Jump to: navigation, search

Equine vision

The eye of a horse

The equine eye is the largest of any land mammal.[1][2] Its visual abilities are directly related to the animal's behavior and the fact that the horse is a flight animal. Both the strengths and weaknesses of the horse's visual abilities should be taken into consideration when training the animal, as an understanding of the horse's eye can help to discover why the animal behaves the way he does in various situations.


The anatomy of the equine eye

The equine eye includes the eyeball and the surrounding muscles and structures around the eyeball, termed the adnexa.

The eyeball

The eyeball of the horse is not perfectly spherical, but rather is flattened anterior to posterior. However, research has found that the horse does not have a ramped retina, as was once thought [3].

The wall of the eye is made up of three layers: the internal or nervous tunic, the vascular tunic, and the fibrous tunic.

  • The nervous tunic (or retina) is made up of cells which are extensions of the brain, coming off the optic nerve. These receptors are light-sensitive, and include cones, which are less light-sensitive, but allow the eye to see color and provide visual acuity, and rod cells, which are more light sensitive, providing night vision but only seeing light and dark differences. Since only 2/3 of the eye can receive light, the receptor cells do not need to cover the entire interior of the eye, and line only the area from pupil to the optic disk. The part of the retina covered by light-sensitive cells is therefore termed the pars-optica retinae, and the blind part of the eye is termed the pars-ceaca retinae. The optic disk of the eye, however, does not contain any of these light-sensitive cells, as it is where the optic nerve leaves to the brain. It is therefore a blind spot within the eye.[4]
  • The vascular tunic (or uvea) is made up of the choroid, the ciliary body, and the iris. The choroid has a great deal of pigment, and is almost entirely made of blood vessels. It forms the tapetum lucidum when it crosses over the fundus of the eye, causing the yellowish-green eye shine when light is directed into the animal's eyes at night. The tapetum lucidum reflects light back onto the retina, allowing for greater absorption in dark conditions. The iris lies between the cornes and the lens, and not only gives the eye its color, (see "eye color," below) but also allows for varying amounts of light to pass through its center hole, the pupil.[4]
    :An Appaloosa horse showing the visible white sclera that is a breed characteristic.
  • The fibrous tunic consists of the sclera and cornea and protects the eye. The sclera (white of the eye) is made up of elastin and collagen. The cornea (clear covering on the front of the eye) is made up of connective tissue and bathed in lacrimal fluid and aqueous humor. which provides it nutrition, as it does not have access to blood vessels.[4]
  • The lens of the eye lies posterior to the iris, and is held suspended by the ciliary suspensory ligament and the ciliary muscle, which allows for "accommodation" of the eye: it allows the lens to change shape to focus on different objects. The lens is made up of onion-like layers of tissue.[4]

Eye color

Homozygous cream dilutes ("double-dilutes") have pale blue eyes, while the blue eyes associated with white markings (bottom) are a clearer, deeper color.

Although usually dark brown, the iris may be a variety of colors, including blue, hazel, amber, and green. Blue eyes are not uncommon and are associated with white markings or patterns. The white spotting patterns most often linked to blue eyes are splashed white, frame overo, and sometimes sabino.[5] In the case of horses with white markings, one or both eyes may be blue, or part-blue.

Homozygous cream dilutes, sometimes called double-dilutes, always have light blue eyes to match their pale, cream-colored coats.[6] Heterozygous or single-dilute creams, such as palominos and buckskins, often have light brown eyes.[7] The eyes of horses with the Champagne gene are typically greenish shades: aqua at birth, darkening to hazel with maturity.[8]

As in humans, much of the genetics and etiology behind eye color are not yet fully understood.

The adnexa

The adnexa of the eye, including the third eyelid (seen in the left corner).

The eyelids are made up of three layers of tissue: a thin layer of skin, which is covered in hair, a layer of muscles which allow the lid to open and close, and the palpebral conjunctiva, which lies against the eyeball. The opening between the two lids forms the palpebral fissue. The upper eyelid is larger and can move more than the lower lid. Unlike humans, horses also have a third eyelid (nictitating membrane) to protect the cornea. It lies on the inside corner of the eye, and closes diagonally over it.

The lacrimal apparatus produces tears, providing nutrition and moisture to the eye as well as helping to remove any debris that may have entered. The apparatus includes the lacrimal gland and the accessory lacrimal gland, which produce the tears. Blinking spreads the fluid over the eye, before it drains via the nasolacrimal duct, which carries the lacrimal fluid into the nostril of the horse.[4]

The ocular muscles allow the eye to move within the skull.

Visual capacity of the horse

Visual field

The range of a horse's monocular vision, blind spots are in shaded areas
A horse can use binocular vision to focus on distant objects by raising its head.
A horse with the head held vertical will have binocular focus on objects near its feet.[9]

Like most animals of prey, the horse's eyes are set on the sides of its head, allowing it close to a 350 degree range of monocular vision.[10] Horses have the largest eyes of any land mammal,[11] and are lateral-eyed, meaning that their eyes are positioned on the sides of their heads.[12] This means that horses have a range of vision of more than 350°, with approximately 65° of this being binocular vision and the remaining 285° monocular vision.[11]

This provides a horse with the best chance to spot predators. The horse's wide range of monocular vision has two "blind spots," or areas where the animal can not see: in front of the face (making a cone that comes to a point at about 3–4 feet in front of the horse) and right behind his head, which extends over the back and behind the tail when standing with the head facing straight forward. Therefore, as a horse jumps an obstacle, it briefly disappears from sight right before the horse takes off.

