The following was prepared by Debbie Stevens for the 2020 Brownsboro Alliance Virtual Adventures.
Just like us, horses have five senses. It’s good to know how a horse or pony sees, feels, tastes, smells and hears to understand their nature. Some people argue that horses have a “sixth sense.” While not scientifically proven, it does seem that horses have keen instincts (or intuitive abilities, if you will).
While not exactly a sense, memory is worth noting. Horses and ponies have very good long-term memories. This is why they can be trained easily. Horses are forgiving animals but they will never forget. However, while in a state of panic, anxiety or stress, horses will not remember much except the negative feelings they are experiencing. Training while in this state is pointless as they will not recall what you were trying to teach.
SENSE OF SIGHT
Horses rely heavily on their vision. Unlike people, horses can see almost panoramically around them. They have a blind spot directly behind them and in front. Horse will lift and move their heads for better view of something that has caught their attention. Each of their eyes can see individually. This is why it’s important to teach things twice – once on one side and once on the other so that both eyes have interpreted it. While grazing one eye is on the grass and the other watching out for danger. Although it seems horses can differentiate between colors (especially blue and red), it is generally thought they have poor color vision. They can see the slightest movements and have good night vision. Horses will often go in the direction they are looking which is important to remember while riding or training. As mentioned earlier, observing the appearance of the eyes is a good way to find out what’s going through their mind.
SENSE OF SMELL AND USING IT TO SHAKE HANDS
Horses greet each other by smelling. You could say they “shake hands” by sniffing noses. You can greet them with a horse hand shake by placing your nostrils close to theirs and blowing out of your nostrils into theirs (be patient and move slowly to the postion so as not to alarm them before properly meeting them). Horses and ponies will smell food, people, curious objects or things they are fearful of. They use smell as a recognition tool. If a particular grain does not smell appealing, a horse will not eat it.
SENSE OF HEARING
Much can be learned by observing a horse’s ears. Hearing is fairly keen in horses and ponies. Their ears are mobile and can be rotated around and often fixate on things of interest. They can listen to two things at once and focus each ear. It’s fairly east to determine how attentive a horse may be by watching the ears.
SENSE OF TOUCH
Horses are very sensitive creatures. They are capable of feeling a single fly. The muzzle and whiskers are particularly sensitive. Horses are capable of feeling pressure, pain, temperature, and pleasure. Always remember how keen their sense of touch is when working with them. Many horses are nervous about having their faces or bellies touched. Most horses love to be scratched and stroked. Touch plays a huge role in equine social life and they will “groom” each other in the pasture. I was once taught to act as if my heart is in my hand when I stroke a horse and it was some of the best advice I was ever given.
SENSE OF TASTE
While not as important as other senses (some horses may not agree), an equine sense of taste is well developed. They love grain and treats and will eat more than necessary if given the chance.