Smell, Hearing, Sight, Taste, Feel…..and the Sixth Sense. Horses have all of these senses! They use their senses in similar ways as us, when responding to the world around them, with an equine spin. The following contains excerpts from the Volunteer Manual for NARHA Centers, Rev. 10/00 (in italics). I recently re-discovered this interesting and informative article about horse senses.
The horse’s sense of smell is thought to be very acute and it allows him to recognize other horses and people. Smell also enables the horse to evaluate situations. Allow horses the opportunity to become familiar with new objects and their environment by smelling.
A horse-in-training will often sniff at the mounting ramp, wheelchair and lift when first introduced to it. Or a horse may want to sniff the barrel, beanie baby or bucket while the client is playing a game. When introducing yourself to a horse, use the “horsey handshake”: instead of offering an open palm, which invites nibbling, offer a closed fist, which allows the horse to smell you while keeping your fingers safe. Horses identify us by our smell.
The horse’s sense of hearing is also thought to be very acute. The horse may also combine their sense of hearing and sight to become more familiar with new or alerting sounds. “Hearing and not seeing” is often the cause of the fright/flight response. Horses are wary when they hear something but do not see it. If your horse is acting nervous, talk to him in a quiet and calm voice for reassurance. Avoid shouting or using a loud voice. This can be frightening to a horse. Watch your horse’s ears for increased communication. Stiffly pricked ears indicate interest.
Pay special attention to a horse on a trail ride who pricks his ears and turns his head quickly. He may be reacting to something they hear, but do not see yet — something you haven’t heard at all. Or watch how quickly a horse reacts if you crinkle a peppermint wrapper in your pocket — from 20 feet away!
The horse’s eyes are set on either side of the head; there is a good peripheral (lateral) vision, but poorer frontal vision. A horse focuses on objects by raising and lowering its head. The horse’s visual memory is very accurate. The horse may notice if something in the arena or out on a trail is different. Horses are thought to see quite well in the dark, due to the large size of their eyes. There is still controversy as to whether or not horses see in color. The horse has a better peripheral vision; consider a slightly looser rein, enabling him to move his head when taking a look at objects (another great reason to keep your hand about a foot down on the leadrope, with a nice loose feel).
Although the horse has good peripheral vision, consider two blind spots: directly in front and directly behind. The best way to approach a horse is to his shoulder. It may startle him if you approach from behind or directly in front.
The horse may be unable to see around the mouth area. This means a horse may resort to exploring what they cannot see (a hand, a small person, etc.) with their mouth. This can lead to unintentionally harmful nipping or biting incidences. OR they may startle and raise their head quickly if someone touches the mouth area by surprise. It is best to keep hands away from the horse’s chin and mouth area, unless bridling.
Touch is used as a communication between horses and between horses and people. Horses are sensitive to soft or rough touch with a person’s hands or legs. Each horse has sensitive areas; and it is important to be familiar with them (i.e. flank and belly areas). Watch rider leg position. Riders may need appropriate assistance to reduce a “clothes pin” effect with their legs. Horses will often touch or paw at unfamiliar objects. For example, a horse may paw at a bridge or ground pole before crossing over it.
A horse may get nervous or angry if a rider’s leg falls too far behind the girth. Or you may find some horses are more “ticklish” than others when being groomed — one should be mindful of the amount of pressure applied when grooming. A firm (but not hard), steady pressure is best.
Taste is closely linked with the sense of smell and helps the horse to distinguish palatable foods and other objects. Therefore, a horse may also lick or nibble while sniffing, becoming familiar with objects and people. Be careful, as this could lead to a possible biting.
We have a “taste game” we sometimes play with the horses — giving them food choices like bananas and mangos, along with apples and grain, in a feed bucket. Horses will sniff and nibble at new food choices to see whether they like it or not. Horses that are being given medications might be suspicious of the food mixed with medication — perhaps in a throwback to the living-in-the-wild days, when they needed to be careful about grasses or plants that “just didn’t smell or taste right.” (It is Windrush Farm policy never to hand feed our horses.)
Horses do have a “sixth sense” when evaluating the disposition of those around him. Horses can be hypersensitive in detecting the moods of their handlers and riders. A good therapy horse is chosen for their sensitive response to the rider. At times there may exist a personality conflict between handlers and horses. It is important to let the instructor/therapist know if you’re having a difficult time relating or getting along with a particular horse.
Being prey animals, horses need to pay close attention to details in their surroundings to keep themselves safe. Horses sense immediately if a client or volunteer is nervous or frightened. They might inherently become more nervous themselves, as they wonder what there is to be nervous about! And the opposite is true, if the client or volunteer is confident and relaxed, the horse will respond in kind.
When the veterinarian or “tooth fairy” comes, we have to halter them ahead to make sure we can catch them safely in the stall. They sense what might be happening. They know who may cause them distress, even if it is not every time.
Horses might be difficult to catch in the field when you have a halter and lead in hand, but are fine when you are out for a walk in the field and stand while you walk up to pat them, because you have no intent — they can read your body language.
We have often seen one member of the herd take an older, weaker member of the herd under their wing to protect them. The horses usually sense this need before we do. We may have seen some signs, but the horses are more aware and take immediate action.
An instructor told me this story: a rider was on the mounting block and was quite defiant, saying he was NOT going to ride today, even speaking angrily about the horse approaching the mounting block. In response, the horse stopped in her tracks and refused to move any closer to the mounting block, even with pressure from the horse handler. The instructor and client then had a conversation about how the horse was reading his emotions and didn’t want to come any closer. The client then verbally apologized to the horse, his demeanor changed. The horse immediately walked into the mounting area without any coaxing and was ready to have the client mount.
Finally, an account from our Executive Director: Horses have an uncanny ability to sense when a client is going to have a seizure. Is it a change in the tone of the muscles they detect? Once a hippotherapy client came for a session and was obviously not feeling well. The physical therapist mounted the client up and the pony started out into the ring and then suddenly stopped. No amount of encouragement would make him move. The therapist felt the client go limp. She and the sidewalker held the client steady in place on the pony. The leader remained in place at the pony’s head. Once the client came out of the seizure and was aware and sitting up. After evaluation by the therapist and the parent, the pony was asked to walk and continued on as if it was nothing. In another instance, an independent rider, who also had a recent history of “controlled” seizures and had never had one in class, suddenly started to have them. She did not recognize them coming, but the horse did. He would slow down and then stop and stand and look at the instructor. This gave the instructor time to get to the rider to steady her until the seizure was over.
Source: Volunteer Manual for NARHA Centers, Rev. 10/00