How your horse sees you

EQUUS - - Front Page - By Janet L. Jones, PhD

See that sliver of light on the sand, shin­ing through a gap in the roof of the in­door arena? Ev­ery time she goes past, Hawk­eye arches her neck and skirts the bound­ary as if it’s a rat­tlesnake. The sliver changes in size and shape with the sun’s move­ment, and the mare seems to see each tiny dif­fer­ence as a brand-new snake. When a con­cur­rent sound erupts---say, the sound of a grain of sand slid­ing---she leaps side­ways.

Th­ese are nor­mal be­hav­iors that re­flect the way a horse’s vis­ual sys­tems are hard­wired into his brain. We can teach horses to over­come them, but we can’t make them go away. Nor can we make a horse see the way we do. How we re­spond to his fear de­pends partly on our own vi­sion, which de­ter­mines our ex­pec­ta­tions of what horses see.

Since the 1960s, cog­ni­tive psy­chol­o­gists have shown that we con­struct sight us­ing in­for­ma­tion from our eyes com­bined with knowl­edge in our brains. Things can go wrong at ei­ther end---the eye or the brain. A per­son whose eyes be­come blind still sees im­ages and dreams. One whose eyes are in­tact but whose vis­ual cor­tex is dam­aged of­ten sees lights and shad­ows but can’t make sense of them. In rare cases, peo­ple who are com­pletely brain-blind can grasp a cof­fee cup set in front of them or nav­i­gate around ob­jects, re­spond­ing to the phys­i­cal world even though they can­not con­sciously see it. This abil­ity, called “blind­sight,” isn’t lim­ited to hu­mans; cor­ti­cally blind an­i­mals can do it, too.

Oc­ca­sion­ally, a smidgen of vis­ual cor­tex is im­paired so specif­i­cally that its owner---hav­ing oth­er­wise nor­mal sight---sud­denly can­not see color, shape or per­haps move­ment. Imag­ine try­ing to cross a busy street with eyes that func­tion nor­mally but a brain that can’t per­ceive mo­tion. Cars trav­el­ling 60 miles an hour be­come a se­ries of still im­ages stopped along the road. At the next glance, they’re still stopped, but in dif­fer­ent lo­ca­tions.

Neu­ro­sci­en­tist Ger­ald Edel­man said it best: “Ev­ery per­cep­tion is a cre­ation.” The trou­ble is that horses cre­ate their per­cep­tions in ways that are very dif­fer­ent from ours. Vis­ual in­for­ma­tion trav­els from the eye to the brain in both species, of course. But the hu­man brain sends back six times as much neu­ral in­for­ma­tion in the op­po­site di­rec­tion, trans­mit­ting mes­sages to the sen­sory re­lay sta­tion that cap­tures in­com­ing views. This wiring is in­fra­struc­ture for per­cep­tual in­ter­pre­ta­tion: the ef­fect of knowl­edge be­ing melded with the eye’s

pic­tures of the out­side world. So, who’s more ob­jec­tive in see­ing re­al­ity, you or your horse? Hate to break the news, but it’s prob­a­bly your horse. His brain is less prone to il­lu­sions and as­sump­tions than yours is.

Equine vi­sion is dif­fer­ent from hu­man vi­sion in al­most ev­ery way--acu­ity, range, eye con­tact and de­tec­tion of pe­riph­eral mo­tion, just for starters. If you want to shape your horse’s per­for­mance and gain his trust, you need to un­der­stand how his vi­sion dif­fers from yours. You can then use that un­der­stand­ing to de­velop train­ing tech­niques that work with the horse’s vis­ual sys­tem in­stead of against it.


Horses of­ten give the im­pres­sion of su­perb vi­sion. Walk­ing in an open field as a bird flicks a wing in the dis­tance, a horse may raise his head, point his ears, flare his nos­trils and widen his eyes. This im­pres­sive dis­play of in­tel­li­gence and sen­si­tiv­ity is some­times called the “look of ea­gles.” But it stems from how equine vi­sion works. Fo­cus­ing on the bird’s lo­ca­tion, the horse is try­ing to im­prove his view by rais­ing his head and en­larg­ing his eyes. He pricks his ears be­cause he can­not see sta­tion­ary de­tails well. His nos­trils ex­pand to en­hance his ex­cel­lent sense of smell.

