The Equine Eye: Monocular vs. Binocular Vision and Focus Issues

I believe that a major part of being an efficient rider is to understand how every part of the horse works.  If you don’t understand why a horse is reacting a certain way, you may end up punishing something the horse truly has no control over or brushing off some uncalled for action that is fully correctable.  One of the biggest issues that really bothers me is when people punish their horse for spooking.  Many of the reasons a horse spooks are found in his biological makeup and cannot be altered.

The equine eye is the largest orb found in any land mammal.  Therefore, the horse has the capacity to take in a large amount of visual information at once.  It also means that a horse’s retina (the part that transfers information to the brain via the optic nerve to form images) is much larger than any other land mammal and because of this any object that a horse sees will look roughly 50% larger to him than it would to us.  This is the first reason many things seem scary to your horse.

Now, as (I believe) is common knowledge, horses are animals of prey.  In the wild, they are the ones that are hunted.   Nature, being the wonderful thing that it is, supplied the horse ways of protecting itself.  One of these ways is having a very large visual field.  While most predators like humans, dogs and cats have 180° vision, horses have almost 350° of sight because of the placement of their eyes widespread on the side of their head instead of close together and in front.  However, the horse’s ability to take in so much visual information at once can also make the world seem like a scarier place.  A horse is made visually aware of something by movement, so trail riding on a windy day can make a horse seem a little more jittery than normal because there is SO much stimulating his sense of sight.

Humans are very used to looking at something and immediately knowing, with clarity, what the object in front of us is.  Our eyes have a sort of ‘auto-focus’ so that whether the object is 10 inches or 10 yards away, we can see it clearly by simply glancing at it.  The simple explanation for this is 2-parted:

  • 1) Our ciliary muscle in the eye is well-developed.  That’s the part that adjusts the shape of the lens allowing us to focus.  It works quickly to let our eye focus immediately.
  • 2) Our retina, like many mammals, is smooth and concave, allowing for even focus in the eye.

The horse has an incredibly underdeveloped ciliary muscle.  This means that it takes much longer for a horse to focus on something than it does for us.  Imagine the speed of using auto-focus on a camera instead of manual focus.  Also, the horse’s retina is concave, but the surface is not smooth.  This means that some parts of the horse’s eye allow for better focus and clarity than other spots, which is why a horse may lower or raise his head, or weave his head side-to-side when he is trying to see something.

Not only does the horse have to work hard to focus, he has to figure out what exactly he needs to focus on.  The human eye sees with binocular vision, meaning that our brain gives us 1 single picture from the information that both eyes take in.  A horse has a small binocular field of vision, but roughly 270° of a horse’s sight is monocular.  This means that the horse’s brain is receiving two images at once because each eye is sending a different picture.  Imagine watching side-by-side television and trying to focus on both pictures at the same time.  It is nearly impossible to clearly see one picture or the other without turning your head to look directly at it.  This is the way a horse’s vision works.  His field of binocular vision begins about 6 inches to a foot from his forehead and extends in front of him.  Keep in mind that those 6-12 inches are a blind spot, which is why a pat between the eyes may elicit a flinch or even full-fledged spook.  His monocular field of vision surrounds nearly the rest of his body, except for a small blind spot just next to his flanks and directly behind him.  By turning his head he can eliminate the blind spot on one side or the other.

The basics of how a horse sees

Knowing how a horse sees affects the way that we work with them.  Don’t get mad at your horse for spooking at something because even though you recognized it right away, it may have taken your horse by surprise and looked scary and fuzzy to him.  Always work from both sides of your horse so that he is used to a motion being performed on each side of him.  Because of monocular vision, an action done on one side will become an entirely new experience on the other side because the brain is getting a whole new set of images from the opposite eye, so don’t expect your horse to be perfect as soon as you change direction or sides.

Patience is key when it comes to effective work with horses.  You and your horse are capable of great things if you take the time to understand him!


Happy Trails

There is nothing more dangerous or annoying than a person who is unaware of proper trail etiquette.  To be fair, there are some things that many people do not think about while having a lovely ride on a sunny day.  Here are some of the basics to remember so that your trail experience is pleasant for both yourself and the people you ride with and encounter on the trail:

