eye contact

Eyes and Ears

I’ve been asked many questions in clinics about where a horse should be looking or directing his eyes and ears.

Consider for a moment, our own eyes and ears.  As a predator, we need to be able to focus on a single point in front of us.  Our ears (and how our brain processes the sounds from both ears) are marvels of evolution that allow us to detect where a sound is coming from in 3D space. Our ears however, are fixed forward.

A horse, on the other hand, can see almost all the way around him when he’s facing forward.  He doesn’t have to bend his neck much to cover the blind spot behind him.  His ears rotate in such a way that he can focus on a sound anywhere without having to turn his head.

In short, a horse is built to take in information anywhere around him, where we’re built to focus in front of us. It’s nature.  But our eyes and ears function in the same way – we both hear and see with the same anatomical components. Lets look at some similarities and differences, and the science behind them.

The better to see you with…

The angles below are based on the subject looking forward. We can squeak out a bit more by moving our eyes, which gives us nearly 230° of vision…and the horse a whopping 350°.

 Monocular (what
one eye can see)
Binocular (the overlap
from both eyes)
Entire Field
of View
Horse195° 80° 320°
Human155° 120° 200°

In the image below, the green represents what the left eye sees, the red represents what the right eye sees. Where the colors overlap is the binocular vision, and the two combined is the entire field of view.

Although we have wide binocular vision, it is limited. Try reading this when you move your eyes to the left side of this paragraph. You can see the paragraph, but you can’t read it. Our ability to recognize symbols doesn’t extend this far! And although we have peripheral vision – it’s really only helpful in detecting motion or seeing that an object is there.

Let’s look at this more specifically (pardon the pun).  With one eye, a horse can see 195°.  In front of them, this vision overlaps about 60-80°. This is called binocular vision, which is important for depth perception, image matching and other factors. A horse has blind spots:  

  • between the two eyes, right in front of his forehead;
  • anything blocked by his nose;
  • the width of his head/body behind him.

We also have similar blind spots – you can’t see the tip of your nose or something directly in front of it. I like to think this way: if I can see the horse’s eye, he can see mine.

Lets dispel of a myth right off the bat. That is, that horse cannot see anything in front of him or behind him. He can – just like you can – with some parameters. There is a cone of space from his forehead forward that he cannot see (blocked by his forehead, because his eyes are on the side of his head), and space behind him (blocked by his body). Because this front blind spot is a cone, the tip of the cone becomes infinitesimally small only a short distance in front of him – like one pixel on your computer screen as you sit in front of it. That’s negligible. Also, because a horse can only focus outside of 10″ or so away, he can see you perfectly well if you stand in front of him. You might be blurry if his nose is touching your chest. Then again, if I hold things close I can’t focus on them either. This is not getting better as I age!

Now the common sense part. Horses can move their head to see things their body blocks. If someone you were focusing on moved, and you wanted to keep looking at them, you would turn your head or body. And so will your horse. And all he needs to do is bend his neck or rotate his head a few degrees to see the entire sphere around his body.

Don’t forget, a horse knows where you are. Their eyes are but one of their senses. You would have to be better than the best predatory cat out there to be able to sneak up on your horse without him knowing. In addition, their hearing is more acute than ours and covers a wider range of frequencies. Just because they’re not looking directly at your face does not necessarily mean they’re not focusing on you. Horses are also much more spatially sensitive – we all know what it feels like when someone is standing behind us. Well, horses are better at that than us, too!

A little exercise for you.
Like horses, we have a central overlapping spot in our vision that is seen by both eyes (binocular). To the sides, we see with one eye (monocular) just like a horse does. Try this: open both eyes and look forward. Put your finger in front of your face. Focus on it with both eyes. While keeping your vision forward, move your finger around toward the left side of your head until it almost leaves your vision. At this point, your finger is in your left eye only (monocular). To prove this, just close your left eye. Your finger disappears. Now, while keeping your left eye closed, move your finger back toward the center of your face. Notice the point where your finger comes back into view – that is the limit of your right eye’s monocular space.