Equine eyes are eight times larger than hu­man eyes; in fact, they are larger than those of any other land mam­mal. But a horse’s acu­ity---the abil­ity to dis­crim­i­nate fine de­tail while fo­cus­ing on some­thing in the cen­ter of the vis­ual field---is con­sid­er­ably worse than ours. Read­ing is a great ex­am­ple of acu­ity. Right now, your eyes are pick­ing up tiny dif­fer­ences in the black marks on a page. You can see the dif­fer­ence be­tween an “e” and a “c,” for ex­am­ple.

By con­ven­tion, nor­mal hu­man acu­ity is 20/20. What a nor­mal per­son sees from a dis­tance of 20 feet is the same as what you see from a dis­tance of 20 feet. Mean­ing­less, right? The num­bers don’t tell us much un­til we use them for com­par­i­son. A typ­i­cal horse’s acu­ity is about 20/30. De­tails we can see from a dis­tance of 30 feet, he can only see from 20 feet. A horse has to be 50 per­cent closer to see the same de­tails. Ah, that means some­thing!

A 50 per­cent de­fi­ciency is enough for any rider to con­sider. Imag­ine what a horse sees when you ride him to a jump. For you, it’s clear, sharp and bright. You’d be mighty ner­vous if it looked fuzzy and faded. But eques­tri­ans are of­ten star­tled to see pho­to­graphs con­structed to show what a jump looks like to a horse. Even in sun­shine, the horse’s view of a jump is blurry, hazy, dim, flat, vague … all the ad­jec­tives you’d rather not pon­der as you’re gal­lop­ing 30 feet per sec­ond to­ward a big oxer that could ruin your day.

In­di­vid­ual horses, like peo­ple, dif­fer in acu­ity. About 23 per­cent of horses are near­sighted, which means they do not see de­tails clearly un­til they get close to an ob­ject; 43 per­cent of horses are far­sighted, able to make out de­tails only as they get far­ther from an ob­ject. It stands to rea­son that slightly far­sighted horses will ex­cel in dis­ci­plines like jump­ing where the abil­ity to home in on fine points from a dis­tance fu­els their ath­leti­cism.

Acu­ity also changes with age, as any­one who has reached age 50 can ver­ify, be­cause the eye’s lens loses flex­i­bil­ity over time. The best acu­ity in horses oc­curs around age 7. Prior to that it is not fully de­vel­oped, and there­after it be­gins to de­cay. Horses with long con­vex noses, like many Stan­dard­breds and Thor­ough­breds, have bet­ter acu­ity than do horses with short con­cave noses, like Ara­bi­ans.


The most ob­vi­ous fea­tures of a horse’s eyes are their size and place­ment on the sides of the head. Hu­man eyes are com­par­a­tively smaller and point for­ward. The po­si­tion of the

eyes on the face ac­counts for pro­found dif­fer­ences in the ways peo­ple and horses see, dic­tat­ing vis­ual range, pe­riph­eral mo­tion de­tec­tion and depth per­cep­tion. A horse’s vi­sion is de­ter­mined by 5 mil­lion years of equine evo­lu­tion. Trendy tie-downs and per­son­al­ity as­sess­ments won’t change that---we have to ac­cept how horses see the world and work with it.

Hu­man sight is ac­cu­rate enough to de­code tiny marks on a page, but only for a small slice of the view. When you read, only two or three words in your cen­tral vi­sion are truly clear; the rest are blurred. Stretch your arm full length to your side, hold­ing up your in­dex fin­ger. Look straight ahead. You won’t see the fin­ger. You can’t even see your arm. Now move your arm slowly in a wide out­stretched semi-cir­cle to­ward the front, keep­ing your eyes fo­cused on a dis­tant point in front of you. No cheat­ing! The fin­ger re­mains in­vis­i­ble un­til it reaches al­most a 45-de­gree an­gle. Hu­man vi­sion is lim­ited to roughly 45 de­grees on ei­ther side of our noses, for a to­tal of about 90 de­grees.