  • Stick to the edge of the trail.  Even if you can’t see anybody in either direction, its wise to keep your horse towards they side of the trail.  Bikers and joggers can come up quickly, seemingly out of nowhere.  Avoid collisions or a spooked horse by allowing room for other trail users to pass without issue.
  • Always walk when passing someone.  Whether you are passing another rider, a bike rider, walkers or joggers, take the pace down a notch.  By slowing your horse down to a steady walk, you allow him to evaluate the situation and will have less chance for a negative reaction from him.  If your horse spooks while you are passing someone, it becomes dangerous for both yourself and the other party involved.  Keep it safe by slowing it down.
  • Ride to the ability of the least experienced rider in the group.  If you are in a group of riders, no matter the size, do NOT do anything that any single person in the group is not comfortable with.  For example, a group of 4 riders go out and 3 of them are comfortable doing walk, trot and a little canter if there is a clear patch (which I will address later) but the fourth rider is not comfortable doing more than a little trotting here and there.  Don’t bully the fourth rider into trying to canter.  By asking a member of the group to do something they don’t feel comfortable with, you put everyone in the group at risk .  Ride to the lowest ability level or find a different group to ride with.
  • Along with the previous point, do not be afraid to admit that you don’t want to do something on the trail.   Your group should respect your request and not push you.  Gently remind them that you feel you may compromise the groups safety through a particular action and that you just want everyone to be safe and smart.
  • If you are going to head out on trail in a group, determine the ability and comfort level of the participants BEFORE leaving so that there are no shocks on the trail.
  • Do not canter in groups. Unless you are a very experienced horse person and everyone with you is also very experienced, avoid group canters on trail.  Horses are competitive by nature and will often try to be in the lead.  This can cause matters to get out of hand and cause injury.  If you are alone, and you feel like you just have to get in that one good canter, do it in an area which you can see for a good distance in each direction and only canter if there is no one within sight.
  • If it is starting to get dark when you are on the trail, make sure you have a flashlight and reflective vest so that people can see you.  This is especially important if you have to cross any roads to get to/from your trails.  There are reflective bands that you can put around your horse’s fetlocks as well, which may be useful.
  • Keep your cell phone with you in case of emergency.  Whether you keep your phone in your saddle bag or pocket, let it always be easily accessible in case something comes up.
  • Fly spray your horse and bug spray yourself.  The bugs can be much worse on the trail than anywhere else and I don’t know a single person who wants to be eaten alive while trail riding.  If you are focusing all of your attention on obnoxious bugs it leaves little ability to focus on what is going on around you.
  • Wear a helmet.  I know that it may seem silly on the trail, but you never know what is going to set off your horse and how he will react.  It only takes a fall from 3 feet to make someone a vegetable or kill them.  Protect your head!

I’m sure there are things I missed out on, but think these through and just remember to use your brain on the trail.  If you have to think about whether or not you should do something on the trail, its probably a fairly good indication that you shouldn’t. Best of luck and fun to you all! Happy Trails!

Wash Stall Woes

Even though it is coming down to the end of the summer, there is still a little time to get in that last good bath before hunkering down for the long, bath-less winter. Unfortunately, some horses love that winter period when they aren’t asked to go near that awful wash stall.

What can be done for a horse who doesn’t want to get in the wash rack for a bath? Here are a few tips to try. Depending on how stubborn your horse is, be prepared to spend a good amount of time with these to find one (or a combination of several) that works for you and your horse.

