Black and White and Equine Vision

I’ve been trail riding my Fjord horse gelding Torrin for eleven years now.  We have a lot of fun together and recently have expanded our repertoire to include cantering bareback.  For me this takes a lot of trust, and Torrin has earned it.  He does, however, still look askance at melting snowbanks, often taking a half step sideways when there’s a dark spot in the white mass.  Last week I finally gained insight into this behavior.

I first remember this behavior from our earliest trail rides when snow wasn’t part of our lives.  There was a boulder along the road, however, that always attracted Torrin’s attention.  It had two dark circles on a lighter background which I always thought of as eyes.  What I learned last week helped me understand why Torrin noticed them.

I’ve been reading Understanding the Ancient Secret’s of the Horse’s Mind by Dr. Robert M. Miller.  This paragraph in the chapter ‘Understanding the Unique Perception of the Horse’ was revelatory:  “More than any other sense, the vision of the horse is its primary danger sensor.  It is the horse’s vision with which we are least able to identify.  In some ways, the vision of the horse may seem inferior to ours.  For example, horses have poor color vision.  They see most things in shades of black and white and pastels.  For that reason, black and white are the most visible colors to a horse, whereas for us it might be orange, yellow, or red.  That’s why very black or very white objects are more frightening to a horse, especially if the object is unfamiliar.” (1)

If black and white are the most visible colors, I can understand now why Torrin looks warily at dark spots in snow banks and dark circles in light rocks.  The contrast is even greater to him that it is to me.  I still don’t know why Torrin is more tuned into these than other ponies that I’ve ridden, but it’s nice to have at least a little more insight into why he reacts at all.

Tonight on our ride on the county road, Torrin paused at the end of the driveway and looked into the distance.  He’s done this every time we ride, and now I understand why.  In the distance up the road is a mountain formation that my husband calls Bear Paws.  This time of year there is still snow, and it looks like a bear swiped its claws down the mountainside, leaving stripes of light and dark.  It is beautiful to me, but I rarely pause to look at it on my own.  I was more thankful than usual tonight for Torrin’s pause to look at the beauty of Bear Paws and its black and white stripes that are so noticeable by equine vision.

(1)    Miller, Robert M., DVM.  Understanding the Ancient Secrets of the Horse’s Mind.  Robert M. Miller Communications, Truckee, California, 1999, p. 18.

(c) Jenifer Morrissey, 2012

About workponies

Breeder of Fell Ponies, teamster of work ponies, and author of Feather Notes, Fell Pony News, and A Humbling Experience: My First Few Years with Fell Ponies. Distributor of Dynamite Specialty Products for the health of our planet and the beings I share it with.
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