It’s a good thing horses can’t get driver’s licenses, because they are legally blind. Their eyesight is geared to search for danger on the horizon as opposed to dealing with what is right under their noses. Never expect an equine to see the world like you would. Their physiology will not let them. You need to be their eyes for the things they can’t see well and let them be your eyes for the things you can’t see well.
Prey Species Mentality
When working with horses or ponies, you always need to be aware that they are a prey species. The equine physiology is geared to detecting predators as early as possible. When they see a movement they can’t identify, they want to escape. Their eyesight is farsighted. They can see objects that are far away a lot better than up close.
In order to better detect predators, their eyes are on the sides of their head. This gives an incredible view of both ides of their bodies. However, it leaves a big blind spot right in front of their noses. This is why a horse must sniff and touch a new object, using his whole head in order to get a blurry close up view of this new feature in their landscape. They can’t automatically focus their eyes like we can they can only focus by moving the head.
You’ll also notice that they have to turn their heads to look at the new object from one side and then another. Whether you are riding or dismounted, you need to train your steed to work at ach task on both sides. For example, you need to teach how to keep a steady canter going to the right and then also teach going to the left. Why do have to teach them the same thing twice? Partially because they have monocular vision.
One Eye At A Time
Oddly enough, this writer happens to have monocular vision, even though I do have vision in both eyes. I can only consciously look out one eye at a time. I cannot look out through both at once. I certainly can’t use both of my eyes to focus. If walk up on me on my left side at a time when I’m looking out through my right side, I’ll jump a mile in fright. To me, it seems like you materialized out of nowhere, even if you didn’t mean to sneak up on me.
This is what a horse or a pony sees, too. They are focused on sweeping the horizon, one eye at a time. If you silently approach them so that they don’t realize you are there until you are right next to them, they will jump in fright.
Horses do have a limited field of binocular vision in front of their heads, but mostly rely on monocular vision in order to detect predators.
It is thought that equine monocular vision has an edge to human monocular vision. The current theories are that horses can focus with both of their eyes, sort of like looking at two movies at once. Have you ever seen the movie “Woodstock” (1970), where there are split screens? This is thought to be how horses see. This eyesight is very disorientating for a binocular human, but to a pony, this is the normal way to see.
Can They See Color?
In looking at the physiology of an equine eye, we see that they have the rods and cones that indicate that they can see a limited amount of color. It is thought that they see color in the same way a human with red-green color blindness does. They are better at seeing white, yellow and blues. If you wear all red and walk up to your horse in a thick leafy wood, he won’t be able to see you properly and might be startled.
Ponies, donkeys and their kin have amazing eyesight that has evolved to keep them safe. It hasn’t adapted to life in a safe barn yet. But if you keep their poor eyesight in mind, you can not only be a lot safer around your ponies, but you can also understand what they go through by seeing the world through their eyes.
“How to Think Like a Horse.” Cherry Hill. Story Publishing; 2006.
“The Equine Eye.” Les Sellnow. “The Horse.” October, 2001. https://www.thehorse.com/ViewArticle.aspx?ID=815
“Such is the Real Nature of Horses.” Robert Vavra. Various Publishers, 1979.
Penn State Extension. “Horse Vision.” http://www.extension.org/pages/Horse_Vision