Why does my horse shy? – Understanding equine eyesight

I frequently say that a large part of horsemanship is studying the horse in nature. Yesterday while working with a student, I witnessed a great example of this.

My student and her horse seemed to be connected and the horse appeared focused on his work. Then without warning, he shied. I glanced around to see what he was looking at and saw nothing visible to my eyes. I heard nothing, I saw nothing, but unlike some horseman who believe the horse is “making it up,” “playing games,” etc., I don’t for one minute doubt this horse’s honesty.  He was working, energetically forward, he was focusing on his rider, and he was not playing. One stride he was exactly where we needed him, but the next he was ten feet to the right! People think if they don’t see or hear anything that indeed, nothing is there. In most situations that is simply not the case. We may not see it, we may not hear it, but something is there, causing the horse to react honestly.

I teach my students to deal with shying by quickly refocusing the horse and continuing on the path of their ride. If you stop to look at whatever caused the shy, or if you reprimand your horse, you are using negative reinforcement. Both approaches reinforce the horse’s fear by showing him that whatever it is he was worried about IS a big deal after all. In contrast, when you refocus and continue on, you simply stay in a leadership role that through your aids says, “I’m here, we’re okay, ignore it, continue on.” In a future post I’ll talk more about positive vs. negative reinforcement, but today’s food for thought will be on equine eyesight.

The horse’s eyes are set wide apart. This allows them to see each side of their body, which is part of nature’s protection from predators. Horses have both binocular and monocular vision. Binocular vision means the same object or scene is observed with both eyes at once. It also enables the horse to judge distance.  Monocular vision allows the horse to see a separate scene or object with each eye at the same time. I can only imagine what that would be like! Horses do see colors, but the hues are different than humans see. Their eyes also adjust well to darkness.

So, one would think the horse would see everything clearly, right? Well, not quite. The horse has a blind spot directly behind his hindquarter, and he also cannot see directly below his head. If an object is within four feet in front of him, he cannot see it using his binocular vision. Although a horse can see his entire circumference when in a grazing position, he must raise his head to see objects that are close, and he must lower his head to see faraway objects (I really struggled with this point, but research says it’s true…it just seems so backward!).

Now think about what we do when we ride, as we guide our horse’s head carriage in a balanced position. He may not be able to adjust his neck and head to focus on his surroundings, and so in some instances, he is temporarily blinded from seeing something clearly. Bearing that in mind, it makes a little more sense when we see a horse shy at an object that hasn’t moved, or something we haven’t noticed at all.

So, instead of humanizing the situation simply because you cannot see what it is that caused the horse to shy remember that horses in nature are neither complex nor simple. He is just a horse, different in physical and psychological make-up from us, and he is only doing what his prey instinct tells him to do!

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