  • For ANY horse that isnt’ keen on jumping right into the wash stall, be certain to stay relaxed and patient and allow him to take his time.
  • Some horses get nervous if the washstall is dark and/or small and confined feeling.  Make sure all of the lights are on, so that the wash stall is as bright as possible and clear as much away from walls and off the floor as you can to make it feel like your horse has a ton of space to manuever.
  • Be willing to let your horse check out the wash stall.  Ask him gently to take a step towards it, then release pressure and let him adjust to the ‘new’ surroundings.  Then ask him to take another step with just enough pressure that he knows you are asking him to move.  Let him take a few minutes to discover that the wash stall is not a pit of doom and that he will be safe.  If you let him investigate, you might be surprised at the willingness to walk into the wash stall that he exhibits when he realizes he won’t be eaten by it.
  • The easiest thing that comes to mind for a horse that is merely apprehensive about the washstall is bribery.  Get a bucket of oats or treats or grab a handful of rich alfalfa and hold it just out of reach in the wash stall for your horse.  Give a small nibble then pull it back a little further, coaxing him further in.  Do this until he is standing with all four feet in the washstall, and give him the rest of the snack.
  • My horse would not walk into a wash stall head first if his life depended on it.  Instead, I turn him around and back him into the wash stall and then he is fine because he does not feel boxed in.   If your horse backs fairly well, this is an easy way to eliminate the feeling of confinement which seems to bother many horses.  Just line him up and back him in!
  • If you and your horse have a relationship built on trust and respect, then he is most likely willing to follow you wherever you lead him.  However, even the most loyal, well-trained horse who never acts up may show resistance to following you into a wash stall.  You can ‘trick’ him into following you in though by blindfolding him.  ***You have to make sure that you are super aware of both you and your horse’s surroundings to make sure that he is not going to trip on a ledge or step, fall in a hole, or run into a wall.  Use a towel tucked into the sides of the halter (don’t EVER tie anything over the horse’s eyes) and practice just walking him up and down the aisle and getting him to trust your leadership.  If he is smart, he’ll know where the wash stall is in relation to where you put on the blindfold, so take a little walk before heading straight in.  Take your time.  It is understandable that your horse may move a little slower than normal since you have suddenly taken away one of his senses.  Once you end your blind walk in the wash stall, reward him with a treat and a calm rub then take off the blindfold.  For one particularly stubborn horse I worked with who would not tolerate being in the wash stall for ANY reason, I actually left the blindfold on when I gave the bath.
  • Use a different water source.  Some barns have a hose outside that is not in a wash stall.  If it is nice outside, find a patch of grass to let your horse munch and just give him a bath out of doors to eliminate the wash stall altogether.
  • If you can have someone help you, you can actually annoy your horse into the wash stall.  One of you should stand in the wash stall, holding the lead rope.  You want to have mild pressure, but not be yanking on the rope.  The second person stands behind (and off to the side) of the horse and uses a longe whip behind the horse.  Some horses just need to see the whip to go forward.  If your horse is not one of those, then take the whip and gently tap the hind legs above the hocks.  The key to this is that the whip is meant to annoy, not harm the horse.  The whip is acting as a guide saying “MOVE.”
  • Some horses might walk into the wash stall, but don’t like turning around.  That’s fine! Give your horse his bath backwards.  At my barn we have a set of rings at the back of the wash stall in case people don’t want to turn their horse around.  Then they can just moved the quick-release cross-ties to the back rings and not have to fuss with trying to get their horse to turn around and face the big open space he could run out into very easily.

Use one or two of these methods and hopefully your horse will be squeaky-clean in no time!

Nothing seems to work?  Email me and I can help you form a specific plan for your horse to help get him in the wash stall:

Confidence is Key

It is natural for every horse person to feel slight apprehension at doing something on or with their horse which has previously not had a pleasant outcome.  However, what many people don’t realize is how strongly our apprehension can affect our horse and the performance they give us after that point.  For example, say you are a trail that you have ridden on without incident more times than you can count, but one day something unforeseen scares your horse and he leaves you sitting in the dirt while he high-tails it home.  It is only normal that you would feel a little timid at that spot or throughout your ride the next time that you are out on the trail.  Unfortunately, if you get tense, so will your horse.  It is very important to look at each ride or time spent with your horse as a fresh start.

Your horse will react to your emotions and feelings.  That is because your body automatically (and sometimes involuntarily)  conveys your mood and emotions.  If you are nervous, your muscles tense and your body curls in on itself ever so slightly to create a barrier  against the thing causing the nerves and to give you a “safe” space.  Your horse will be able to feel that defensive position that you are in and become tense himself, since [clearly] there is something to be nervous about near him.  So if you are nervous when you go back out on that trail, fixing the problem from last time will be infinitely more difficult than it should be since your nervousness will likely cause an unwelcome reaction, which could in turn just make you more nervous.  Thankfully, the opposite is also true.  If you are relaxed and confident, your posture will straighten and your muscles will relax. A horse will be much more willing to cooperate when he senses this confidence.  If you go back onto that trail with the mindset that it is a new day and this is a new experience, your horse will be harder pressed to find a reason to balk.

One of you has to be confident in order to accomplish any task.

Most of the time, the confidence is left to you since you are the one capable of thinking through a situation all the way to the outcome(s) and acting on a continuing train of thought.  So how will you know if you are ready to go back to that scary trail? After a scary, unnerving or traumatic experience, go back a few steps in your training and skill set.  Either go back to the arena and work on something you can do well to build your confidence back up or handwalk your horse out to that scary spot and work through the issue from the ground where you may feel more comfortable and more at ease in handling him if he gets snorty or spooky. Don’t be ashamed or embarrassed to give yourself a pep talk before returning to the scary obstacle and focus on breathing deeply and steadily to keep your muscles relaxed.

Remember, each ride is entirely new, even if its a ride you’ve done a hundred times before.

Think about the times before that you’ve done that particular thing successfully.  If you’d never attempted it before, the give yourself a pat on the back for trying and take what your learned from the experience to make it better for the next time.  I guarantee that when you get past the nervous bump, the personal reward of accomplishing the task successfully will be the thing that sticks with you for the long haul!