See It Through His Eyes


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?

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro

29 comments

  1. Brilliant Anna! I have also studied Martial Arts, Have you read the Book, “Living the Martial Way”? Thank you for another insightful post. Please have a wonderful weekend.

  2. Another great post. My mare (Ima) and I showed in reining for about 5 years and she was a rock. All of a sudden now, she’s become tense about the left side of the indoor arena we’ve ridden in for the last 20 years. The reining trainer I work with and I have tried to determine what is causing the problem. He pointed out to me that it doesn’t matter we cannot see it – Ima DOES and for her it is real. So we calmly working her through her fear when it happens, which has been working so far. I’m learning some valuable stuff here – learning how to breathe through it and not tense up. I’m luck that Ima is a kind horse who keeps me in mind whether on the ground on in the saddle. This site is so relevant to horsemanship! I thank you – have tried many of the things you recommend and they have worked when I can carry them through.

    • I had several solid horses at an indoor. One spring, one by one, they all started spooking near the entrance, between barn and indoor. It was odd…… til we found the short in the wiring between the two buildings, effectively “lighting up” the ground in that place. Sometimes horses are mystical, sometimes not so much. Wishing you luck in finding the cause.

  3. It just amazes me that something so very simple, like breathing deeply and fully, can alleviate so many tensions in ourselves, and in our horses. A calming signal that we can all share, if we can engage our brains quickly enough to enable it to be used as a tool. One of my favorite quotes comes to mind here (again) is “perfect practice makes perfect”. Indeed. Thanks Anna.

  4. Re soft eyes / peripheral vision – Carlos Castañeda:

    “We effectively open the eyes in such a way that the rods and cones upon the surface of the eyes are saturated with information from the world. The result of this influx of information is saturation of the conscious mind, which can only process a limited amount of information simultaneously. The conscious mind checks out, as it were…

    Having arrived at this state… the cessation of internal dialogue is effectively cessation of the conscious process of maintaining our model of the world. We experience the world through new eyes.”

  5. Will you go over the calming signals again? He is standing next to me, head held high..I am standing squarely and breathing with soft eye and. .?

    ________________________________

  6. I feel affirmed. Thank you. The weirdo geek in me has been audibly exhaling and even making “horse noises with my lips” for so long my youngest often exhales that way, too. He heard it often enough, as in since he was a toddler. I did it to calm myself, especially around the horses I was putting my kids upon.
    I picked up a new mare on my way out of state and I turned that poor girl’s life upside down. Her entire life of seven years on the same place, on a pasture with her dam and siblings. I stopped every couple hours and I stood at her trailer window and I inhaled deliberately and exhaled as calmly as I could several times. I then tentatively breathed into her nose. Third stop she was waiting for me and she snuffled back to me. She finally drank the water I offered. Fourteen hours later, we arrived. I needed either sleep or coffee but I sat on an overturned bucket in the corral with the mare as she ate and I breathed long slow breaths.
    The next thing I knew she was breathing into my face and I woke up.
    See, that breathing thing works!

  7. Thank You, Thank You! I knew the things you spoke of when I was a girl . My parents bought an American Saddlebred.. he was named Reble and as often it occurs he lived up to his name. My father told me to stay away from him, “ He’s a head hunter when he kicks.” Reble was a beautiful 17 hand Palomino, he was frightened of people.. always pinned his ears and turn his back when stalled. Everyone at our farm saw a dangerous horse that needed to be re-homed. I saw a poor soul, an intelligent eye, and I knew he would be my friend. After my parents would leave for work in the morning, I would rush out to the pasture. I would wait.. patiently outside the fence for him to approach . I would talk quietly to him and avoid direct eye contact.Handfuls of grass, rich with clover would be his reward ..mine was just to be near him. Slowly , at least a month later.. he would come running as soon as he heard me approach. By nowI could go in the pasture with him. He began to trust my touch, my brushing his golden yellow coat and I could look softly in his eye.. as he did with me. I was happy enough just for this.. however as his trust grew my courage grew as well. I stood on the top of the fence .. he stood along the side of me and I would slowly climb on his back. Not even a halter on him. We had a mutual trust … we were friends and I loved him. One day, I was out with him and the herd.. I was feeding them cobs of corn that I thought would be a great treat. I forgot that I was a girl, I was bonded to one horse but the herd was bigger than me and I was naive to it’s workings. I felt a bit nervous as the horses began to fight over the corn. Reble kicked out with both feet at another horse. His hoof coneected with my leg and I felt fear. My father came to help me, he was going to get his gun as he told me I had no business around this dangerous horse and he was going to get rid of him. I begged my dad not to shoot him and he didn’t. The next time I went out to meet with Reble, he didn’t approach me.. he sensed my fear.. the spell was broken. My father soon found him another home. I missed my friend, I never was able to have that deep respect, love and mutual trust with a horse again. Now, fast forward to age 59. I’ve had horses and currently do, I ride, I’ve taught my daughter’s to ride… but I want to feel that bond again. I now rescue horses from horrific situations. I feed them, and by all standards give them a wonderful home.. but, in my heart I wonder if they long for something more with me as I do with them.

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