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"Read Your Horse, Part II"

What is my horse seeing, smelling and hearing?

As a continuation of our March 2006 Hoofbeats article, we provide you here with more information about reading body language as it relates to the horse’s senses of sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell:

Horses have monocular vision. Their eyes work independently of each other, but you can often see by observing their ears where their visual or mental attention is directed.

The horse’s brain receives sensory input from only one side of his body at a time and does not efficiently pass through knowledge from one side to the other. Because of this, all exercises must be taught on both sides of the horse.

Also when two people are working on a horse such as holding a horse for a vet or farrier, both people should be positioned on the same side of the horse. If one person is on each side of the horse, he will be edgy and nervous, trying to keep up with input from two sides at once.

As a prey animal, horses are more relaxed, attentive and responsive when they are able to see the distant horizon. This may explain less than optimum performance in an enclosed arena or solid round pen.

I suggest you do not wear sunglasses when working with your horse. The horse doesn’t know you are wearing sunglasses. To him it just looks like you have large eyes. When horse’s eyes are large they are frightened. As your horse’s leader, you don’t want him to think you are frightened of something. Another reason not to wear sunglasses is because your horse needs to see your eyes to read your emotions and tune in to your focus.

Horses have excellent night vision. Please consider this when you come into a barn at night and switch on lots of bright lights. Instead, you should turn on one light at a time or use a small nightlight for minimal illumination.

Horses can independently turn their ears 180 degrees. The shape of their ears amplifies each sound that enters that ear.
They can hear much higher and lower decibels than humans. This is one reason why, when riding on the trail, sometimes your horse is reacting to sounds that you cannot pick up.

Their keen sense of hearing makes horses much more sensitive to loud noises. They can filter out some of the noise by pinning their ears back. Sometimes a horse pins his ears back when you are clipping to block out the sound.

Leaving a radio playing in your barn can be disconcerting to horses because they are so reliant on their hearing. If there is constant background noise it diminishes their ability to hear someone coming. This in turn leads to horses that are jumpy and easily startled.

When the horse’s ears are pinned back along with a hard eye and wrinkled nose it is certainly a warning that something aggressive is about to happen and a set of teeth or pair of heels often follows.

Observing horses interacting with each other is a great way to hone your skills at reading equine body language. You’ll notice the “ears back” signal used often to drive another horse away. The horse that can cause the others to move is usually the more dominate.

Horses will play this territory dominance game with humans too, moving into your space or crowding you to see if they can make you yield to them and move away. If you give up your space to them, rather than insisting on them respecting your space, then you have relinquished your leadership position and your horse recognizes he has become dominant over you.

A horse being ridden with finesse and concentration will often have his ears cocked backwards, as opposed to laid flat back, with his full attention to the rider. They’ll flick back and forth as he needs to focus on something in front or beside him.

A frightened horse will have his ears pointing toward the source of his fear and they’ll be very tight and tense. If the thing to be feared is in front of him, they’ll be strained hard forward. If it’s beside him his ears will flatten out to the sides. If it’s behind him they’ll be facing backwards but not pinned down.

A horse will be more nervous on a windy day due to the wind’s affect on his senses. The sound of the wind rushing in his ears somewhat diminishes his ability to hear. Tree limbs and loose items blowing around create constant visual stimulation. For a prey animal whose instincts demand that he be aware of everything happening in
his surroundings, this constant variety of sensory input can be quite unsettling. You may experience difficulty keeping the horse’s attention focused on you and your requests. It may be wise to postpone your work with him until a calmer day.

The ears reflect the attitude of the horse and can be a great indicator of relaxation. When helping to build a horse’s confidence you may want to play with the ears, pressing on the ends, massaging and moving them around until they go from rigid to soft.

Taste, smell and touch all center in the horse’s muzzle, but they are all three separate, distinct senses. The horse’s keen sense of touch is obvious in how he uses his muzzle. He can distinguish between different types of grasses, sort medicine out of his feed and sort different types of grain in a mixture. The dexterity of the muzzle is amazing. That’s why a horse wants to put his nose on things so he can feel them and use that information to classify the object.

Even though the horse’s body is sensitive enough to feel a fly light on him, he does not use all of his body to send tactile impulses to his brain. This is the function only of the muzzle. The long hairs around the muzzle should not be shaved because they enhance the horse’s sense of touch.

A horse’s primary sense of smell is already more receptive than humans but when the horse extends his nose and curls his upper lip his sense of smell is enhanced to a much greater degree. This position, know as the Flehmen response, allows the horse to trap scent molecules in order to examine them more fully.

Horses rely on their sense of smell to help identify objects and other animals. Wearing strong perfume or having chemical smells on your hands or body can be disconcerting to the horse.

A horse’s brain works like a computer receiving information from all his senses, then sorting and categorizing the information to develop a conclusion. For example, a human can look at a car and know it is a car, however to a horse it is only a car if it looks, sounds, smells and maybe even tastes like a car. The horse will reach out to touch, smell, feel and even lick an object. This doesn’t mean he wants to eat it; he is just trying to get more information about the object.

By understanding how a horse thinks and processes information, you can begin to understand his actions. Being able to read and correctly interpret a horse’s expressions and reactions will help you understand the horse’s behavior and enable you to shape the behavior into something productive for both the horse and human.

-Ed Dabney