front and back.

One of the reasons you shouldn’t approach a horse from behind is because that’s one of the blind spots and you can take a horse by surprise.

No one is sure exactly how far horses can see. Scientists who have done experiments have made educated guesses that horses can see pretty far, in the realm of hundreds of metres.

Your horse can distinguish patterns, meaning that she can perceive fine details, and can perceive depth quite well.

This doesn’t mean that she can pick out small details at a great distance, but she is well-equipped to notice movement, even when it’s far away.

Your horse’s night vision is also better than yours.

Many riders have been out after dark and gotten lost, only to be dumbfounded by their horse’s ability to see the path and navigate it safely despite the lack of light.

Scientists know a lot less about how horses see colour than about other aspects of their sight, but they are certain that horses see some colours even though it’s less than we do.

When a horse loses its sight.

As prey animals, horses are very dependent on their vision – both for survival as for physical and emotional well-being.

In the wild, a horse that loses its sight for some reason is vulnerable – and knows it.

Equine eye problems is a common ailment among domestic horses and some breeds are especially affected by equine recurrent uveitis.

It’s a painful and incurable disease that results in blindness.

If a horse has an owner willing to take the time to build a relationship of trust and to make the required adjustments for the horse, a blind horse can live a perfectly happy life, be ridden and even compete!

Hearing is crucial to survival.

A species that survives by getting a head start on any predators or dangers needs good ears. The fact that horses have survived for as long as they have, is testimony to their incredible hearing.

When you look at the shape of a horse’s ear, you’ll see that it’s built like a funnel.

This design allows the ear to capture sound in its outer part and channel it down into the ear canal. The broader outer part of your horse’s ear is very good at picking up the slightest sound in the environment.

Just like if you roll up a piece of paper and put it to your ear, you can start hearing things in a way you couldn’t without it.

The fact that your horse is able to swivel her ears, also means that she can search for where a particular sound is coming from.

Just by hanging out with your horse, you’ll see how her ears are constantly swivelling like radars monitoring the environment.

When both ears point in the same direction at the same time, she’s trying to better hear a noise that she’s picked up in that direction.

Your horse can take in the sound of a car, kids playing, birds chirping in the trees and someone walking by, all at the same time.

Her brain processes that information and makes a call on whether to react – all while at the same time meandering down a rocky trail or picking up the best blades of grass.

Loud, unfamiliar noises can send even a calm horse into a tizzy and a familiar, reassuring sound can calm them right down.

Horses literally smell danger.

Horses have an acute sense of smell that they employ to gather information about what’s happening around them.

Your horse uses her sense of smell in many different ways and it’s important that you understand this.

Nature has equipped your horse with a strong olfactory sense that can tell her whether a predator is near – all it takes is a light breeze to carry a smell to her nose.

After getting the slightest whiff of danger, a wild herd of horses will high-tail it out of the area in a flash – with their tails literally held high up in the air.

Horses also use smell as part of their complicated social structure.

They recognise each other by scent as well as sight, mares and foals quickly memorise each other’s scents and use that to locate each other in the herd.

Horses will typically greet each other nose-to-nose, each taking in the scent of the other horse.

Horses also tend to greet humans in this way and can spend a good amount of time smelling you all over. The polite way to greet a horse is to stand still and allow her to take in your personal scent when she reaches out with her muzzle.

Giving her time to breathe in your scent also lets her know that you’re a friend, not a predator, and will typically make the horse more agreeable to being handled by you.

Your horse will also use her sense of smell to help her identify tasty plants out in the paddock. Horses can’t vomit, so it’s important for them to ensure that whatever they eat is good to go into the gut because it has no way of coming back up.

Touch is very important to horses.

The number one mistake I see people making about horse skin is to think that it’s thick like leather.

Your horse’s skin is actually quite sensitive. And though it’s tougher than the human epidermis, it’s still full of nerve endings.

