How Horses Hear

horse ears dallasequetriancenterHorses have binaural hearing meaning they hear out of both ears at the same time, the same as people and most other animals.  However, unlike humans who have small, flat ears, a horse’s ears are large and shaped like a cup.  These ears act like a satellite dish to capture sound waves and funnel them to his inner ear.  Because of this, very little sound is missed and the horse might hear noises that you can’t.  This is one reason why you may think that everything is perfectly fine, but suddenly you horse spooks for no apparent reason.  He may have heard something that sounded like a predator to him.

A horse also has the ability to hear a wider range of high-frequency tones, like a dog being able to hear a dog whistle.  As a prey animal, hearing acuity is a necessary form of “early warning system” from predators.  Since predators rarely vocalize when stalking prey, the horse has learned to carefully listen for any sounds that a predator could be approaching – the snap of a twig, the rustle of grass. These noises contain the high-frequency sounds that you horse can then use to locate the direction from which the predator may be coming.  Horses aren’t worried about pinpointing the exact location of the predator – they’re not planning a counter-attack.  Instead, horses just want to know generally where they are located so they can decide which path will take them the furthest away from fangs and claws the fastest.  First the horse will use his ears to pinpoint those early warnings.  Then he’ll follow-up with eye movement and finally will raise and turn his head so he can better focus. During this time, the horse will stay as motionless as possible – often stopping their grazing so they can hear better.

Once the horse has determined that danger is in the area, it’s time to react.  Horses have a strong emotional response (fear) to whatever sensory input they receive.  This fear triggers a horse’s flight mechanism for safety.  Horses aren’t brave – they won’t remember that you are sitting on their back or standing in front of them.  Their only concern is survival – run first, think later.

Male horses may react more strongly to sound simply because they’re traditionally the herd watchdogs. They don’t necessarily hear any better than females do, but they feel a need to alert “their” herd to perceived danger. That’s why some horses suffer more anxiety than others at shows or in any new environment. A strange place can put your horse on high alert for danger, causing him to be emotionally aroused and to make his reaction to noise even stronger than it would be in a familiar setting. If he’s fairly “bombproof”, his anxiety may not result in undesirable behavior. If not, you may have a hard time keeping him focused in the ring and extra care should be taken when riding or working around him.horse poms scheiderssaddlery

You can help reduce your horse’s ability to take in these reactive noises by blocking his ears with earplugs or thick wads of cotton.  If that’s not possible, keep alert to your horse’s ears to avoid a possible spook.  His ears will signal where is attention is directed – to the side at a dog, behind him at a flapping bag, etc. If you can direct his attention elsewhere, you can usually avoid the spook.

Like humans and other animals, your horse can lose his ability to detect sound as he ages. Age-related hearing loss in horses can begin at age five for horses, starting with the higher frequencies and working down the scale. High-frequency hearing loss isn’t generally obvious in horses until they reach about fifteen. But because your horse has a wider range of high-frequency hearing than a human, he can lose more of it before you notice a lack of response to sounds you hear.

checking ear MobileVeterinaryPracticePractice good ear health by checking his ears weekly for signs of insect infestation or infection.  Redness, scratching, hair loss on the ear could indicate rubbing. If you suspect a hearing problem in your horse consult your veterinarian.  If your horse has hearing loss, you’ll need to make some management changes for safety. These tips are actually good whether you suspect hearing loss or not, especially when working around a strange horse. Always speak to the horse as you approach, so you don’t startle him. And be sure he heard your approach warning by watching the direction of his ears: one or both should flick toward you.

Understanding how your horse’s hearing and reaction to sounds differs from humans can help you anticipate and reduce his anxiety and avoid a dangerous reaction.

photo credits:  Dallas Equestrian Center, Schneider’s Saddlery, Mobile Veterinary Practice
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In Case Of Emergency…..

This month has been just one disaster after another for most of the country, especially for horse owners.  From hurricanes in the south to fires in the west, nearly everyone has been effected by some concern for the safety of their horses in case an evacuation is required.  It may be too late to prepare for the current emergencies, but you can prepare for the future.

The most important thing to do? Have a plan.  Don’t THINK about having a plan – HAVE A PLAN!  Flooding and fire are the two most common causes for evacuation of horses from your barn.  Who will do what, where will horses go, what about hay and feed, how will you i.d. your horses later?

  • How will you monitor the situation – TV, radio, social media?  Who is most likely to have the most up to date information?  Social media is great, but they may not have all the information such as road closures, evacuation centers, etc.                                
  • Who is responsible for relaying the information to horse owners or others associated with your barn?  How will you communicate this?
  • Will owners be required to come in and take care of their own horses or will the barn manager take responsibility as the lead on decisions.
  • What are the options for evacuation? A barn fire may just necessitate moving horses to a faraway pasture. Larger disasters may mean moving several miles away.  Is everyone going together? Who decides who goes where?
  • Who has trailers, how many horses can each haul, how is most likely to be able to get to the barn quickly, can others haul someone’s trailer if the owner is not available?
  • Will you take feed and supplies for all horses or are owners responsible for getting their own feed.  What about medications?
  • Will someone be responsible for taking tack, water/feed buckets, etc?
  • Do you have an emergency supply of halters and lead ropes stored somewhere for easy access.  Even if you normally keep your horse’s halter close by, in all the chaos of evacuation you may find your halter/lead missing.
  • If your horse isn’t comfortable being trailered, practice, practice and practice so that he loads easily.  A fire or flood is no time to learn your horse isn’t a good loader.
  • Finally, look at the tough decisions.  What will you do if you can’t take your horses?  It’s better to put on a break-away halter with your i.d. and turn them loose.  They will do their best to survive.  Don’t tie them up or leave them in a stall and hope someone will come and rescue them.

contact info in horse's mane pro equine groomThere are several ways you can keep your horse i.d. to be returned to you.  I use an engravable dog tag from the pet store – many are now engravable on both sides.  I put all my contact information and attach it to my horse’s halter. Or write your phone number in indelible ink or paint on your  horse’s hooves.  Or, write your contact information and seal in a waterproof bag.  Braid or tie it into your horse’s mane.

We hope you never have to face a disaster that puts you and your animals at risk.  But just in case, make sure you have a plan in place – and everyone knows what it is.

photo credit: VoiceOfTheHorse, EquineGroom, The Oregonian