Why Horses Aren’t Like Us

Understanding how a horse’s brain and vision differs from our own can help us be more successful horse people.

When you start to consider all the differences between horses and humans you can really understand how many problems come about. A human handler who does not understand how their horse’s brain and eye sight differs from theirs may blame a horse for all sorts of behaviours they deem as unreasonable, when in fact their horse is just being a horse!

Horses Can’t Rationalise
The horse’s brain is relatively small in comparison to its body and is quite different to that of a human brain. This is why humanising the behaviours of a horse is very unhelpful and can lead to much frustration and misunderstanding. The horse has a very small frontal lobe area, the part of the human brain that handles making plans, strategising and learning to generalise and rationalise. A human baby is able to quickly recognise shapes that represent animals, for example, despite being presented with them in many different colours and formats. Our developed frontal lobe means we can identify key features and apply them across the board. This is generalisation.

A horse can’t do this. That is why a green plastic bag rustling in a hedge may cause them to react when a white one with spots does not. Both bags behave the same but the horse can’t carry the lesson across from one to the next. That isn’t to say that, by building your horse’s confidence and teaching them an appropriate way to respond in scary situations, they can’t learn to ignore both.

Seeing Two Different Worlds
As a grazer and prey animal, horses need to have good peripheral vision to watch out for predators. Their eyes are positioned on the sides of their head and they have monocular vision left and right (meaning that each eye can see a wide range on each side).

You will find as you train your horse that they see the world from two perspectives and will need teaching from both sides. For example, don’t assume that having taught your horse a lunging exercise on the right side that they will automatically perform it to the left. You need to start again from the beginning. It is rare that a horse will translate something they have learned one side to the other without going through the steps again. A horse’s brain will not make the connection naturally.

Horses do have a limited field of binocular vision in front of them where they can see using both eyes with a depth of field helping them judge distance. They also have a black spot in their vision where they cannot see unless they move. From a safety point of view it is important that you familiarise yourself with this area and never position yourself there as a horse is likely to become very unnerved.

Being Successful
So, to be a successful rider and trainer you need to bare in mind these two fundamental differences between horses and humans. It is hard not to apply human behaviour to a horse as it is the only point of view we know! Practise getting yourself into your horse’s frame of mind where everything is more black and white, there is no particular agenda other than to be safe and get along.

I have spent years refining the Your Horsemanship programme to help people train their horses in a step-by-step manner that horses will understand, training one thing before the next to build the foundations for a calm, respectful and fun horse to ride and handle.

For more important thoughts on horses, the training process and how we can help of hinder our horses, login and visit the Pre Training Knowledge section or download the e-Book you will find there.

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