It’s a perfect day. No wind, not hot. The kind of day that you spend most of the months of the year waiting for. Soft, quiet horse weather. Just the sort of day made for a bonded, connected, and totally partnered-in-oneness sort of experience.
Just as you are thinking about how much you love your horse, suddenly his head pops up. He freezes. His neck is hollow and his back feels like wood. He isn’t blinking. You don’t notice that he isn’t breathing, because of course, by now, neither are you.
Let’s make it easy. Let’s say you’re not in the saddle. There’s an improvement, right? If you were mounted he’d feel the fear in your body. Well, no luck, he feels it on the ground, too.
You want to help. His head is so high that you can’t even get his attention. He’s ignoring you. Cluck, pull the lead, try to distract him from what’s distracting him. Nothing works. He’s frozen, still staring at that invisible thing. It’s hard to imagine anything good can happen now. Why aren’t horses logical? Why doesn’t he believe you when you tell him it’s okay? And what is he looking at?
The short answer is he probably does see something we don’t. Horses have keen vision; there’s lots of research done comparing their vision to ours and it’s required reading for riders. Most notably, because their eyes are on the sides of their heads, they have a nearly 360-degree range of vision with a small blind spot directly in front (and behind) them. Their front blind spot is in that area that we can see the best, since our eyes on the front of our faces. In other words, the exact place we think they are looking usually isn’t even the spot.
Most of us care less about the invisible thing they are staring at, than the fact they’re apparently ignoring us. We have been taught that horses must always pay attention to us because it’s respectful. In some way, we must be more interesting or threatening than their surroundings and hold their attention, eyeball to eyeball, regardless of the world coming apart around them. How unreasonable.
Think about it, horses are literally incapable of ignoring us. It’s common sense; their awareness of their surroundings is complete. If he’s looking at something else, we can certainly add to the noise and confusion they experience, but as prey animals, of course, they know we’re there, standing a rope’s length away. It might be more about our own issue, more than their lack of vision, that even raises the doubt.
There are better questions: Why would it be smart to distract a horse who’s on alert? How does it serve us to deny that he sees something? Doesn’t that put us in the realm of intellectual debate with a flight animal?
As much as we hope we can domesticate or train a horse past his instincts, we can’t change how they are designed. Trying to reason logically against instinct, about what he can see or not, is a moot point when his body is tense and he isn’t breathing.
Is he a bit dangerous? Sure, but the idea that we can control horses is a grandiose fantasy to begin with. We can’t even control our own breath, what are we thinking?
We are theoretically the superior species, which is why we think they should respect us, but what if it’s the other way around? What if it’s our best work to respect them? Respect the gifts and assets they have and try to balance our own skills with theirs.
Although most animals have keener senses than ours, we don’t always do a good job of fully using the senses we do have. Our thoughts distract us from the moment. Our minds run like rats on wheels instead of staying present. It’s our instinct to over-think.
In a cartoonish way, it’s as if horses and humans are both telling different sides of the same story, like kids defending their side of a fight. Placing blame or giving logical arguments rarely improves a tense situation, and here we are, over-explaining, and there’s still a tense, frightened horse standing next to us. Is he behaving like a deer in headlights, or are we?
Let’s start over. What would happen if we tried to look at the world more like a horse does? Not intellectually, but literally get ourselves into the habit of using our eyes differently? If we began to train ourselves to soften our predator stare to a peripheral awareness.
I’d like to say horses taught me this, but it was studying martial arts. We learned to watch for movement out of the corner of an eye; that we could gain more spacial awareness by being less focused. Counterintuitive as it sounds, it’s a way of staying present in the moment, listening. And that’s being more like a horse.
There are great by-products to trying to “see things his way.” It gives a different awareness of the space he has to move in, an awareness of our position in his view. Softening our gaze illuminates our insight.
Situational awareness is a place we can share with horses.
Humans can get complacent around horses and that’s when we get hurt. Being more aware of our surroundings consciously, in the way our fellow animals do, puts us in a place of safety, as well as better understanding. And perhaps we become less intrusive.
It’s popular these days to photograph ourselves in positions showing our trust in horses. Like putting our heads in the mouths of lions, we show our bravado by intruding into their space. Wouldn’t a more evolved species show more respect? Could we learn to use our eyes more effectively in support of horses; soft eyes when desired, direct vision when needed. Can we teach ourselves to use this visual sense with more intention and wisdom?
Back to the frightened horse next to you, here’s a chance to show leadership. Stand squarely on the earth and breathe. Again, a deep and pure breath. It’s a cue to relax, so soften your eyes to match. Mentor with your body, demonstrate a path to peace. You give him calming signals.
It’s a rider’s responsibility to study the science of horses, read and compare research. Stay current on facts and theory, but always know that science can’t answer the most important questions.
Do we encourage doubt and fear, or share a vision of trust? How do horses see us? Predators or possible partners?