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Do you see what I see?

Posted by Hillydale Equine Training and Sales on April 3, 2013 at 5:55 AM

I've got a friend's horse in for some regular riding which he hasn't got time to give her at the moment and she can be a bit iof a handful.  When she is calm and relaxed she is like a labrador-easy going, a bit ploddy and happy to take things as they come  Luckily she is like this most of the time.  However, when she is not relaxed she can be explosive.  And unfortunately the swtich from labrador to petrol tanker can happen in a split second.  Its been interesting to gain an understanding of the kinds of things that ignite her anxiety, and they are mostly due to visual stimuli. 


The sight of the cows moving through the trees 400metres away is always worth a sudden stop and llama impersonation even if think nothing's there.   She always gives me advance warning that my OH and the dogs are coming down from the house for a visit long before I've noticed them.  The reeds blowing in the wind are definitely cause for strong alarm and the distant glimpses of the mares in the back paddock a good 600metres away always have to be checked out.  In each case she will stop and throw her head up, listen intently and stand rigidly ready for flight.  At those moments I am always acutely aware that I am not in complete control of the situation or what she might do next. 


Her reactions clearly demonstrate how differently horses perceive visual stimuli compared to us.  They are much better at picking up movement that's in the distance and the reason they then thrown their heads up is so they can get an accurate read on the source of the movement.  Horses have what is known as a visual streak, a narrow horizonal zone in the centre of their vision which they use for focussing on detail. Basically their reading glasses.  In order to see things in the distance they need to raise their heads to line the visual streak up with the thing they are trying to focus on.  Either side of the visual streak isn't very good for fine detail perception but its very good for perceiving light and shadow which is ideal for spotting movement.  Rather handy if there is a lion slinking through the grass or a pack of wolves on the move.


When we ride horses in a dressage outline or frame their visual streaks are focussed on what is close to the ground which substantially reduces their ability to focus on stimuli that are further afield.  This position also limits how much they can see directly in front of them.  This can be helpful to us if we want to reduce the impact of potentially fear inducing or distracting stimuli and many trainers advocate the head down position, vertical flexion or breaking at the poll as a sign of the horse having the appropriate focus on the rider rather than the environment.  However we need to be sensitive to the fact that the horse's vision is restricted when its nose is behind or level with the vertical and its ability to survey for potential threats is likewise restricted.  Forcefully preventing a horse from putting its head up to check for stimuli that are frightening can increase the sense of threat to which the horse may respond by trialling big escape responses or fighting the bit. 


I've found with my friend's mare that letting her have a good look and waiting until she lowers her head voluntarily, hopefully with a bit of a sigh and a lick and chew which are likely signalling a small relaxation after the release of adrenaline that accompanied the anxiety about whatever she's been looking at, is the most effective means of avoiding a big explosion and getting on with the next task.   I am usually happy to give her as long as she needs, however I do make sure that she remains still or on my line and at my speed while she is looking so she doesn't get an opportunity to trial running away.   Sometimes it can get annoying on days when she seems very distracted, especially when its windy, but I am reminded that she can see a lot more than I can and in her world the stimuli she's seeing has a significance for her that drives her reactions.  Training is about ensuring that even in these kinds of situations the horse is still able to perceive and respond correctly to my cues despite her emotional arousal or the distractions in the distance.  But even if I can't see it, she can and I need to be sensitive to her superior sight (and hearing) when I ride her.



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