If you sit in the pasture and observe your horse together with other horses for a time, you’ll notice how horses use touch to communicate with each other.

The mother will reassure her foal with a touch of the muzzle while the foal will lean up against his mother for comfort, herd mates will participate in mutual grooming and horses use specific points on each other’s bodies to move another horse.

When a message needs to be conveyed, it’s a combination of energy and body language, visual cues and touch.

You can also use touch to convey information to your horse.

You can trigger the ‘follow’ point near to poll to tell your horse to follow you or use the ‘move’ point in the barrel to tell your horse to step aside.

You can imitate what you see horses doing to each other and give your horse a good scratch on the whithers to show a sign of mutual grooming and friendship.

Your horse may like to bring her head close to you and rest her forehead against your chest or let you give her a slow rub all around her face, signalling closeness and trust.

Or your horse may love to use your ambidextrous services to get an itchy spot in a hard-to-reach place a good scratch, such as under the stomach, along the throat, between the jawbones or inside the ears.

If your horse gets really happy she may try to reciprocate and groom you as well. She’ll begin by vigorously rubbing her lips on some part of your body, this is most often followed by scratching you with the teeth which – since you’re not a horse – can be quite painful!

How do horses talk?

As highly social creatures, horses do quite a bit of talking.

Humans primarily use verbal communication, though even most of our communication is non-verbal whether we’re aware of it or not.

Horses use energy and body language as well as vocalisations to express a range of attitudes, intents and emotions.

When you truly want to understand your horse, you need to be well-versed in equine body language.

Learn to read facial expressions.

One of the more obvious ways your horse talks to you is through facial expressions.

Each mood and message has a distinct look that you can learn to recognise.

#1 “I’m feeling safe and relaxed”

This is the sign of a healthy, happy horse. This is the expression you’ll most often see when your horse is dozing in the pasture, being groomed or generally just hanging out.

The ears are relaxed and to the side or leaning back, but not in a tense manner. The eye has a calm look and the muscles around the eyes are relaxed, the eyelid might be half-closed and the head held in a comfortable mid-position.

#2 “I’m alert and waiting for what happens next”

This is a welcome expression that indicates your horse is alert and curious about what’s going on or what’s coming next.

The ears are pricked forward, the eyes are focused on whatever the horse is curious about and the head is held at a mid-high level.

The eyes are open but without any tension around the eye socket or mouth.

#3 “I don’t like that, get away!”

This expression precedes a bite or a kick if it isn’t heeded.

The horse will direct this expression at something another horse is doing or a horse or person they don’t like.

The ears are pinned back, the muscles around the eyes and mouth are tight. The nostrils are tense and pinched.

The head can also be raised and the horse will look at what it doesn’t like.

In the picture below the situation has escalated from a warning to physical touch, in this case, a bite to push the other horse away.

#4 “I’m concerned about something over there”

When a horse has seen something that they’re unsure of, they usually start looking concerned because they’re not sure if it’s a threat or not.

You’ll see tension around the eyes and nostrils, the neck muscles will tense and the head rises up. You can often also see some whites around the eyes as the horse tries to keep their eye on whatever is concerning.

Your horse can also start breathing more audibly as she tries to discern a scent that would tell her more about the danger.

#5 “I’m scared and ready to run”

A horse that’s on the verge of panic will warn you with head tossing and jumping around.

The ears will point towards the threat, the head will be held high, often with the muzzle stretched out in front.

The whites will be showing around the eyes, the muscles in the neck are visibly tense and the tail held up, possibly defecating in preparation to run away.

Your horse is equipped to survive.

The very instincts that can be inconvenient in the modern world are what has kept horses alive for millennia.

Domesticated horses don’t have to fear ferocious carnivores as they once did because their safety is guarded by their human companions and their species-specific needs (hopefully) always met.

This domesticated way of living is in conflict with how horses have evolved to live, and the better we are at understanding how they see the world and communicate with them, the more able we are to guide them safely through modern life.


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