The Five Senses of the Horse


The horse uses senses to interpret the world around it:

Eyesight
Smell
Touch
Taste
Hearing

    When you are working with a horse, it is very important to remember that horses are prey animals. This means all of their senses are designed for detecting and reacting to danger in the wild, and by using several of those senses simultaneously, horses are able to predict the distance, speed, direction, and location of danger to a very accurate level.

    This, to an extent carries through to riding, for then the horse is required to judge a certain distance, react to visual and vocal cues, and learn to ignore harmless man-made objects.

    Eyesight:

    • A horse has nearly 360 degree vision.
    • Cannot see just in front of the tip of their nose, directly behind, and directly under their face and jaw.
    • Very sensitive to detecting movement - even small movement at a distance.
    • DOES see colour, however differently to humans. Different research provides different results as this is studied further, however it is generally assumed that horses dont see different shades, folds and minor detail on the same object, but can clearly contrast a different object nearby.

    Think of a predator hiding in some bushes - the horse might not see every single branch or leaf of those bushes like we do, and perceive it as more of a single colour blur, but which would also mean that the predator shape would stand out in contrast with its surroundings, even if the predator is very well camouflaged, and the horse would be able to pick up on it, as well as any small movement of predator - respective to the bushes / trees.

    • Horses are extremely good at judging distances. Using our above example, the horse would know exactly how far the danger is. This also helps when riding a horse over jumps.
    • Horses can focus their eyes in a monocular field of vision, to give them that large area of vision, or binocular to focus on far away objects.
    • It is interesting to note that horses who are in a panic flight mode, (sometimes referred as to bolting blind), are generally in a binocular field of vision, meaning they can mostly focus on things in front of them, and not to the sides. This is not to be confused, however, with a horse simply galloping or running with their mates in the paddock, or in racing.


    Smell:

    • It is generally thought that a horses sense of smell is almost as good as that of a dog, although they don't visualise scent like dogs do.
    • Horses have fairly large nostrils in proportion to their bodies - in comparison to a lot of other species. This helps them take in large volume of oxygen when running, as well as allowing for a very keen sense of smell.
    • Horses have a very good smell memory. They can use smell to remember herd members, objects, and people, as well as associate certain smells with danger, comfort etc.


    Touch:

    • Like all living things, horses can feel physical contact.
    • Horses, by instinct, are very social and close contact animals. They would groom and scratch each other, play with other horses through nuzzling and nibbling, huddle together for warmth and protection, and show aggression through biting and kicking - whether thats to challenge their position in the herd or to defend themselves from predators.
    • Whilst there are several studies arguing whether or not horses feel emotion, it is a known fact that horses are generally a lot more tolerant than humans to things such as pain, cold, and general discomfort. 
    • At the same time, the horses nervous system is highly sensitive. If you think about a real life example of a fly landing on a horses flank, the horse can feel the exact place where the fly has landed and swish it off with its tail. This is considering the size, as well as the horses coat between the horses skin itself and the fly. It is important to remember this when riding, as every horse can potentially be THIS sensitive to your leg aids and balance changes (whether those being correct or involuntary), and can be trained to react to such minimal pressure.
    • Horses can also feel the ground and its shape with proportion to their legs at all times. Whilst it seems like a fairly obvious trait for most living things, this gives horses a very good sense of balance.


    Taste:

    • Like most grazing animals, a horse needs to be able to differentiate between something which tastes good, or something that tastes foul and is likely poisonous. 
    • It is said that horses can do the assessment of whether a plant species they encountered is poisonous, before they chew it. 
    • Horses are foraging animals. That is to say, they are very picky with what they eat, and are able to sort plants, seeds and pasture they are grazing through using the muscles in their lips. 
    • There have been some studies done which claim that the top lip has sensors in it which help the horse taste the objects while foraging without having to put them into the mouth, and decide whether it is edible or not.


    Hearing

    • Horses can hear equally well in a 360 degree arc around them, by being able to rotate their ears independently from each other to focus on any noise.
    • Because of this, horses can pin-point with great accuracy where exactly sound is created before even looking in that direction.
    • Horses are also significantly more sensitive to quieter noises at longer distances, than most predators in the wild (or us humans).
    • Horses can learn to associate certain sounds with different objects, items and actions, or ignore those sounds altogether.
    • It is said that even though horses can differentiate between frequencies and volume, they are not very good at hearing rhythm (which is why you would notice that in dressage to music numbers, the music is generally altered and sped up or slowed down to accommodate the horses movement, and not the other way round)
    • It is also worth mentioning, that on the same note, horses are not that good at differentiating words themselves. This is why, if you are teaching your horse verbal commands (eg. walk / trot / canter while lunging), it is very important to emphasise extra effort and consistency as to HOW you pronounce the words, as well as a rising or a lowering pitch for picking a gait up or down, as it is much easier for a horse to understand the difference and learn the command quicker.

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