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Article #2:  Equine Vision . . . From Our Point of View

by Wil & Beverly Howe

Equestrian Connection, 1988


     A leader’s job is to instill confidence in those who depend on them. When we handle our horses, acknowledging the fact that a horse needs and requires that leader figure, we must literally look out for them in every sense.

   A horse's vision and what it sees is not always what we see. To get along better with the horse, we must learn to think like him.

     Last month we talked about how important it is to understand a horse's response to fear and the fact that they will flee from whatever they are afraid of.  We mentioned that horses will avoid the pressure of a frightening or unfamiliar circumstance at all cost, sometimes resulting in self-destructive injuries as the result of their inability to reason.

     Horses, like most animals, cannot comprehend the rate of speed at which an object is moving towards them. Moving cars or trains seem to be especially difficult for horses to cope with; usually there is no reasoning or value to them in the fact that the object is moving until it is too late.  All they deal with is the here and now.  So we, as the parent or leader of our horse, must maintain the control and look out for our horses.

     What horses actually see and how they perceive what they see is dependant on the effectiveness of their vision. Every horse has a degree of flightiness or spookiness, but this behavior is influenced by the equine’s natural limited vision.

     Horses are basically farsighted, meaning they cannot see up close very well. They can spot another horse a mile away, but to present something up close usually causes a reaction of abrupt head raising and/or a running backwards motion. The horse is only trying to get whatever you put in his face into focus! Anything within approximately three feet of a horse's head is more or less a blur to them. In order for the horse to get a good look at something, it must be at least four feet away. This area, or bubble, around its head is what we call a blind spot. To flail your arms, tack, or anything around your horse’s head will only result in a head shy, untrusting horse. The horse must be conditioned to have complete trust so it can relax when being handled.

     Remember, a horse sees out of its left and right eyes separately, taking in visual impulses from either side. We humans see directly forward with much ease because our eyes are located on the front of our head, but we have a large blind spot behind us--only reason and intelligence help us to overcome that handicap. Horses, on the other hand, have great peripheral vision. But their rear blind spot, only a small area directly behind them the width of their hip, is vulnerable. This is why you should always speak to a horse so he knows you are back there when approaching him.

     Here are a few more helpful tips for handling your horse. Keep in mind a horse's limited vision!

  • You’ll find your horse much easier to approach and halter or bridle if you approach him at the point of the shoulders and make the first touch of communication there, rather then going to the head first. Stand off to his side instead of directly in front of him, where he can’t focus and will invariably raise his head out of your reach.

  • Try not to make fast, unnecessary motions around a horse, especially near its head.

  • Remember to maintain the respect and leader role, so your horse will pay attention to you in the midst of panic or confusion.

  • Watch for strange obstacles at a distance or up close that might upset your horse, keeping your eyes out in front of you; be your horse's eyes and always expect the unexpected.

  • Always face your horse towards the obstacle, confront it, and allow him a chance to get a good look at it.

  • Try to avoid working a green horse or one that hasn’t been ridden for a length of time on a windy or stormy day. The constant movement of objects is hard for them to focus on and causes uneasiness.

 Horse’s vision abilities vary from one horse to another; no two are the same. Eye size is a factor, with some horse’s eyes appearing smaller or larger, and some have white around them. The position the eyes are set on the horse's head also has a great deal to do with their effectiveness. Some eyes are set in sunken sockets, other seem like pop-eyes, some are set wide, others very close together and more forward on the head.

     All these differences have effects on the individual vision and create differences in personalities or temperaments. Once we realize this and learn to understand from the horse’s point of view, communicating with this wonderful animal can become an easier and more rewarding experience for both horse and handler/rider.  

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