The horse has five main senses, which are those of seeing, hearing, tasting, touching and smelling and it can also be justified that the horse has a ‘sixth sense’. Find out why knowing everything about your horse’s senses make perfect common sense when trying to understand and care for them as considerately as possible.
The horse has an exceptionally wide field of vision which is achieved by having eyes set high up on the side of his head, rather than to the front. He can see with both eyes when looking forward (binocular vision) or singularly with each eye when looking to the side (monocular vision). This means that the horse is able to see anything approaching from the rear, even while his head is still down during grazing. Should something take his interest while grazing, a horse will look around in order to scrutinise it further by concentrating both eyes upon it. There are certain mechanisms in the horse’s eye, which lead us to believe that he is a nocturnal animal.
Firstly, many of us will have seen a horse’s eyes glowing in the dark, and secondly a horse is able to find his way around without daylight due to a light-enhancing surface within the eye that reflects as much light as is available back onto the retina. However, the horse’s eyes adjust quite slowly to changes in light which accounts for many of them being hesitant when entering a horsebox, or when jumping from light into dark.
Unlike our own, the horse’s eye has the ability to focus on both near and far objects at the same time. The benefit of this to the horse is obviously of extreme importance; not only can he see what he is eating but he can also see exactly who, or what is approaching. However, the horse does have a blind spot directly in front and behind of him, extending to about four feet (120cm) away from his face. This is why you should not approach a horse from directly in front or behind. Additionally, his muzzle obscures anything directly below his eyes to floor level, the effects of which you might observe when a horse bangs his muzzle on a fence post or other object directly below his face.
The horse’s sense of hearing is very well developed. In order that he can hear sounds from any direction, each ear can move independently of the other, having the ability to rotate through 360 degrees. This enables the horse to hear what is going on all around him without having to raise his head or move his body in any way. The horse’s detection of tonal range is far greater than our own, extending from very low to extremely high frequencies. This ability to recognise a large tonal range can work to our advantage. A long and low sound soothes the horse, while a short, higher pitched tone can act as a reprimand. Young horses quickly learn to respond to their name if it is said in the same manner each time, which can be of great benefit when trying to catch a horse in a hurry or even in the dark.
Once a horse has detected a sound he will look up in its direction, pricking his ears towards it. We may not be able to see what it is he can hear as his hearing is far more acute than our own, but undoubtedly whatever it is he has detected will soon appear. Care needs to be taken not to expose the horse to a constantly noisy environment as his hearing is sensitive. What is simply ‘busy’ noise to us, may appear chaotic for the horse, and what is loud to us may be appear to him to be almost deafening. Sudden noises will upset a horse, and while a cheery radio may chivvy along those who are mucking out it is simply another nuisance for the domesticated horse to contend with.
A good sense of smell is one of the horse’s greatest assets: it helps a mare to detect and bond with her foal; it tells a stallion when a mare is ready for mating; it is a means of identifying others – humans as well as horses, and coupled with the sense of taste it also helps in the prevention of eating poisonous plants. In the wild it will help the horse to detect the approach of predators from quite a distance, and even watering holes can be smelt from far away.
Whenever a horse approaches something strange the first thing he will do is to flare his nostrils and sniff in order to get a good smell of it. Two unacquainted horses will also use the same techniques, blowing gently into each other’s nostrils. If one or other horse does not like what he smells a squeal, nip or a kick may swiftly follow.
The horse’s sense of smell is one that can work against us. How many times have you tried to give your horse a wormer, or other additive in his feed only to find that he instantly detects and rejects it? This can be overcome by either trying to disguise the additive with another more pleasantly smelling one, such as molasses or menthol, or by putting the same onto the horse’s muzzle to confuse him and perhaps therefore dupe him into eating it.
Horses have a very good sense of taste, in that they are able to detect what is palatable from the first bite, discarding anything less desirable from the mouth that has fooled the sense of smell. The four components recognised by the horse are the same as our own: sweet, sour, bitter and salt. The horse’s preference is usually for sweet or salty things, but others also have their appeal and what may seem quite bitter to us, can genuinely seem quite nice to the horse. Horses found to be fussy eaters may have a very delicate sense of taste and often a change of brand, or the addition of something pleasant may be enough to encourage a horse to eat up well. The time to be concerned is if a horse that normally eats well suddenly stops doing so. Many poisonous plants are bitter to the horse and unless he is extremely hungry he will reject them. However, such plants can loose their bitterness when bailed into hay, so always be on the look out for this.
Even though the horse has a hairy coat, his sense of touch is just as acute as our own. To be more precise perhaps we should talk in terms of ‘feel’, in that the horse can feel: touch, pressure, pain, hot and cold. He knows the instant a fly lands on him and will feel pain or pleasurable sensations just as intently as we do. In order to ‘touch’ objects, the horse uses his muzzle in an equivalent way to how we use our fingers. He will run his muzzle over them, and generally investigate by engaging his nostrils, lips and tongue. He feels, hot and cold as we do, and is just as sensitive to textures as we are. The purpose of a horse’s whiskers is often wondered at, and many people simply cut them off in order to improve his appearance without due regard to their function. A horse’s whiskers enable him to judge the proximity of close objects. We have already said how the horse is unable to see below his eyes, or directly in front of him, so his whiskers provide this service for him.
Always bear in mind the horse’s sensitivity to touch, remembering that a great big slap on the neck, is not a caress masked by the work pat, but a smack! Be gentle with the horse and judge how he feels pressure and sensation by your own sensitivity to such things.
‘Sixth sense’ is something beyond comprehension, and may therefore be sneered at by some people. Whatever the arguments for and against, it is undoubtedly true that horses can detect things which we cannot. Possibly this is linked to the horse’s other highly tuned senses acting in harmony, but nevertheless, not all can be explained. Why is it that horses seem to be able to detect approaching weather? Similarly, horses have been known to positively refuse to go near radioactive material. Many of us who have been around horses a long time will know that whatever the critics say, our own horses do seem to react to our own moods. It is often said that certain people simply have ‘a way with horses’ and this can be explained by the idea that they are receptive to each other’s thought patterns – they are on the same wavelength if you like.
While there is still much about horses that is not comprehended, we do know that they quickly learn to associate one experience with another. The man smelling of antiseptic almost always brings with him a big needle; putting on a headcollar in the morning means being turned out; being plaited means going to a show and a silent owner with no sugar lumps means that he or she has got the hump! Thus, not everything we assign to the horse’s sixth sense is past understanding, but there is still a lot to learn.