Horses have incredibly clear distance vision – an obvious bonus for a prey animal – and can spot motion and image differences at a great distance. We’re not as good at this. Win for the horse!

Are horses color blind? Do they see in only black and white? Well, no one knows exactly what horses see. There are facts that we do know though. Both human and horse eyes have rods and cones. The rods allow us to see hues of grey in low light. The cones allow us to see color under brighter light. This is why colors disappear from our vision gradually as the light level decreases.

Who wins? Well, a horse’s eyes have many more rods than ours do, so they can see much better at night. Have you ever ridden a horse in the dark? You’ll have discovered this advantage. Win for the horse! However, we have a higher cone/rod ratio in our eyes and in addition, we have 3 types of cones: red, green and blue. This allows us to see the variety of colors that we can. Horses only have 2 types of cones: green and blue. This means horses cannot see red, and likely see a washed out version of the rest of the spectrum. Win for us!

Above: Horses have dichromatic vision; basically a washed out version of what we see, minus the red. Humans have trichromatic vision, seeing in colors of red, blue and green. Ever look closely at an older TV? You’ll see red, blue and green dots that are used to create all the colors.

Have you ever noticed it takes a bit of time for your eyes to adjust when you move from a brightly lit area to a dark one?  Horses take even longer.  So it’s no wonder they have trouble being sent or led through a door from the bright outside to a darker interior – like a trailer.  To them, it likely appears like a black wall or an infinite pit.

The better to hear you with…

What about those ears? You’ll have noticed that a horse can rotate those ears 180°. He has 10 muscles to accomplish this, and he can move his ears independently. A human has 3 muscles. 15% of us can wiggle our ears, but that doesn’t help us hear – it just causes magic to happen.

(that was a joke)

The bonus is that a horse can focus on sounds in particular spots without having to turn his head or body. We’re a bit limited here. You’ll notice if you’re trying to pinpoint a sound, you’ll likely start by turning to face it, then turning your head left and right as the sound occurs again.
If that wasn’t enough, horse can also hear a greater frequency range (14Hz to 25kHz) than we can. The average audible range for healthy young people is 20Hz to 20kHz. What this means is that horses can hear both lower and higher pitched sounds that we cannot. Just for fun, dogs can hear sounds over 40kHz.

Science aside…

Simply put – a predator is designed to focus on prey.  A prey animal is designed to be attentive to their entire surroundings to detect predators.

Given that basic fact, let’s drill down into some practicality.

Where to focus?

A horse takes in and processes an incredible amount of environmental information. I think that if a human were exposed to that much, we’d be overwhelmed and confused. Remember that a horse can move both his eyes and ears independently to take in different information. That said, there is nothing wrong with a horse looking around when you’re out on a trail ride.  It’s natural, and in your best interest. I want to make use of the horses acute senses. He can let me know when he picks up on something – like a cougar – that my senses can’t detect.

focus forward
Follow my focus and energy. My connection to the lead rope is very light; to communicate: “release that tension in your neck and back so you can move forward”.

We do, however, desire that a horse follow our focus in task oriented work. I like to use the obstacle course as an example to explain this, although any discipline specific exercise would be the same. I have another article about focus you can refer to, but suffice it to say, if we want a horse’s focus and energy to be on a specific object or movement, we can get there much quicker if our focus and energy is the same. Then he only has to mirror us. For example, if I want to ride over a platform, my focus and energy is in a straight line to the other side of the platform – not directly at it. If we lose the horse’s focus, he won’t be following us – but we can get his focus back easily with a touch or sound.

What we need to be aware of is that there is a difference between a horse focusing on something (other than what you’re focusing on) and following that focus with an action.  For example: a deer moves in the trees off to your left.  Your horse turns and looks at it but keeps trucking down the trail (which is your focus).  No big deal.  On the flip side, your horse notices something tasty off the trail and leaves on their own (with you on their back, of course) to go munch on it.  In this case, they had a thought, and we likely didn’t recognize it or we changed our focus to follow theirs (in which case they are leading).

Ear pinning.

