Well Behaved: Sensing His Environment

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Well Behaved

In this 12-part series, top trainer Julie Goodnight helps you de-code your horse’s natural language: his behavior. You’ll learn how and why your horse acts like he does and how to interact in his language—improving your horsemanship and overall relationship.

Sensing His Environment

Goodnight explains how horses take in information—and what happens when they feel insecure because their senses are limited. Find out how your horse’s senses relate to how he’ll act and the behavior you’ll see, especially on a windy day. 

By Julie Goodnight with Heidi Nyland Melocco


Knowing how a horse’s senses work—and how they’re different from human senses—will help you understand how the horse perceives his reality. A horse’s senses are keener than a human’s. They take in every bit of information possible from their environment with their eyes, ears, noses, tactile senses and even taste.

Horses rely on all their senses to make decisions in a flash. Their keen senses help them know whether they are safe or need to run. Horses have more peripheral vision ability than humans do—they are keyed in to sense small changes in their environments. Their senses of smell are keen—they can smell a change in the air and smell when dinner is coming. Their senses of taste help them know what is safe—and what makes them turn up their noses at unknown flavors or different drinking water. We know horses easily feel—and can even sense small flies on their backs. They can also feel changes in the air and can be on high alert when winds constantly push into them.

What your horse senses from the environment will tell him how he should behave. Should he be calm because all is still and as usual? Or on guard because the bushes suddenly moved? Worried because he senses a new smell or taste? Is he agitated because a blanket doesn’t fit right—or he’s just not used to the feeling of new tack? If there’s the slightest distraction, your horse may be tuned in to what he’s feeling and not focused on you.


The Wind Takes Away

On windy days, horses suddenly can’t rely on the senses they so-often trust and their behavior can change dramatically. While a horse usually could smell a herd of elk from far away, in the wind he can’t tell where the smell is coming from. When the air is calm, he can see little changes with his eyes, but when the wind moves everything at once, it’s hard to see what is a threat and what movement is inconsequential. Without that information, a horse will be more on guard.

I’ve lived in the mountains of Colorado for years—often in very windy locations. Until I put up an indoor arena, I lost many training days because of the wind. When the wind is blowing hard, you’re not going to accomplish anything positive in training. If it’s really windy, it’s often not worth starting a new training session.

Some horses are more sensitive than others. Hot-blooded horses are simply horses that are highly reactive to changes in the environment. Horses that have been bred for cutting are selected because they notice subtle changes—they can “read” the cattle.

Hot-blooded horses can often be so worried that they create more drama. On a windy day, elements outside of your control may prove to the horse that there was something to be fearful of.

On a stormy day, the horse is edgy and tense. He already feels like something will go wrong. If you’re riding along and the horse spooks at something, then you turn the horse around and land hard down into the saddle, the horse may feel that change of weight as added pain. In your shock of the horse spooking, you may also pull hard on the reins, pulling harder on the horse’s mouth than you usually would intend. The horse that was already worried that something would happen and now had his fears realized. That’s a hard training issue to overcome—when the horse becomes fearful of fear.


Ride On

When should you expect your horse to work well no matter the weather—and what he can sense? Think of how important it is that you have success on the horse.

If you’re training a new horse, riding in the wind may not be worth it. If you’re riding a mustang that is just learning to trust people, you don’t want to have a bad training session. If in your last training session you had a big breakthrough, it’s not worth training in a windy, sense-depriving environment that may cause your horse to behave differently than he could otherwise. Not much positive training occurs on a super windy day and there’s a far greater risk that something will go wrong—setting you back instead of adding to the kind of training you want to do.

If you have a well-trained horse that should focus on you, you may make a different choice. You may need to ride your horse for a specific job that must be done no matter the weather. I have ridden my horses in all kinds of inclement weather and if I have to do it, they have to do it, too. However, I don’t want to push a horse that is just learning or at a tenuous place in his training .

Ultimately, you are the one in your partnership that can weight the pros and cons and make an executive decision. I tend to err on the side of caution. When I have pushed training, that’s when mistakes and even injuries happen. If you don’t have to ride in a strong wind, don’t.


The Eyes Have It

While all of a horse’s senses contribute to how he takes in motion, the horse’s large, wide-set eyes are made to be his number one sensory receiver.

Horses far off vision is very good—the closer vision is not as clear. He’s programmed to scan the horizon. He’ll raise his head when he’s nervous so that he can see farther away. The horse has very little binocular vision (seeing with both eyes at once) and he can only see the ground in front of him when his head is down. To see in the distance, he must lift his head. That gives the horse comfort.

In training horses, we want to keep the horse’s head low so that they aren’t looking for something to be afraid of. Asking the horse to lower his head with intention can help a horse calm down since he doesn’t see something more to worry about.

A horse’s depth perception is not great. He may not be able to tell the difference between a puddle and a deep hole. He may react to anything he sees as a change in footing. The horse isn’t acting maliciously when he sidesteps as he sees a change in footing—he may simply be reactive.

If you’ve ever ridden in an older indoor arena with light beams coming in through the ceiling, you’ve seen horses react because of their vision. The beams of light change the look of the footing and horses can suddenly react—not knowing what is causing the change.

Horses also have vision trouble when it comes to changes in light. Their pupils dilate more then humans’. If you turn a bright light on in the middle of the night, the horse’s eyes don’t adjust quickly. The bright light may cause him pain and he may act differently when moving from dark to light. Similarly, a horse that is in the bright light can’t easily transition to a dark location—that’s what makes a trailer a scary place to step into. He can’t see well into dark locations and may fear what could be there that he can’t easily perceive.As we think about how a horse takes in information—and how different it is from how humans sense the world—it will make us better horsemen and understand why the horse acts the way he does.

As we think about how a horse takes in information—and how different it is from how humans sense the world—it will make us better horsemen and understand why the horse acts the way he does.