Riding

Horse Senses

Learn about the importance of your horse’s sight and smell senses.

As riders, we seldom stop to consider or don’t understand that this wonderful, willing, giving horse experiences the world around him in a much different way than we do. Like us, however, the horse experiences the world through his “senses.” Like humans, the horse has the same five senses. As horsemen, we must remember that the horse’s senses are different from human senses in many ways. The five senses are sight, smell, taste, hearing and feeling.

Sight

Sight is probably the most important yet misunderstood of the horse's five senses. Since the horse is a “prey” animal and not a “predator” and depends on “flight” for his safety, nature has given the horse the ability to see things in the distance. We refer to this as far sighted, so that if threatened or frightened, the horse can flee from the danger. Because horses are far sighted, objects that are close often appear fuzzy and are difficult to clearly distinguish.

Being familiar with your horse's senses is very important. It's also important to know if your horse has good conformation or not. Find out how you can become an expert in horse conformation with our Form to Function report.

Horses have both monocular and binocular vision. Monocular vision means seeing different objects with each eye. Binocular means focusing on an object with both eyes at the same time. To better understand monocular vision, try this simple test. Keep in mind that a person’s eyes are a couple of inches apart, while the horse’s eyes are 8 to 10 inches apart. Hold one arm out directly in front of you and raise one finger. Close one eye and look at the finger with the other eye. Quickly open the eye that was closed and close the eye that was open. Do this rapidly a few times and you notice that your finger seems to jump from side to side. Consider what the horse, through monocular vision, sees because his eyes are located so much farther apart. With the left eye the horse sees a piece of paper lying on the ground. As he approaches the paper he suddenly gets a glimpse of it with his right eye. The paper, which appeared as a dead or innate object, suddenly appears to jump sideways. Not just an inch or so like your finger test, but up to a foot. No wonder the horse, whose ancestors have learned through the flight intuition to run, shies suddenly, to what the rider sees as merely a simple scrap of paper.

To better understand binocular vision, look at an object two feet away then look at an object in the distance. You can see both objects instantly. Not so for the horse. It takes horses a slightly longer time to focus with binocular vision to identify and process what they see. The time varies from horse to horse—from one second to four or more seconds. Check out the binocular vision time on the next horse you ride and count the seconds from when the horse sees an object until he finishes processing it. The horse will be a more willing partner if he knows you will give him time to use his binocular vision to really see where and what you are asking of him.

Smell

The horse’s sense of smell can be best understood by sharing what happened as I watched a horse named Clint. After a snow that had occurred through the night, I decided to turn Clint out in the big arena to relax and warm up. As I was leading him to the arena, I saw a coyote cross the newly fallen snow then disappear up over the side of the hill. As Clint was frolicking along the rail, he stopped suddenly, put his nose to the tracks of the coyote and followed those tracks across the arena to the far fence and then looked up to the hill where the coyote had disappeared. I was convinced of the horse’s keen sense of smell. Try not to wear strong cologne or perfume while riding. Not only can it draw bugs to you, but it can also repel your horse.

Do you know if your horse has good conformation? Find out how you can become an expert in good conformation with our Form to Function report.

Stay tuned for next week’s “Horse Senses” article that will cover taste, hearing and feeling.

Don Kleckner is a life member of CHA. The CHA is an AQHA Educational Marketing Alliance Partner. To find a CHA instructor or accredited equine facility near you, click here.