Have you ever wondered why your horse sees monsters in the hedge when there are none? Why does he sometimes struggle jumping spread fences while uprights are no problem? And why is he suddenly startled when the stable cat jumps onto the paddock fence right behind him? A better understanding of how the horse actually sees his world may change the way you behave around him.
Colour or black and white?
There is no scientific proof that horses are colour blind and veterinary research suggests that they do see in colour. I once had a show jumper with a pathological hatred of blue fences although he would happily jump every other coloured filler without hesitation.
Although the horse does not see the same level of detail as we do, he has a broader field of vision. That said, his perception of depth is poor. This is why he finds spread fences trickier to jump than uprights. Horses also have difficulty gauging the distance of an object from their body hence an occasional missed stride.
As a prey animal, the horse's natural response to a perceived threat is immediate flight and their vision has therefore evolved to become very movement sensitive, even in the dark. That said, the horse's eye takes longer to adjust to light and dark than ours. This is why some horses are reluctant to walk from a brightly lit car-park into a dark horse box or trailer, for example. They are not being difficult or naughty, merely cautious; after all, there could be a great big tiger lurking in the shadows!
Horses have a blind spot extending about four feet or so in front of their face – the wider the horse's head, the longer his blind spot and vice versa. This means that if you approach your horse directly from the front, he cannot actually see you until you are about six inches from his face. This is why a horse will raise or turn his head away from an outstretched hand even if the only intention is to pet him. When you are standing close to your horse's head, he can only see your head and shoulders and even that image is distorted.
Is your horse 'naughty' when being shod? A horse cannot see the ground near his front feet, nor can he see his knees and chest. He also has a blind spot directly behind him. Little wonder then that many horses become unsettled when a strong, unseen creature is picking up their feet and hammering at them whilst holding them firmly so that he cannot run away. To stand quietly in such circumstances the horse must not only overcome the fact that he cannot see what is happening but he must also willingly relinquish control of his instinctual recourse to flight.
Even the quietest horse may spook when startled by a sudden noise in one of his blind spots. Punishment is not the answer and will only cause more fear and confusion. Be calm, understanding and reassuring.
Binocular and monocular vision
When the horse's attention is focused on one object in front of him he will use both eyes to look at it; binocular vision. He can also see with each eye separately; monocular vision.
When movement is detected using monocular, two dimensional vision, the horse will turn his head to look at the potential hazard using both eyes – switching to binocular, 3D vision. This enables him to focus on the moving object. The switch causes objects to distort and jump out until the new focus is established. Ever wondered why your horse sometimes shies at leaves blowing in the hedge? Now you know!
Monocular and binocular vision cannot be used simultaneously. Remember this as you work and move around your horse. It's very important to talk to him all the time. Run your hands over him especially as you move into and out of his blind spots. He will then know exactly where you are at all times and you are much less likely to startle him and be kicked or trodden on as a result.
The majority of horses have dark brown eyes although some have blue, or 'wall' eyes. This is merely because of a lack of pigment in the iris and does not mean that a blue-eyed horse's vision is in any way defective or inferior.
The mechanics of your horse's vision are very different from yours. Unexplained or 'naughty' behaviour can sometimes simply be a matter of different perception. A different point of view, you might say!
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