Let’s start by clearing up a common misnomer:  “ear pinning” is not when a horse’s ears are turned backwards.  A horse can rotate his ears to face directly backward and will do so to listen to a sound behind him.  You might notice on a trail ride that a horse in front will generally have it’s ears forward, and the horse in the back will tend to have it’s ears backward.  That way, they’re covering the herd.

An animal (that can) will flatten or pin it’s ears back when afraid, nervous or about to bite.  One thought is, and I agree with it because it just makes sense, is that they’re protecting their ears.  Animals without arms use their teeth to fight.  Teeth mean business and those ears sticking out are a great target.  I’m guessing my wildie, Zeus, wasn’t fast enough getting his ears back one day, because he’s missing a chunk out of his right ear.

A breech of trust. It’s not hard to tell what this horse is feeling, and exactly where that feeling is directed! These two were actually a good team. Photo by JoAnne Meeker.

Can a horse get angry? You bet. Although demonstrated anger (ears pinned and teeth bared just like a dog) is rare, it can happen. Clearly this is not something we strive for because it is synonymous with a huge breech in, or lack of, trust.

What is very important here, is that punishing a horse because he pins his ears is in no way supportive. Here’s a personal story. I was on Belle at a working cowhorse clinic. We were outside the ring, facing in while waiting our turn. Every time a horse or cow went by us, she would pin her ears. That is simply an expression, nothing more. We have expressions too: a smile; a frown. Its natural.

Here’s an example to put this in perspective: I’m having a conversation with someone and their dog barks. This annoys them, and they turn and frown at the dog. Do I hit them for that? Of course not. However, I witnessed a parent at a clinic (that I was teaching) yell, “Hit her if she pins her ears!” at their child. Although I was disappointed to learn that kids are being taught this, it was a great opportunity to explain to a large group of people a little bit about horse psychology.

When a horse is pinning his ears at you, you have some leadership issues to work though. If you’re riding a horse and they pin their ears at another horse, simply put energy into a different focus – ride somewhere – particularly if you’re thinking that it might turn into something more, like a follow up kick. Basically, shift the horse’s focus from the other horse to you. Not a big deal.

What is eye contact?

Anatomically, the eye is part of the brain; retinal tissue and brain tissue are considered the same. Due to that, vision can be an overwhelming sense. Whoever said, “The eyes are the window to the brain,” had no idea how accurate they actually were.

You have no doubt heard someone say, “You need to get the horse’s eye!” What they really mean is that you need to get the horse’s focus back on you. It does not necessarily mean that the horse has to look you in the face – that would be really awkward when riding!

That said, there are some circumstances when I do want the horse to be looking right at me. For example, in groundwork when a horse is very frightened, I will stand right in front of them and have them look right at me. This is a very deeply connected form of empathic communication. In that, I can convey peace and confidence.

In an interpersonal context, you’ll know what I mean. Consider someone who is very scared; perhaps they’ve been hurt badly. You look them right in the eyes and say, “Just look at me – its going to be OK.” When we have eyes-to-eyes contact like that, we can affect how the other person feels. This is an extremely powerful horsemanship tool when working with frightened horses; realize that a frightened horse thinks he is going to die. We can show him that when his focus is on us, he doesn’t have to worry. Wow – what a trust building leadership exercise right there!

eye contact
Eye to Eye with Zeus

Here’s another personal story. One that changed a horse’s life. You’re familiar with my wild horse, Zeus. We’ve made incredible strides and I’m very proud of him. He’s had to make huge life changes and he’s doing fantastic; really enjoying everything.

There was a time when we played an exercise called, “right side / left side.” He had a lot of difficulty looking at me with one eye, and switching from one side to the other took hours to achieve. He had so much trouble exposing his right side.

The life changing scenario was this: I asked him to look at me with both eyes. Face to face. He couldn’t do it. He would try to look left or right, thinking “Should I leave to the left or leave to the right?” We would get momentary eyes-to-eyes contact and then he’d break it. He then kept his head straight forward, but put his head very low, as if in submission. I’d never force a horse to submit (we strive for a leader-follower relationship instead), so I asked him to pick his head up. His next thought was, “Are we fighting then?” and went to nip at me – but kept his head straight.

