Friday, February 26, 2016

Can You See the Problem? - Equine Eyesight

Research into how horses see is ongoing and a high priority, for good reason.  If we can understand how and what they see, then maybe---just maybe--we can better understand their behavior and how we contribute to the good, the bad, and the ugly of it.
Here's looking at you, kid.

Much of what is in the linked article you probably already know.  Few horse owners aren't aware that their partner can see almost 180 degrees around him but has a blind spot in front of his face about 4 feet out.  We've seen a horse spin around to face something he knows is behind him, and we've seen him freak when a stranger reaches up to pet his head and that hand suddenly disappears from view.  We know that he will lower his head to see close up, like that cross rail he's probably going to knock down just for fun.  And we know he will raise his head to see into the distance.

We know that their eyesight is somehow connected to a brain that doesn't process quite like ours, which means he will spook at a rock on the left of the path that he just passed without incident when he was going the other way.  We still aren't entirely sure what that's about.

The interesting bullet points from the linked article are these:

  • Horses have a broader field of vision than ours but don't have the clarity because they are designed, as prey animals, to be sensitive to motion, not detail.

  • They see slightly better than we do because of the cool reflective surface inside their eyeballs that gives them that spooky glow, but the cannot, despite conventional wisdom to the contrary, see as well in the dark as they can in the daylight.

  • They take far longer--as much as 45 minutes--for their eyes to adjust from being out in bright daylight to being inside in the relative darkness.

  • They can't see the ground in front of their front feet, so if they stumble on something they tend to get really upset about it.

  • Like us, they can focus with one eye at a time and with both, but it's different for them because their eyes are on opposite sides of their heads, not facing front.  So they switch from monocular to binocular vision by moving their heads around.  
Those are my picks for the most interesting facts from the article.  Putting them together, we should be able to see that the following scenario has DOOM written all over it:

You've gotten Princess out of the paddock, taken her into the barn and groomed and tacked her up for your jumping lesson.  Tacking up took a little while longer than expected because she fidgeted every time she heard a sound in the barn behind her.  She was cross-tied, so her view was limited.  You managed to get it all together and the last thing you did was adjust her standing martingale.  She likes to raise her head before the jumps and that's something that drives your trainer crazy, so keeping her head tied down is key.  You've taken her back out into the outdoor arena to warm her up.  The sun is shining brightly, and she goes through her paces just beautifully.  Someone calls your name, and you hustle into the indoor.  Your trainer tells you to do a lap at the trot then head for the first small jump, which Princess trips over.  She manages the next jump but is fighting the martingale.  By the third jumps she's run out to the left and you are upset and blaming her loudly.   This goes on for another 20 minutes, at which point she is doing the jump course perfectly and you are almost calm again.

Do you see the problems?  They're the stuff in bold.  You should be able to see that perhaps some changes in your routine would help make her life easier.  Give her time for her eyes to adjust to the dim light, for instance.  Instead of warming up in the sun right to the moment of your lesson, stop worrying about impressing your trainer and stand her in the barn to let her eyes adjust.  Either lose the martingale entirely or leave it loose until after the first round of jumps so she knows where everything is because she can raise her head to use her binocular vision and her depth perception.

Such small changes in your approach can make a huge difference in her willingness to do the job you've decided she needs to do.  Remember at all times that you chose this career for her without her input.  So cut her some slack and give her every opportunity to do it well.

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