Lighthoof: Designing a Horse Friendly Farm, Part 5: Your Horse’s Eyes

Your horse can see nearly 360 degrees around him — so what’s the best kind of stall and farm design to make sure he feels comfortable and safe in his surroundings? Kelly Munro of Lighthoof has the details.


In this week’s installment of Designing a Horse Friendly Farm, we will talk about your horses’ eyes and how their unique and fascinating function helps keep them safe from predators. Of course, that isn’t a huge risk for domestic horses, but they’ve evolved over so many years to live by the rules of predator and prey, making it an important factor in their daily lives.

Even if your farm doesn’t have resident mountain lions or wolves, you will want your horse to feel safe in his home. Since you can’t simply tell him that he’s safe, your horse friendly farm design will need to optimize his ability to make himself feel safe.

In addition to his swift legs, hard hooves, and amazing stamina, the horse’s first line of defense is his ability to see a potential risk before it’s right on top of him. This brings some important layout and design considerations to our planning process, but first let’s consider how our horse’s eyes work to understand how he sees the world.

How Horses’ Eyes Work

Humans have what is called binocular vision, meaning we see everything out of both eyes at the same time and merge those images in our brain. Horses have both monocular and binocular vision. They have a small range in front of them, past their front blind spot which extends four feet from their nose, that is viewed from both eyes for binocular vision.

The size and structure of the eye allows for early detection of motion even in very low light conditions. This warns the horse if there is something approaching and they can react quickly even if they haven’t been able to focus on it or identify it.

They also appear to have bifocal lenses built in that work much like reading glasses to bring close up things into better focus if the horse views them through the lower half of his eyes. This is presumably useful for foot placement and seeing what they are about to eat.

The most important feature of horse eyes however, is the wide range of monocular vision that allows them to see what is approaching them from the sides. Horses have incredible peripheral vision and this is what is most important to them as a means of identifying threats. Although they have blinds spots directly behind them and directly in front of them, horses can see 360 degrees with only small movements of their heads to spot a predator sneaking up on them from the side or behind.

In addition to this wide range of monocular vision, in which the horse can independently view both directions simultaneously, the shape and orientation of your horse’s pupils optimize her ability to scan horizons. This “super power” gives the horse, and her herd, as much of a head start as possible if they need to outrun a predator on the hunt.

But what does a horse give up for these super powers? Well, it’s been discovered that they see a smaller range of colors than we do, due to one less set of cone types, known as dichromatic vision. Additionally, many things seem a bit blurry to horses compared to what we see, and they have to move their head to bring things into a better focal area within their lens, whereas our lenses are able to focus themselves. Lastly, the two blind spots fore and aft result in much of what we ask our horses to do, such as jump, or load, or work on the bit, being done literally out of blind trust. Sniff… I love horses!

This cool animation shows how a horse’s vision compares to our own!

Vous êtes-vous déjà demandé comment votre cheval perçoit son environnement ?La Cense vous donne un aperçu grâce à une collaboration entre scientifiques et infographistes.Découvrez en ligne, beaucoup d'autres informations sur la comportement du cheval :

Posted by Haras de la Cense on Thursday, November 10, 2016

So, what’s the take-away when it comes to factoring equine vision characteristics into our horse friendly farm design?

Designing for Wide-Range, Long-Distance Sight

If you have a blank slate to start from, consider laying out your horse’s main living area in such a way that his vision of his surroundings isn’t obstructed by buildings or heavily treed areas. Consider especially that your horse has a clear view of any areas which are higher than him.

Often it’s not practical to have ideal visibility in all areas of your horse’s pasture. Walk the field or property with a horse-eye-view in mind to find the place on your farm where you have the best view of “threats” at a distance. Design your turnout so that horses have free access to this place. They may come down to the barn or other areas for resources and socialization, but can retreat to this safe visibility area as needed to give themselves confidence.

Your ride will be more relaxed if there is clear space around the arena on all sides for your horse to know that the area around him is free from hiding places. Simultaneously, if you have the luxury of an indoor arena, a horse can be less distracted if they are not able to see motion in their surroundings. In many cases a nearby road has been known to reduce a horse’s focus in the ring because they are constantly detecting the motion of passing cars.

For your grooming area or cross ties, many are situated with walls on either side that block monocular vision and space in front of and behind the horse where motion can be heard or felt but not seen due to the blind spot. A more eye-appropriate grooming area will allow for side vision and reduce motion or noise directly behind the horse.

Stables and stalls are in direct conflict with the horse’s early warning system and their ability to run away. However, stables and stalls are often an important component of the busy equestrian.

The traditional high-end stall front with vertical bars or grill work can make many horses especially nervous because the close bars break up their eye’s ability to get an uninterrupted scan of the horizon. The stall walls on the side interfere with what would normally be a 360 degree field of vision. A horse without a window can see less than 180 degrees because of the sidewalls.

There are many stall design options that can help prevent stress in some horses by allowing them to use their field of vision more comfortably.

Horizontal Bars Instead of Vertical

Often considered “utility” and much cheaper than vertical grills, horizontal grill work is frequently found in portable stalls, or “ranch series” stalls like these from BarnMaster. They allow the horse to position their eye between bars to get an uninterrupted scan of their surroundings. Using a corral panel in place of a stall front, such as with a Noble shelter, can give the horse many vision options as well. It’s not as luxurious of a look as a vertical bar stall front, but how many times do you get to achieve a goal and save money?

Stall Front Window, Low-Front, or Euro Stalls

A large feed window, dropdown, v-front, low-front, Euro, or openable window like these from Lucas Equine will give your horse the ability to stick his head out of the stall. This will open up any block on his vision that walls and bars were causing. With his head out and the ability to move his head for different views and focal points, a lot of stress due to restricted vision can be eliminated. Sometimes heads in the aisle can cause issues with nipping passing horses, throwing halters on the ground, or snagging bites from the passing feed cart, so the option to close the window if needed is nice.

Side Grillwork Between Stalls

Having grill work between the stalls can be a great way to open up your horse’s field of vision to the whole length of the barn. This can also have the benefit of making horses feel like part of a herd, even when stalled, but can increase stress at feeding time if someone looks at someone else’s feed without permission.

Back of Stall Window, Dutch Door, or Run

Having a window, dutch door, or small paddock off the back of the stall is a great way to reduce vision-related stress in stabled horses and doesn’t have some of the drawbacks of the other options. Heads sticking out the back of a barn aren’t in the way in the aisle and horses can get an even wider range of vision than they do within the barn. A small paddock or run off of the back of the stall allows the horse to reposition herself for the best view of her surroundings and gives her a little more activity and motion than a box stall can afford.

Stalls Facing Out or Facing Arena

When building a horse friendly stable, you may want to consider avoiding a design with two rows of stalls on either side of an aisle in favor of one where stalls face an indoor arena, a courtyard, or face out toward the pastures. This will create more space in the horses’ field of vision and allow them to scan their surroundings at a more comfortable distance.

In our next installment we will take a look at ways to alleviate boredom and thus reduce stress in our horses’ lives via horse friendly farm design and fun tricks for less “natural” stable environments.

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