Being a horse

How does a horse see, hear, smell, touch and taste? Let's find out to understand them a little better.

  • #horsemanship
  • #equine science
  • #sensitivity

From the book "I cavalli di Federico" by Dr. Paolo Baragli

The first basic rule is to allow the horse to observe and to not force it to move forward before it has had the change to take in its surroundings; give it freedom without impeding it. The particular structure of its visual system means that in order to have a better view of objects and obstacles on the ground the horse needs to slightly extend its neck and dip its head. This movement allows the horse to have a comprehensive view of what is immediately in front of it. The eye of the horse is the largest of any land mammal and as such it relies heavily on what it is able to see in its surrounding environment. In fact, as the horse is an animal of prey, in nature it needs to have good distance vision and a very wide field of vision to survey, in a very simple, effective, but also very rapid manner, its surroundings while evaluating the possible presence of danger without moving its head excessively. In fact, the particular anatomical position of the eyes, positioned laterally on the top of the head, allows the horse panoramic vision from the front and on both sides. Each eye has a visual field of 180° and the overlapping of the two visual fields creates a blind spot, directed towards the rear, of approximately 40° which corresponds, in practice, to the body of the horse.
This blind explains certain behaviours and safety measures that are adopted, for example, cupping with your hand the outer corner of the eye prevents the horse from seeing what is happening to the side and this can help to reassure it if we need to do something which could cause an adverse reaction, such as, for example, an injection. This means that even if it is cross-tied with its head straight, the horse sees when we constrict its girth and therefore understands very well in advance what we are going to do. Another important aspect of the blind spot is linked to the fact that when the horse is about to kick behind, it is forced to raise and turn its head slightly immediately before kicking otherwise it will not see what it is kicking. This behaviour allows us to understand what is going through its mind.
There is also in the visual system of the horse a blind spot in front of its nose: the two visual fields, in fact, partly overlap in front of the nose forming a blind spot that extends for approximately 1 meter and over an arc of around 60° in front of it and in the direction of the nose. This means that when we caress or scratch the front of our horse, it is unable to see our hand. When we brush the head of our horse and we move from one side to the other, passing before its frontal area, it is as though we have disappeared and then reappeared from nowhere in its visual field. That's why is can appear to be frightened in circumstances such as these and of course we too would be shocked if something suddenly appeared before our eyes, whatever it might be. Ahead of the frontal blind spot, the two visual fields overlap and generate the area of binocular vision which extends for a width of approximately 60° above the horse's nose.
​Therefore the horse, in order to have the best view when it is in motion, keeps its neck in the natural position and gently flexes the nape imperceptibly. This position, which is natural for the horse, allows it to see where it is going. When we are riding a horse, we force it to lower its head and to bend the nape thereby greatly limiting its field of vision. And the more we make it flex its neck, the more we limit its field of vision. This means that the more we allow the horse the freedom to move with regard to its balance and the natural position of the head, the more it will be able to handle the various situations that arise and resolve them in the best way possible, such as jumping an obstacle, leaping over a ditch or managing a challenging route. The more we bend its head down and the more we make it insecure, the more cautious the movements become and the horse seems to be more docile,. In fact it is just being more careful because of the limitation of its vision.
When a horse stumbles we ask ourselves whether this is due to our actions that are limiting the ability of the horse to view the surrounding terrain. Trekking experts know only too well that on difficult routes or on rough terrain it is essential to keep the reins long to allow the horse to see where it is placing its feet. The same is also valid for show jumpers: bringing the horse to the jump with its head very bent, in addition to increasing the possibility of error is also very dangerous.

