It's easy to think that horses and other animals see things exactly like we do. But that's not true. Horses don't see the world like we do. There's no way to know exactly how horses see because we can't see the world with a horse's eyes and brain. But by studying the various components of the horse's eye, scientists can gain an understanding of what the horse's eye is capable of. The structure and position of their eyes are somewhat different than ours and this makes a difference in the distance, color, vividness and visual field a horse experiences.
Many people think that animals, including horses, are color blind, only seeing in shades of gray. This is not true. Horses do see color, but they may not see it as vividly as we do. This is because they can only see two of the three visible wavelengths in the light spectrum. This is somewhat similar to the way people who are colorblind see. So your horse doesn't see the color red, but they can see blues and greens. So the lovely red apple or the bright orange carrot you offer as a treat may actually appear brownish or greenish to your horse.
If you've ever called your horses in from a pasture in the dark, you'll no doubt have cringed as they barrelled towards you at a wild gallop, but arrived without taking a miss-step over rough ground. They may not see color as well as we do, but because they have more of the structures that pick up light, they see much better at night, or in darker conditions than we do.
If you've taken a picture of a horse with a camera flash, you may have a picture in which the horse has ghostly white eyes. This is caused by the tapetum lucidum, a membrane at the back of the eye that reflects light. This also aids their night vision. Conditions that would leave us groping for the light switch or flashlight are less worrisome for a horse.
And if you've ever walked into the barn at night and flipped the light on suddenly, you'll probably have noticed that the horses blink for quite a long time afterward. This is because it takes longer for them to adjust to rapidly changing light levels. This may also explain why some horses are hesitant to enter dark trailers where they have to go from the bright sunlight to a shadowy trailer. The sudden changes in light levels may mean their eyes do not have time to adjust.
As prey animals, their vision played an essential role in being able to see predators and take flight before they ended up as dinner. Eyes set on the side of their heads, rather than on the front like ours enable the horse to have almost 360-degree vision. They are unable to see a short distance directly in front of them and directly behind them. That's why one of the safety rules for working around horses is to speak to them when moving behind them. That a horse has difficulty seeing things directly in front of them means that when they are negotiating jumps, a narrow bridge or other obstacles they may be doing it 'blind' for a very brief moment.
Because the retina of the eye is very large, horses have very good peripheral vision. A subtle turn of the head allows the horse to focus in on an object.
Horses may see into the distance better than we do. It's also felt that they can see motion with greater sensitivity than we can. This is very important for spotting predators before they become a real threat. Horses also seem to be able to see more details than many other animals.
Horses may have brown or blue eyes, with brown eyes being far more common. Appaloosas, Paints, pintos and other horses with lots of white on their faces will sometimes have blue eyes. There's no difference in the vision of these horses, although some people may feel they 'look spookier'.
Natural Eye Protection
The protective layer in the corner of a horse’s eye, called the nictitating membrane helps prevent irritation from dust and objects like grass seeds and stems. You'll often see a bit of tearing and grime in this area that can be wiped away with a soft damp sponge or cloth as part of your grooming routine.
It's a mistake to think that horses see the same way we do. It's important to understand how they perceive the world, and why they react the way they do to shadows, changes in light and understand the extent of their close-up and distance vision. When we're doing things like designing jumps, pastures or stables, loading horses on trailers or riding out on trail it helps to understand what those things look like from the horse's point of view.
- Waring, G. H. (1983). Perception and Orientation. Horse behavior: the behavioral traits and adaptations of domestic and wild horses, including ponies (pp. 12-16). Park Ridge, N.J.: Noyes Publications.
- Timney, B., & Wright, B. (2007, February 7). The Visual World of the Horse. Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs. Retrieved June 25, 2012, PDF