By con­trast, if your horse could hold his hind hoof straight out to his side, it would be al­most in the cen­ter of his vi­sion. Be­cause his eyes are on the sides of his head, he has a 350-de­gree view, al­most four times greater than the range we see. Think of how de­pen­dent we are on sight, how im­por­tant it is to us. Now imag­ine we had four times that much vi­sion to process ev­ery sec­ond of the day. We’d be edgy, too!

The horse’s vis­ual range stretches from the end of his nose all the way around to an imag­i­nary line ex­tend­ing straight back from his hip. The At­tack Trac­tor that you can­not see ap­proach­ing from be­hind your shoul­der is well within his line of sight. It’s com­ing to­ward him, maybe at a rate faster than he is mov­ing. Some horses see this as a chase, and ev­ery fiber of their evo­lu­tion­ary be­ing says that the way to sur­vive a chase is to run. Now. The bal­loon bob­bing at the side of the arena is the equiv­a­lent of a ball soar­ing straight to­ward a horse’s face. If that bal­loon is yel­low, it will be es­pe­cially bright to equine eyes. No won­der he shies and bolts.

The horse sees a broad band of the world to the sides and back of his body, but it is nar­row. His vi­sion is poor above and be­low the level of his eyes. Sights di­rectly to the horse’s side but on the ground or in the air are dif­fi­cult to see un­less he cocks his head. Equine vi­sion also cre­ates blind spots. A horse can­not see a per­son stand­ing di­rectly in back of him. Sur­prised from be­hind, even the sweet­est horse can kick in al­most any di­rec­tion. That’s where that tenet of good horse­man­ship---ap­proach­ing the hindquar­ters from the shoul­der---comes from. You want to make sure he knows you’re there.

A sec­ond blind spot ex­ists in front of the horse’s face, from his eye level

to the ground be­low his nose and out to about six feet. A hand sud­denly raised will ap­pear to him to come from nowhere. He can­not see the grass he grazes on, the bit he ac­cepts, the fin­gers that stroke his muz­zle. He uses the whiskers around his mouth to sense th­ese ob­jects. A horse whose whiskers are shaved is at a sen­sory dis­ad­van­tage.


One of the most com­mon mis­takes peo­ple make when deal­ing with ner­vous horses is to thwart their side view. The rider, with for­ward fac­ing eyes, as­sumes that po­si­tion­ing a horse for a frontal view is best for all. Some eques­trian web­sites even ad­vise this po­si­tion. The rider pushes Hawk­eye straight to­ward the sliver of light on the sand that al­ready scares the be­jee­bers out of her, then tries to make her stand still and stare at it head on, eyes bugged out like ten­nis balls. Th­ese de­mands defy the func­tion­ing of a horse’s brain.

Why? First, from the front, hu­man eyes can see an ob­ject clearly, but a horse’s wide-set eyes can­not. All Hawk­eye knows is that her rider is up­set, forc­ing her for­ward to a place that she con­sid­ers threat­en­ing. Sec­ond, as she re­luc­tantly ap­proaches, the light­snake van­ishes from Hawk­eye’s line of sight, which of course makes it all the more fright­en­ing. Third, stand­ing still con­cen­trates the horse’s fear rather than al­le­vi­at­ing it. Fourth, when Hawk­eye cocks her head and piv­ots to the side for a bet­ter view, her rider pulls on one rein and presses with the op­po­site leg, push­ing her back to a stance where equine vi­sion is worst.

Fear is in the eye of the be­holder. We might think it silly that Hawk­eye is afraid of flap­ping plas­tic or a pa­per cup … but how would you feel about hav­ing a big, hairy taran­tula run­ning through your hair?

