How Horses' Ear Direction Affects Jumping Success

How Horses' Ear Direction Affects Jumping Success

The team found that horses that orient their ears forward while over a jump are more likely to clear that obstacle than horses that orient their ears back or toward the rider.

Photo: Erica Larson, News Editor

Ears pricked forward, you know your horse is alert and attentive. Ears pinned back, and he's clearly not a happy camper. Humans have long learned to recognize signs of behavior, pain, and attitude in horses based on the direction of the animal's ears. But can the ears also predict a horse's responsiveness to a task such as jumping?

Katrina Merkies, PhD, associate professor at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, and colleagues hypothesized that "a horse with his ears directed forward has his attention focused on the obstacle and, thus, has a better chance of clearing the obstacle successfully." She presented the preliminary results of their study during a poster session at the 9th Annual International Society for Equitation Science, held July 18-20 at the University of Delaware, in Newark.

"Because ear orientation can be indicative of a horse's focus, it is often used as one of the primary body language cues that humans can easily monitor, assess, and respond appropriately to," she said. "This makes it a useful tool during training and riding, as the human can evaluate where the horse's attention is, if he is uncomfortable or irritated, and whether or not his success at a specific task changes depending on the orientation of the ear."

Little research, however, exists assessing ear direction and a horse's response to a rider or environment. So Merkies and colleagues evaluated videos of 17 horses and riders attempting a 22-obstacle Grand Prix course. The horses were primarily Warmblood breeds, and the jumps were a combination of verticals and oxers.

In the study, two independent observers scored each horse's ear direction as "forward" (which could indicate attentiveness, but also fear), "split" (one ear forward and one back, indicating attention was divided), and "back" (which could also indicate attentiveness to the rider, but also irritation or pain). They did this at three points for each fence: upon take-off, in the air, and upon landing. They observed that:

  • Horses' whose ears were either split or back when over or landing from a jump had significantly more jumping faults overall;
  • A forward ear position had no effect on jumping faults; and
  • Ear direction upon take-off did not appear to impact jumping faults.

"Thus, ear direction appears to be a predictor of success in clearing a jump," Merkies concluded. Basically, horses that orient their ears forward while over a jump are more likely to clear that obstacle than horses that orient their ears back or toward the rider.

For riders, Merkies said this means corrections are best given on the approach to the jump, and once the horse leaves the ground, less interference that distracts the horse might lend a better chance of success.

"It is impossible to determine if a horse oriented its ears back in response to a rider’s aid that interfered or if the rider’s aids assisted the horse," she said. "Nevertheless, if a coach and rider notice the ears back while over an obstacle, they may expect jumping faults."

Merkies added that this study was intended to stimulate thinking among riders and trainers rather than to produce scientific results.

About the Author

Alexandra Beckstett, The Horse Managing Editor

Alexandra Beckstett, Managing Editor of The Horse and a native of Houston, Texas, is a lifelong horse owner who has shown successfully on the national hunter/jumper circuit and dabbled in hunter breeding. After graduating from Duke University, she joined Blood-Horse Publications as Assistant Editor of its book division, Eclipse Press, before joining The Horse.

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