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

Horse & Hound - - News -

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.