Let’s give Hawk­eye a break. Start with some ground­work. Try lead­ing her to­ward that sliver of light, but if she balks, don’t push. Al­low her to move in cir­cles or loops at the clos­est dis­tance she con­sid­ers safe. Then use some vi­car­i­ous learn­ing: Let Hawk­eye watch a fa­mil­iar hu­man friend walk to the ob­ject, stand next to it and speak calmly. She will rec­og­nize the voice. Stroke her neck and en­cour­age her to ap­proach. A step or two more than she wants equals suc­cess. Of­fer praise and stop for the day.

If this tech­nique fails, have your friend bring a known, prefer­ably herd-dom­i­nant horse to the ob­ject. (Ver­ify ahead of time that this horse is un­afraid.) Speak slowly in a low pitch and stroke your horse’s neck while she watches her buddy sur­vive the ter­ror. If this also fails, move out of sight of the ob­ject and put your horse to work on a com­pletely un­re­lated task. To­mor­row, start build­ing her trust us­ing ob­jects that she con­sid­ers less fright­en­ing. Even­tu­ally, you will be able to re­turn to the orig­i­nal fright-sight and try again.

When your horse is re­laxed while view­ing the threat, even if only from a dis­tance, walk her back and forth past the ob­ject be­fore re­quest­ing a headon ap­proach. When she is will­ing to ad­vance face-first, en­cour­age her to stretch her neck down and for­ward for a good sniff. Stroke her neck, speak calmly and let her sniff the ob­ject. She’ll prob­a­bly jump a cou­ple of times---that’s OK, I’d jump too if you asked me to sniff

a taran­tula. Touch the haz­ard so your hand makes a soft noise against it; this will al­low the horse to learn more through her ex­cel­lent hear­ing. Gently roll or push the ob­ject around as the horse be­comes ac­cus­tomed.

Now, let’s sup­pose the fright-sight ap­pears while you are rid­ing. It’s tempt­ing to call it a day and drive to the near­est ice cream store for so­lace. But that only teaches Hawk­eye that when she shies, you will take her to her comfy stall. In­stead, re­main mounted and dis­tract her with a task that moves her away from the threat. Yes, this feels like “let­ting her get away with it,” but it’s only one step of a larger process. Try rid­ing to a dis­tance the horse con­sid­ers safe, with the ob­ject in view. Trot back and forth in a way that places the ob­ject most fre­quently at the horse’s side. Fo­cus on pace, re­lax­ation and in­ward bend; ig­nore what­ever scares her.

When Hawk­eye is calm, qui­etly en­large the loops, main­tain­ing any dis­tance that al­lows her to re­main tran­quil. Then ride a foot or so closer to the ob­ject each time you go by. When she passes it calmly, even from a dis­tance, stroke her neck and speak kindly. If she skirts it, de­crease the loop next time to make it eas­ier for her. Move closer when she is ready, not when you are ready.

A sim­ple les­son might take one minute or 100, two days or two months. Try not to push or pun­ish fear. If the horse needs a 50-foot berth to ne­go­ti­ate an ob­ject calmly, give it to her. The pri­or­ity is her men­tal com­po­sure, not her phys­i­cal dis­tance from the scary view. To­mor­row you can set the goal for com­po­sure at 45 feet. If you’re rushed or an­noyed start the lessons another day. Forc­ing a horse is a good way to de­stroy her trust in you, frighten her all the more, and wake up with Nurse Ratched by your bed.


Beau­ti­ful wide-set equine eyes re­flect the evo­lu­tion­ary needs of prey. We hate to think of our­selves as preda­tors, but our for­ward-fac­ing eyes tell ev­ery horse the truth. Prey an­i­mals iden­tify preda­tors by smell and sight---in­clud­ing their view of eye po­si­tion. One look at a hu­man face, and the evo­lu­tion­ary equine brain knows we are preda­tors.

