all had it happen . . . You are riding along calmly and then your
horse spooks at a mailbox you have passed a hundred times. I
recently went on a horseback journey of over 1350 miles, riding the
length of California, from the Mexican to the Oregon border.
During the ride and since, many people said to me, "As much as
they have seen, I bet by now nothing spooks your horses." I
strange, but they seem to keep spooking at the same things, mailboxes
and trashcans. Of course, in rural areas, some people seem to
get a kick out of decorating and painting their mailboxes unusual
colors and sometimes strange shapes. But that didn’t seem to
be the problem. My horses' reaction when spooked changed over time, as
they developed trust, and they didn’t do the usual "run first,
investigate later" routine. In fact, they have pretty much
learned to just freeze when frightened. But why do mailboxes and
similar objects continually frighten them or cause a reaction?
am not an equine ophthalmologist, but it is important to understand
how a horse’s eyes work and affect their behavior. Horse’s
eyes are located on the sides of the head, giving the horse maximum
peripheral vision. With this peripheral vision, horses can see
between 200-300 degrees around them. However, horses are theorized to
have “ramped retinas” like trifocals, so they have to move their
heads up and down in order to focus. Most of the time a
horse is operating with blurry vision.
eyes are both monocular and binocular. Monocular means they can
see out of each eye separately, sending different visual signals to
the brain simultaneously. Binocular vision is seeing with both
eyes at once, looking in front of them. Binocular vision is
obscured or distracted when they are using mononuclear vision (looking
out the side). It is with binocular vision that horses calculate
distance. Since their binocular vision is best looking straight
down their noses, horses often raise their heads quickly in order to
focus on an object they get a glimpse of. This explains why your
horse spins around suddenly to look directly at the object. You
horse is actually trying to gauge just how far away this object is and
the degree of danger. The direction your horses' ears are
pointed will indicate where it is looking.
cans and mailboxes seem to be common culprits of terror as they are
caught in a horse’s peripheral monocular vision. This means
the horse comes upon the object visually from the side, out of focus
and in one eye only. Therefore, the
horse is unable to calculate depth perception or how far away this
strange and dangerous object actually is. Remember when you have
been riding towards something and it is not until you begin to pass it
your horse reacts. The object is now being changed from being
viewed from binocular to monocular and has no depth perception.
we understand what is happening with equine vision, spooking is more
easily explained. Many mailboxes we approached were painted with
loud colors and sometimes designed in strange objects. Although
horses are thought to be fairly color blind, distinguishing only a few
colors, it is probably more the unrecognizable shape and location of
the object that creates a reaction.
other facts about horses’ vision can help to explain their
behavior. First, a horse’s retina size actually magnifies
objects to twice the size of human’s eyes. Also, horses
do not have as efficient recognizable recall of objects seen before,
as do humans. And, the position of horses’ eyes means they
have some natural blind spots, immediately in front of the face, below
the head and directly behind them. These facts alone can explain
many of horses’ reactions to strange objects.
acuity is another concept that can help us better understand
horses. This is the ability to separate objects at a
distance. Three black lines on a white barn may be clear to us,
but at a distance to a horse they tend to run together as gray and
appear as one object. So at a distance many objects may appear
as one huge object to your horse. Allowing time for your horse’s
eyes to focus and approaching slowly will help your horse to more
clearly see the object.
you understand horse’s vision differences and their primary instinct
to flee at all potential dangers, you can begin to understand why it
is silly to punish a horse for being frightened. Instead, learn to
reward for the correct reaction to this fear. Riders often make
the mistake of rubbing their horses and saying things like, “Easy
girl,” or “It’s okay” just after their horse reacts negatively
to fear. Your horse may understand these actions as reward for
reacting. Instead, reward them when they do not react
common mistake riders make is to anticipate their horses' reaction and
telegraph this fear. Horses are prey animals and instinctually
sense fear in the herd, so they can react quickly. A rider
tensing up or breathing irregularly signals danger to their horse.
Remaining relaxed and remembering to breathe when approaching
obstacles that may be frightening for your horse will help you and
your horse to successfully conquer new challenges.
am not sure how humans learned this about horses’ vision.
Maybe Mr. Ed told them? I do know that understanding our
horses' behavior and the functioning of their eyes can help us better
know our horses and work toward building a better relationship with
additional reading on Equine Vision see: