Horses, Life, A Touch of Geek

Blog contributor [Threads Make Feathers] and photo teacher Meg McKinney [Meet Meg], is back. Welcome.
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I recently gained some insight to how horses see, and comprehend – or don’t.

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Background: “Slim,” my younger sister’s American Saddlebred mare is boarding at Stepping Stone Farm. When Slim arrived in Alabama three years ago from California [California Girl Becomes a Southern Belle], she was exposed to all sorts of ‘new’ – southern accents, humidity, along with peacocks, guinea hens, and donkeys.

During one of my early lessons on Slim, the guineas were patrolling the property in full force – clucking and scampering, probably 30 yards from Slim, Courtney Huguely, and myself, in the Round Pen, which is covered, and has a high, heavy post-and-rail fence, which makes a great enclosure for lessons and training.

Just seeing those little clucking birds from that distance, was enough for Slim to get skittish.

She settled down, and our lesson continued.

On a different day, Slim and I are ready to show. Photo by a Friend of SSF.

On a different day, Slim and I are ready to show.
Photo by a Friend of SSF.

Then, when we reversed our direction, Courtney said that Slim would have to get used to the guineas all over again. This was because horses’ see and comprehend one side at a time, or in one direction.

What? This was news to me. Horses have two eyes, on both sides of their heads, right? Don’t they see and comprehend at the same time from both us – just like us?

No.

Slim had to get used to the guineas all over again, in the second direction.

Well, we made it through – those fierce, little clucking birds never hurt Slim from their 30 yard distance, to Slim’s great relief, I’m sure.

Recently, I was reminded of how horses’ eye sight isn’t what we think it is, or, just like ours’.

When I put Slim out in a large pasture at the front of the property, she galloped around, and had a good time. Then, she decided to make tracks to the far corner, where another horse was calmly taking in the pretty sunshine. This meant going around the edge of a pond, and through a wooded area, which Slim did at a brisk trot.

Her pasturemate was an American Saddlebred, Lynnwood’s Yorktown Imagination, aka Tiny, who is anything but. He’s a chestnut gentle giant, that measures a good 17 hands tall. His trot and canter are so long-strided, riders put bell boots on him, so he doesn’t hurt himself at the canter.

Horses meet and greet by sniffing noses. Standing this close and straight on, they probably can’t see each other’s faces, because of their wide set eyes, but they can still watch for potential predators ahead and behind them.

Horses meet and greet by sniffing noses. Standing this close and straight on, they probably can’t see each other’s faces, because of their wide set eyes, but they can still watch for potential predators ahead and behind them.

Tiny and Slim got along in this particular corner, on the other side of the pasture and the pond.

Slim, left, and Tiny, take a leisurely stroll together, seeing each other from their side vision ability.

Slim, left, and Tiny, take a leisurely stroll together, seeing each other from their side vision ability.

When it came time to put Slim back in her stall, we went through the gate where they were, not the gate at the other end of the pasture, where we’d originally entered the pasture. This was a new exit – to Slim.

Then, the next day, I put Slim out with Tiny again, and used the same corner gate we had exited through the day before. She stayed in that area, and did not venture back through the wooded area, around the pond, to the larger, greener pasture, where Tiny had casually ambled to.

I remembered when Slim had to get used to the guineas, in the second direction, and wondered if she was afraid of going in the reverse direction to the open pasture area.

Sure enough, when I put a lead line on her, and began walking her back around the pond, through the wooded area, she acted like it was all new territory, and little frightening.

I kept her moving, and voila! Soon we were in the big, open area of the pasture. Slim recognized where she was, and when I let her loose, she galloped around, found Tiny, and noshed on grass.

Slim gallops across the pasture, seeing in the distance ahead of her, but not the ground directly in front of her.

Slim gallops across the pasture, seeing in the distance ahead of her, but not the ground directly in front of her.

Soooo – what’s the deal with horses’ and their eye sight?

I asked my older sister (a board-certified veterinary pathologist) about horses’ and eyesight. She e-mailed this Wikipedia link, Equine vision, that has detailed information about how and why horses see the world very differently than humans, can judge distance for jumping, with limited color perception.

Slim, left, and Tiny, quietly graze at Stepping Stone Farm Riding Academy, with the ability to see the horse and rider in the ring, but not a few feet in front of them.

Slim, left, and Tiny, quietly graze at Stepping Stone Farm Riding Academy, with the ability to see the horse and rider in the ring, but not a few feet in front of them.

After reading it, I understood why Slim doesn’t always want to walk into the main barn hallway, from the outside — because it’s dark. I thought she was being flighty or cranky. It takes a little longer for horses’ eyes to adjust to indoor light than ours. This is the same reason why a horse will balk at loading on a trailer – it’s dark in there.

Their instincts tell them, “Danger.”

The darkened hallway of a stables may seem scary to a horse, because their eyes are slower to adjust to low lighting than a human’s eyes. What they first see is a dark place, which may have predators lurking.

The darkened hallway of a stables may seem scary to a horse, because their eyes are slower to adjust to low lighting than a human’s eyes. What they first see is a dark place, which may have predators lurking.

I mentioned the pasture episode to Courtney, who reminded me that horses are prey animals, and that’s why their eyes are on the sides of their heads, with their incredible peripheral vision to see beside and behind them, but not straight ahead for a few feet. Predators’ eyes, she added, are located front and center.

Horses’ eyes are on the side of their heads, providing great peripheral vision to spot predators, but Slim has to use her nose to seek grass.

Horses’ eyes are on the side of their heads, providing great peripheral vision to spot predators, but Slim has to use her nose to seek grass.

In the future, I’ll be more understanding when Slim, or any horse I’m handling, balks at something that looks harmless, and familiar, to me. They see a much different world around them.

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Meg McKinney
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Comments on: "Insights to Sight – Horses See Differently than Us, Guest Post" (6)

  1. Fascinatingly! I didn’t know that! Thank you.

  2. I read an article somewhere that horses see color much the way humans do. I don’t remember where but it was a reputable journal and the article was based on experimentation.

    • Apparently that is true. According to my sister, and the Wikipedia information, it’s a faded look for color, not rich and dense like ours’. However, horses have survived for thousands of years, so it must work.

  3. Nancy Dorman-Hickson said:

    This is really intriguing. I had absolutely no idea. How patient you were to work with the horse and figure out what was going on.

    • Thanks Nancy. Like raising kids, animals require observation about their behavior. I really didn’t want to see Slim stay in that corner of the pasture, so I had to do something about it. I think we both had a learning curve.

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