Be­cause horses see us as nat­u­ral preda­tors, hu­man eye con­tact has a warn­ing ef­fect. Next time your lit­tle gang­ster needs a rep­ri­mand, add some stink-eye to your ver­bal re­minder. It’s the hu­man equiv­a­lent of an al­pha mare’s flat­tened ear. (If you can flat­ten your ear, that would be even bet­ter. Let me know how that goes, OK?) If your horse moves too quickly on a longe line or in a round pen, try look­ing down, watch­ing and lis­ten­ing to his feet sur­rep­ti­tiously to stay safe. If he frets when en­ter­ing a trailer, ask on­look­ers to go away. Hard to catch? Look to the side, or slowly walk back­ward to­ward the horse while speak­ing qui­etly.

Evo­lu­tion has also equipped horses to be highly aware of pe­riph­eral mo­tion. To move in for a kill, preda­tors need sharp sight in cen­tral ar­eas of the vis­ual field. Prey an­i­mals, on the other hand, don’t of­ten need to know what they have seen. They only need to know that they have seen. In other words, horses must no­tice pe­riph­eral mo­tion im­me­di­ately, re­gard­less of what it is, so they can leave the scene at high speed be­fore a po­ten­tial preda­tor be­gins to ap­proach. When needed, equine eyes can even move in­de­pen­dently to scan one side of their world more in­tently than the other.

The hu­man brain takes half a sec­ond to process each glance at the world and de­ter­mine what it has seen---shape, color, size, dis­tance, im­por­tance and so on. Half a sec­ond of pro­cess­ing is out of the ques­tion for a horse in the wild: He needs to no­tice a tiny move­ment in the bushes and step on the gas. Ev­ery mil­lisec­ond of de­lay could mean death. If the move­ment turns out to be a bi­cy­cle in­stead of a lion, that’s OK. Noth­ing is lost by run­ning from a bi­cy­cle.

The horse’s nat­u­ral re­liance on pe­riph­eral mo­tion de­tec­tion dic­tates his need to shy or bolt---and oth­er­wise “mis­be­have”---while rid­den. Help him out by sharp­en­ing your pe­riph­eral senses. Try to be­come more aware of ob­jects be­hind and to the sides of your eye, putting your ears, nose and cog­ni­tive ex­pe­ri­ence to work. If a horse is full of corn in an area where he is nor­mally calm, in­ves­ti­gate. Chances are good that he no­tices some­thing you do not and is try­ing to tell you about it.

Acu­ity, range, eye con­tact and pe­riph­eral mo­tion de­tec­tion--in all th­ese ways the horse’s vi­sion dif­fers from a per­son’s. Keep­ing th­ese dif­fer­ences in mind will help you to com­mu­ni­cate more ef­fec­tively with your horse and train him in ways that ac­com­mo­date his senses. In the mean­time, keep your eyes open for those light-snakes on the sand.

About the au­thor: Janet L. Jones earned her PhD in cog­ni­tive sci­ence, the study of the hu­man mind and brain. She won UCLA’s dis­ser­ta­tion award for her re­search on brain pro­cesses. Now pro­fes­sor emerita, she has taught the psy­chol­ogy and neu­ro­science of mem­ory, lan­guage, per­cep­tion and thought for 23 years and is the au­thor of three books. She has com­peted in Western, English, rein­ing, hunter and jumper classes in five states and uses the prin­ci­ples of dres­sage with ev­ery horse. Jones cur­rently owns a 17.1 hand off-the-track Thor­ough­bred who makes ev­ery day in­ter­est­ing. Read­ers can reach her at ride­with­y­our­

Beau­ti­ful wide-set equine eyes re­flect the evo­lu­tion­ary needs of prey. We hate to think of our­selves as preda­tors, but our for­ward-fac­ing eyes tell ev­ery horse the truth.

De­tails we can see from a dis­tance of 30 feet, a horse can only see from 20 feet. A horse has to be 50 per­cent closer to seethe same de­tails.

EQUINE FIELD OFVI­SIONleft eye: monoc­u­larvi­sion mar­ginalsight binoc­u­larvi­sionblind spotblind spot right eye: monoc­u­larvi­sion mar­ginalsight­A horse’s acu­ity—the abil­ityto dis­crim­i­nate fine de­tail while fo­cus­ing on some­thing in the cen­ter of the vis­ual field—is con­sid­er­ably worse than a per­son’s.


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