No Vertical Vision?

I follow Pat Parelli's training methodology. While doing the exercise of desensitizing my horse to a ball, I quickly realized that her focus never followed the ball over her head. If I rolled it at her feet, or played with the ball anywhere below her eye-level, she followed it. But, when I tossed it above her head, she never followed it up, and she was always (not surprisingly, I suppose) startled when came back down within her view. Why is it that dogs and cats follow objects that go up, but horses (or maybe it's just my horse) do not?       via e-mail

First, your horse is like every other horse I have seen in this situation. Second, these observations are consistent with those of others. Horses generally don't "look up." This question comes up often in regards to aircraft and horses, and why in some situations aircraft don't seem to bother horses and why in other situations they seem to be problematic, in that the horse is startled when they come into view.

A more common management situation in which this characteristic becomes apparent is when you are throwing hay down from above to a horse or group of horses waiting for it, say from a hay loft above a feeding area, or from a high vehicle, or throwing hay up over a high fence.

Managers often find horses "stupid" when they fail to get out of the way, or even dash into the path of the falling hay. It often startles the horses when, as you noticed with the ball, the hay comes into view.

We have a loft where we can drop hay down directly to a loafing area. With several different occupants of that pasture over the years I have tried, informally, to train the horse to look up in this situation by calling to them before dropping the hay.

 They learn by simple conditioning to anticipate that the hay will fall, but they can't stay out of the way. Often in anticipation they scurry into the path rather than away from the hay. They don't focus on it so they can see where it will fall.

The usual explanation from behavioral biology about species differences in such behavior goes back to the environment in which the species evolved and their important needs to forage and avoid predation.

The most accepted reason why horses don't look up is that equids have evolved as open-plain grazers, where the predators are on the ground and not from above as they might be in a forest environment.

The ability most important to open-plain species that are prey to carnivores is to be able to focus well on distant movement and have a wide peripheral field of vision. Through evolution, these abilities are favored and the ability to look up is lost.

Editor's Note: Dennis Brooks, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACVO (ophthalmology), a professor of ophthalmology, University of Florida, gives us this fact: The horizontal pupil of the horse eye allows for a panoramic view of the horse's surroundings. They see best in a horizontal rather than a vertical plane.

About the Author

Sue McDonnell, PhD, Certified AAB

Sue M. McDonnell, PhD, is a certified applied animal behaviorist and the founding head of the equine behavior program at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine. She is also the author of numerous books and articles about horse behavior and management.

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