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Understanding the Horse

Over the centuries, the horse has been domesticated for man’s benefit. The animal's power, grace and agility have endeared it to many who have come into contact with it, or have had the opportunity to admire it from afar. Understanding the horse’s natural instincts will help the manager or horse handler (nervous parent) handle situations as they arise.

The evolution of the present day horse has its roots steeped in history. The
Thoroughbred traces its origins back to the fleet, sure footed Arabians captured during the Crusades, while our draft or work horse is the descendant of those ancient animals which carried knights into battle. Through the centuries of its association with man, the horse has retained many of its prehistoric instinctive responses, most notably the flight response.

An understanding of the physical development and the psychological make-up of the horse helps explain some of the problems encountered in the day to day handling of the horse. Further, the study of the horse’s nature would be incomplete without a look at its evolution, as instincts developed for survival in the distant past still greatly affect its reactions today.

Natural history suggests that the modern horse began to evolve between 50 and
60 million years ago in the western United States. The horse’s ancestor was the size of a terrier and had four padded toes in front and three behind. The teeth were adapted for eating coarse vegetation. It was a small, insignificant vegetarian among large flesh-eating animals, which made it their prey. The horse’s sensitivity to vibration, movement, sound and smell, its ability to react quickly and to adapt to change ensured its survival despite natural enemies and sometimes hostile environment. The modern horse is a larger and stronger creature, but still sensitive and capable of great speed and quick reactions.

When we ask the horse to do work which is foreign to its nature, we must be prepared for its instinctive response to unfamiliar stimuli. Our strength is no match for that of the horse. A handler attempting to outmuscle a horse will quickly find himself in a no win situation. A lack of basic techniques can result in a unhappy owner, a spoiled horse or a dangerous situation where horse or handler may be injured.

It is our responsibility to understand the horse’s instincts and to shape them to our advantage while maintaining respect for the animal. Generally speaking, horses see very poorly. The eye lens is not as flexible as it is in the human eye. To focus better, the horse must move its head up and down; the movement directs the light rays to the centre of the retina which give the clearest image. This arrangement is fine for grazing and watching for enemies at the same time, but it is a real handicap for judging height and distances. 

The size and position of the eyes, combined with the width of the head and body determine the amount of frontal and rear vision. Frontal vision is affected by the width of the forehead and how the eyes are set. The horse has a blind spot both to the front and to the rear. 

The horse uses binocular vision (the eyes focus on the same object at the same time) when both eyes are directly focused on an object. Because of irregularities in the retina, the image is often not clear and sharp at a distance greater than four feet. Most detail is apparently lost in the distance although movement is easily perceived and the animal will normally react according to its temperament, experience and confidence.

As movement is instantly seen it is not advisable to approach a horse directly from the rear without first speaking to the animal. In addition to binocular vision, the horse has monocular vision, i.e. it has the ability to see separately with each eye at the same time. The field of monocular vision is limited only by the position of the eye on the head. The change from monocular to binocular can cause a stationary object to jump, which may explain why horses sometimes unexplainably spook .

Since the horse cannot focus with binocular and monocular vision at the same time, it is important to have the animal’s attention when working around it. Most grooms and experienced horse people talk to horses as they work around them, because the ears of the horse are better suited to pinpointing location than are the eyes. The extent to which horses see colour has not been clearly determined. It is believed their eyes adjust to light changes more slowly than those of a human.

Unmanageable situations can often be avoided by reading the emotions of the horse. Ears pinned backward can indicate real or faked anger, ears forward show interest or suspicion. 

This information has been taken from the Canadian Equestrian Federation publication, the Manual of Stable Management in Canada, with permission from the Horse Council of BC.

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