Being by nature an animal of prey, the horse has highly developed hearing. It is in fact possible to see with what and how easily horses move their ears, either together or independent of each other. In fact, the auricle of the horse, thanks to a series of muscles, can rotate by up to 180°. But despite this breadth of sound reception, for the horse it is difficult to precisely locate, as happens for example for the dog, the exact source of the noise. Moreover, upon reflection, due to its condition of prey, for the horse it is not important to identify the exact point from where the sound is coming or to be able to view an object when it is already very close. Its condition of being prey, in fact, forces it to receive warning signals from far away that would allow it to flee towards safety. Therefore for the horse, it is not as important to locate precisely from where the noise is coming only to hear it as soon as possible. Studies on auditory perception have shown that a horse can perceive sounds from distances greater than 4 km. In addition, horses are capable, much more than we are, of distinguishing sounds that are very alike. Ever wondered why horses are nervous when it's windy? Because the wind carries smells and sounds more easily and at the same time makes it difficult for horses to identify the source and to be able to distinguish them. This puts the horse in a state of heightened alert. This system of being able to perceive the external environment has important practical implications because a horse can be frightened suddenly for reasons that we humans might consider to be without cause when in fact its sensory system has caused it to perceive a sound or has shown it something that we are not able to see or hear.
​Horses become familiar with everything that is in their immediate vicinity by sniffing it. If we approach a horse, even if we already know the animal, it will immediately sniff us thoroughly. The act of sniffing is also a way to communicate with their own kind. When two horses meet, they approach and sniff each other as if they were saying: "Hello, how are you?". When a horse is afraid of an object, of a particular obstacle, of blue cloth, and so on, approaching the object and extending its neck, it begins to smell it, exploring it to see whether it should trust or fear it. Only after having acquired this 'knowledge' is the horse able to trust the object. Forcing it would merely result in the opposite effect, i.e. to instil in it distrust and fear.

Tactile sensitivity varies according to the different areas of the body of the horse, the withers, the mouth, the sides and the region of the leg joints are the most sensitive areas. These are the parts of the horse's body with which we are more in contact when we ride them. The withers, upon which the saddle must not rest, the mouth and the nose that hold the bridle and bit, the hips at which point the legs act and the area immediately behind the region of the legs joints where the girth passes. As such, if it has been proven that these are the most sensitive areas then we should take extra care with these parts, considering that in general horses have extraordinary sensitivity.
Often, unfortunately, we are seeing the exact opposite; these areas of the body that are most sensitive are often excessively stimulated by the actions of riders and with the passing of time become increasingly insensitive due to the defence mechanism that occurs in horses as a means of decreasing the irritation. The result can go in two directions: the horse becomes insensitive to protect itself or learns to react with defensive behaviours.
Just observe how carefully and meticulously a grazing horse divides the stems of grass from the ground and from the roots, or the precision with which horses in a drove perform 'mutual grooming'. The whiskers, i.e. the very long hairs around the eyes and nose, are extremely sensitive. Through its whiskers the horse perceives the distance from the surface around it and they are also useful to detect certain sounds. During grazing the whiskers, together with the lips, collect tactile information and are also able to detect the presence of electric current thus allowing it to avoid a situation where it might touch the wire of an electrified fence. Studies have revealed that horses whose whiskers are cut are more prone to injuries and bruising on their face and nose area. Unfortunately, it often happens that racing horses have their hair completely shaved. It’s worth reflecting on!
​The sensation of taste perceived by the horse is thought to be a gradation of salty, sour, sweet and bitter, somewhat like our own although there is no precise information on this subject. The sense of taste can help horses recognise food and provide nutritional information which is obviously useful for the body. For example, if the diet of a horse is low in sodium, the horse itself will go in search of food that is able to provide a quantity of salt that is higher compared to others. Through the sense of taste the horse is able to recognise and distinguish foods that would be toxic for it and also learns to distinguish foods and choose those that are most suitable and more pleasing to it.

Despite millennia of coexistence, the equine and human species have not yet found a way of communicating effectively. Communication is the passing of signals or information from one individual to another. This passing of signals results in a particular behaviour of the recipient of the signal. In order, therefore, for the communication to be effective and for the passing of information to take place, the means used to send it and the manner in which it is received and interpreted by the recipient are all essential factors.
​Are we able to communicate with horses and how do we do it? Of course we can communicate with horses and often without realising it because merely with our presence and with our simple gestures we are able to change the environment around them. All that is needed is the presence of minimal gestures to influence the horse. This thought should make us reflect on the importance of the way in which we communicate consciously, on what we want to communicate and should encourage us to learn in depth the right way to do so.