The five senses of horses

by  Mitzi  Summers
Editors note: Part 2 of the Schooling of the young horse will be published in Country Folks Mane Stream at a later date as the following article provides information the author thought would be beneficial to have beforehand.
Recently I traveled to a stable to give a new horse and her owner a lesson. If possible, I always like to meet a new four- legged client before they are tacked up. This way I am able to assess their level of acceptance/anxiety in getting prepared to be schooled. This mare was a bit nervous, moving side to side in the cross ties in the grooming stall, and her eyes were “hard”. Her ears, mouth and muscles were tight. I lowered my energy, put a lead on one cross tie in case she panicked, and did some Reiki plus relaxation massages and she soon relaxed. The lesson was successful, but as I drove home and reviewed the lesson as I always do, I was struck by a human’s perception of the surroundings this mare was exposed to compared to a horse’s possible perception.

When I arrived at my farm I took my dog for a walk, and thought more about how animals see the world using their five senses — touch, hearing, sight, smell, and taste. During my walk I slowed everything down. I tried to close my mind to all of the concerns that people have and tried to be “in the moment” as our horses are. If you do this exercise, you need to be somewhere quiet, and take deep breaths to help you quiet your thoughts and to be more aware.
I then thought about the mare that I had just worked with. We all know how really sensitive a horse’s senses are compared to ours. They see differently, they smell much better and their sensitivity to touch is very pronounced, especially their mouths. They hear much better, and we all know they possess a high level of discerning taste, especially when you are trying to hide their medication in applesauce. With some horses we have to bring our own water to a horse show or they refuse to drink. Taste also aids a trainer with a suspicious or fearful horse. Nothing breaks the ice in a horse-human relationship as a small treat to the horse now and then as a reward.
Then I thought about the surroundings to which the mare was exposed that morning, for example her sense of hearing. Their was a radio in the back of the grooming stall which was turned up very loud. I had immediately turned it down, but I find this fairly common in barns. There were four people cleaning stalls, so there was banging, clanging, and slamming of stall doors. One horse had been separated from its friend and was neighing, and another horse was kicking the wall because he had run out of hay and his neighbor still had some. People were shouting to each other to be heard above the din, and I was speaking to her owner, explaining what I was doing. Even the sound of the mare’s feet on the concrete of the stall was a distraction for her.
Touch. I replaced the rope halter that had large knots pressing on her facial nerves with a leather one, but still a solid material on a sensitive face. The pull of the cross tie on each side of her face, made her aware that she is trapped in case something dangerous happens, thus removing her ability to respond to the fight or flight instinct. The feel of slippery concrete underneath her feet. Her owner at first brushing her fairly hard and fast on skin and muscles which were tight and tense. A prey animal being handled all over her body by a predator. Of course they accept this and if groomed correctly many horses enjoy being groomed, but I have observed people in a hurry almost attacking a thin-skinned Thoroughbred with a hard brush and then hitting them when the horses demonstrate how uncomfortable they are by moving around and showing anxiety.
Sight. A horse’s eyesight differs in several ways that are important for us to recognize. Let’s consider their placement and their shape can first. Humans have a very limited range of vision compared to a horse. We see most clearly straight ahead and have very limited peripheral vision. Horses have a wide range of vision; only limited with things directly in front and behind them. They can to some extent see above and below them, but things close to them can look fuzzy. It also emphasizes the cruelty of tying their heads down (or up). The use of draw reins and other head-setting devices, and forcing them to travel with their heads abnormally low, as in incorrect western pleasure.
A horse’s eyes also are very large and protrude. They are quite vulnerable to injury. In many countries if the long hairs near a horse’s eyes or the hairs on his nose are trimmed (touch) they are forbidden to show and it is considered a form of abuse. Horses need these hairs to protect their eyes and discern what they are eating since their hyperopia (far-sightedness) prevent them from seeing nearby objects until they are close to their noses. The close-clipped, oiled heads of show horses is a human affectation.
People sometimes punish horses for shying or bolting, not understanding why this can be a normal reaction because of the horse’s eyesight. A horse’s eyes are about six inches apart compared to about an inch for a human. Try this simple test. Extend one arm in front of you and hold up one finger. If you rapidly close first one eye and then the other several times, it will appear that your finger is moving rapidly from one side to the other. Now consider the horse. He is approaching a piece of paper. He sees the paper first with his right eye. As he approaches it, the left eye will suddenly glimpse it. The horse first considered the paper to be inanimate. Now suddenly it leaps forward more than a foot. He is hard-wired to flee from a threatening object;it is his only defense. Your punishment of him for this reflex will only result in his loss of trust in you and make him even more nervous about being ridden. Instead, as you school him, give him more and more reasons to trust you. Do not be lured into using aggressive training methods which turn the horse into an unresponsive machine.
Horses also have very good hearing, and can be frightened by noises occurring and they cannot see the source. Most of us have had the experience of snow coming off the roof of an indoor ring, or the reaction to a sudden loud noise. Again, punishment is never a response to fear. I was teaching outdoors one day and the Pinto-Paint suddenly froze and would not move. He was obviously afraid and getting worse quickly. I quickly asked my student  to dismount and we stayed in safe positions to try to determine the source of the scare. About five minutes later a tiny spot appeared in the sky. It turned out to be a hot-air balloon which was releasing air randomly, making a noise which was very unique. We brought the horse inside before he really panicked.
In working with your horse and something occurs that is not expected, consider how differently the horse’s world is from ours. It may explain many incidents that otherwise are difficult to understand.

2015-12-08T15:19:03+00:00December 8th, 2015|Mane Stream Articles|0 Comments

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