How do horses see? We ask how course-designers and riders take horses’ eyesight into account
With little data available about the way that horses see, Andrea Oakes finds out how course-designers and riders take their mounts’ vision into account
WATCH eventing maestro Horseware Hale Bob in action and it’s hard to believe he doesn’t walk the courses before he jumps them. The agile bay barely breaks stride as he sums up, locks on and leaves each ditch, drop or angled rail behind him.
The complexity of modern cross-country and showjumping courses means that horses must tackle a huge variety of fences that flash up in quick succession. The fact that so many cope with the visual challenge of our man-made designs to go clear is all the more remarkable given that we don’t really know what horses can see.
The visual ability of equines has long been debated. Many experts are of the opinion that defining what horses see is a grey area, with lack of scientific knowledge enabling little more than a broad-brush account of how they might interact with their environment. But researchers are working to fill in some of the gaps, with enhanced safety and performance in mind.
“OUR research into the visibility of fences to horses is already producing preliminary ideas,” explains Dr Carol Hall of Nottingham Trent University. “Jumping obstacles at speed is a high-risk activity that requires judgement of take-off point and clearance requirements, so what horses ‘see’ on the approach is vitally important.
“Risks include potential glare from ground water, confusion caused by poles used in parallel or at angles, and distraction from peripheral objects, such as crowds and vehicles, due to the horse’s wide visual field. Horses see limited colours and focus more on the ground, so colour, texture and the use (or not) of groundlines can also affect judgement.”
As part of these studies, Carol’s team has used mobile eye-tracking equipment to monitor the riders’ point of gaze when approaching a jump.
“We also hope to develop a method of monitoring gaze behaviour in horses,” she says. “Relating these aspects to human gaze behaviour offers a means of improving horse welfare, human safety and sustainable performance.”
Professor Martin Stevens of the University of Exeter is using technology to investigate reaction to fence colour.
“Colours that seem vivid to us may blend into background vegetation or foreground grass for a horse,” says Martin. “There are further issues relating to weather and light conditions, which may drain colours or affect the way they’re seen.
“Put simply, we take photos of fences using a camera that sees certain wavelengths of light. We then do some maths to quantify or illustrate the colours within these images that are likely to be visible to horses.”
By collecting data at events, Martin is looking for a relationship between fence type, colours and materials used and any problems encountered. The research, funded by the Racing Foundation and in part by the British Horseracing Authority, is also investigating the visibility of fences in racing and the suitability of colour choice for take-off boards and markers.
“In terms of visibility and what the horse can see, course-design is often based largely on anecdotal accounts, experience and the feeling that riders and designers get,” says Martin. “While this is not necessarily wrong, it is not usually backed up by scientific evidence.”
SO how do course-designers use the scant information they do have to devise safe but testing tracks?
“With no proof of how horses see, we have no choice but to go by experience,” says crosscountry course-designer Ian Stark, who talks of “a gut feel, an instinct” about what will work, based on years of riding at top level himself. “History tells us which fences are easier for horses to understand.
“I do sometimes panic about a new idea for a fence,” he admits. “If I wake up in the night concerned about something, it’s enough to make me change it.”
Ian’s bold, forward-thinking courses, among them Chatsworth and Bramham, typically draw praise, but he welcomes feedback from experienced riders, especially those who tell him how they think a certain fence will ride and give a follow-up afterwards. He has reservations about relying on scientific proof alone.
“There is a danger in fixing something if it’s not broken,” he says.
Mike Etherington-Smith, cross-country
course-designer for the 2008 Hong Kong Olympics and at Luhmühlen, agrees: “A lot of what we do is based on riding experience, design experience and feel. But we have to use every piece of information we can. We never stop learning.”
Mike mentions the different paints or stains needed when designing courses on sandy tracks as opposed to green turf, and how fence placement and shape provide visual clues.
“Contrast is key and we’re learning about colour,” he says. “I don’t think that anyone has been doing anything very wrong, but research may well prove that what we’re doing is right.
“It’s fascinating to have these discussions,” he adds, referring to FEI eventing risk management summits held worldwide.
“Horses are clever and, in the main, will work things out. But if we can help them define the profile of a fence, why shouldn’t we?”
Eventer Jonty Evans tries to see fences not just through horses’ eyes, but through those of his individual rides.
“I’m convinced that some horses are quicker to adjust when galloping from light into dark,” he says. “Cooley Rorkes Drift always seems to react quickly.”
Jonty also notes fence colour when course walking, adding: “When two elements of a showjumping bounce are painted different colours, the fence seems to jump better.
“You often get more reaction from a young horse to a yellow fence, such as the one recently at Little Gatcombe,” he says. “There was also a combination in dark and light purple in a checked pattern. I’m not sure if it was the contrast, the pattern or the colours, but it certainly didn’t ride as smoothly as expected.”
SHOWJUMPING course-designer and mentor Steve Williams is taking a keen interest in the outcome of the latest research.
“Designers in general are open-minded,” he says. “It will hopefully put meat on the bones of what we think we know.
“When I started course-designing 38 years ago, plain rails seemed to come down a lot more often than red-and-white-striped poles,” he adds. “We know that horses see white well. If you’re out hacking and there’s an embankment covered in wild flowers, you’ll see a huge array of colours but the horse will spot the white polystyrene cup in the middle.
“A fence that seems brightly coloured to us, can appear muted to a horse,” explains Steve. “While our eye may be drawn to the colourful fillers, he will focus on the white rails at the top. As a consequence, we would never put a plain red pole on top of a fence with a white pole underneath it.”
Luminosity is another factor.
“Horses are not intrinsically afraid of water, but light reflection may cause them to be wary,” he says, explaining that reflection can vary with weather and time of day. “Metallic paints and Day-Glo colours also reflect back more light. I would question using these as they can look different at any given moment, so you can’t ensure consistency or fair competition.”
While new research may shed light on some of the secrets of equine vision, showjumping coach and commentator Andy Austin points out that good riding will remain key to clear rounds.
“Horses can judge distance to a fence to a degree, but they need a rider to put them on the right stride,” he says, explaining that horses typically miscalculate when jumping loose or if the reins are dropped. “And it’s not just the horse’s eye that’s critical but the brain behind it, as they’re often distracted by things in their peripheral vision that they feel are more important. It’s not only a question of
what they see, but what they focus on.”
The answer, says Andy, is to offer the horse the best possible chance of assessing the question in front of him.
“The old-fashioned way of working a horse over-bent means that he can’t see,” he explains. “The more modern, lighter seat and hands allow the horse to carry his head in the place he wants it to be to jump — Luciana Diniz and Fit For Fun are a good example of this. The horse can’t look forwards if you’re hanging on to him and fighting, so teach him to carry himself and to go straight with an even, still head carriage. He’ll then have the time, confidence and balance to take a proper look.”
‘history tells us which fences are easy for horses to understand,’ says course-designer ian stark
in tune: Jonty evans tries to see fences through the eyes of his individual mount