Thinking of it, in his world, when would he ever look at another male, right in the face? A contest with another stallion. But I didn’t want that either. He wasn’t sure what to do.

Gradually we built a connection – looking at me felt good. I could convey what I wanted, “Just relax – feel what I feel.” And he started to. When we started to bring pressure into that game, showing him that looking at me and releasing tension was the answer, his whole perspective began to change.

With his new ability of facing things, he was able to walk up to his pile of hay straight on, instead of at an angle ready to flee. He takes great pleasure walking up to me and maintaining eye contact – because in that connection he gets something he doesn’t get anywhere else. Our relationship and training skyrocketed after that.

Outside of those fear situations, for example, when working a horse on a lunge line, it’s important that we are able to get – and retain – the horse’s focus. That will mean the he turns an eye toward you, an ear toward you, or is clearly following your energetic presentation. If we’re unable to do that – or pressure causes his eye to leave – we need to stop the exercise immediately. In this case the horse’s mind (focus) has left us; the next thing, his body will. Clearly we do not want our horses to learn that running from us is the lesson to be learned.

If we do not have the horse’s eye/mind/focus, then he cannot follow our direction. I have helped numerous folks whose horses run away from them while they’re riding, and many times the cause is unfocused lunging or round pen work somewhere in their past. Lunging (chasing) a horse because you don’t have his mind will cause the problem you’re trying to fix.  We can certainly use lunging and the round pen in conjunction with supportive exercises to cause the horse to change this up though, and have the horse follow your focus, energy and balance.

Should a horse have his eyes or ears on you all the time? No. How often? Well, there isn’t a specific time, but our desire is that we can get the horse’s attention when we need it. Think about it in the context of having a conversation with a person. If you both stop talking for a while, your mind will go in one direction and theirs another. To get their focus back on you, you’d start talking again. If they were still lost in their thoughts, you’d say their name or “hello” or some other word to get their mind back. It’s the same with horses. We can use sounds or a touch to refocus.

Someone once said that when a horse looks into your eyes, he can see into your soul. I certainly hope so. What I can attest to is that in that moment, we can feel of each other in a very honest and open way. What I want my horse to find in my eye is strength, confidence, trust and pride in him – all the things we desire in a true partner.

Scott Phillips

April 2019

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About amazingh

Scott has a wide variety of experience in the horse industry including mountain riding, outfitting, training horses and riders, starting and re-starting horses, running the Canadian Cowboy Challenge and operating Amazing Horse Country. He is the proud owner of eight horses that he affectionately refers to as his "kids". Scott has integrated his horsemanship with a knowledge of equine bio-mechanics and psychology to gain a thorough understanding of these great animals.

6 thoughts on “Eyes and Ears

  1. Donna

    Interesting you wrote about ear pinning today. Today was the second day I went to catch Centaur with saddling part of the plan. When I went to catch him, he left his food, pinned his ears and attempted a half hearted kick at me. We had been doing well before the saddling. I think I was careful. He was on a loose line. I cinched him up slowly. Will see how he responds tomorrow. Still a leadership issue?

    Reply
  2. Donna Ehalt

    Well, I am confused because we have been doing very well with groundwork not involving the saddle. As soon as the saddle comes into the picture, his attitude changes. It makes me wonder is it discomfort or leadership? I haven’t got on him yet because I wanted to try to do everything right this Spring.

    Reply
    1. Scott Phillips Post author

      Think of it this way: a horse that can handle the pressure of an ill fitting saddle will get sore. A horse that can’t will let you know. Discomfort IS a pressure, just like you sitting in an uncomfortable chair. How you handle that discomfort is dependent on how you handle pressure. Is it discomfort? Do a saddle fit check – eliminate the variables. But the question remains: is a horse that kicks at you a leadership issue (regardless of WHY)?

      Reply
  3. Carol Bates

    May I butt in with a comment? I brought my black QH mare to you last year with a being cranky when tacking up issue: head butting, nipping, ears back. You had me doing some leadership exercises with her which have worked. Will you be covering some of those exercises in this article as is always good to have a refresher if needed.

    Reply

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