There is a trade-off to a wide range of monocular vision: The placement of the horse's eyes decreases the possible range of binocular vision (vision using both eyes at the same time) to around 65 degrees on a horizontal plane, occurring in a triangular shape primarily in front of the horse's face. Therefore the horse has a smaller field of depth perception than a human.[13] The horse uses its binocular vision by looking straight at an object, raising its head when a horse looks at a distant predator or focuses on an obstacle to jump. To use binocular vision on a closer object near the ground, such as a snake or threat to its feet, the horse drops its nose and looks downward with neck somewhat arched.

A horse will raise or lower its head to increase its range of binocular vision. A horse's visual field is lowered when it is asked to go "on the bit" with the head held perpendicular to the ground. This makes the horse's binocular vision focus less on distant objects and more on the immediate ground in front of the horse, suitable for arena distances, but less adaptive to a cross-country setting. Riders who ride with their horses "deep," "behind the vertical," or in a rollkur frame decrease the range of the horse's distance vision even more, focusing only a few feet ahead of the front feet. Riders of Jumpers take the horse's use of distance vision into consideration, allowing their horse to raise the head a few strides before a jump, so that the animal is able to assess the jump and the proper take-off spot.[14]

Visual acuity and sensitivity to motion

The visual acuity of the horse, or how well he is able to see details, is around 20/33. This is slightly worse than the usual 20/20 in humans, but much better than the visual acuity of dogs (20/50), cats (20/75), and rats (20/300).[13] However, it is difficult to test an animal's visual acuity, and therefore the results may vary between studies.

The horse also has a "visual streak," or an area within the retina, linear in shape, with a high concentration of ganglion cells (up to 6100 cells/mm² in the visual streak compared to the 150 and 200 cells/mm² in the peripheral area) [15]. Horses have better acuity when the object they are looking at falls in this region. They therefore will tilt or raise their head, to help place the object within the area of the visual streak.

The horse is very sensitive to motion, as motion is usually the first alert that a predator is approaching. Such motion is usually first detected in their periphery, where they have poor visual acuity, and horses will usually act defensive and run if something suddenly moves into their peripheral field of vision.

Color vision

File:Braeburn GrannySmith dichromat sim.jpg
How a horse sees a red or a green apple (bottom) compared to how red or green apples are usually seen by most humans (top)

Horses are not color blind, but have two-color, or dichromatic vision. This means that they see two of the basic three wavelengths of visible light, compared to the three-color trichromic vision of most humans. In other words, horses naturally see the blue and green colors of the spectrum and the color variations based upon them, but cannot distinguish red. Research indicates that their color vision is somewhat like red-green color blindness in humans. This means that certain colors, especially red and related colors, appear more green.[16]

Dichromatic vision is the result of the animal having two types of cones in their eyes: a short-wavelength sensitive cone (S) that is optimal at 428 nm (pastel bluish-gray), and a middle-to-long wavelength sensitive cone (M/L) which sees optimally at 539 nm, more of a yellowish color.[17] This structure may be because horses are most active at dawn and dusk, a time when the rods of the eye are especially useful.

The horse's limited ability to see color is sometimes taken into consideration when designing obstacles for the horse to jump, since the animal will have a harder time distinguishing between the obstacle and the ground if the two are only a few shades off. Therefore, most people paint their jump rails a different color from the footing or the surrounding landscape so that the horse may better judge the obstacle on the approach. Studies have shown that horses are less likely to have a rail down when the jump is painted with two or more contrasting colors, rather than one single color [18] It is especially difficult for horses to distinguish between yellows and greens.

Sensitivity to light

Mare and foal with eyeshine from the tapetum lucidum

Horses have more rods than humans, a high proportion of rods to cones (about 20:1)[19], as well as a tapetum lucidum, giving them superior night vision. This also gives them better vision on slightly cloudy days, relative to bright, sunny days [20]. However, they are less able to adjust to sudden changes of light, such as when moving from a bright day into a dark barn. This should be taken into consideration during training, as certain tasks, such as loading into a trailer, may frighten a horse simply because he cannot see. It is also important in riding, as quickly moving from light to dark or vice-versa will temporarily blind the horse, and make it difficult for him to judge what is in front of him. When riding cross-country, extra care must be given to obstacles set in the shade, as there have been cases where the horse has only had a stride in a dark area before the fence, and has misjudged the take-off and height of the obstacle, resulting in a fall.

Near- and Far-sightedness

Many domestic horses (about 1/3) tend to have myopia (near-sightness), with few being far-sighted. Wild horses, however, are usually far-sighted [21].


Horses have relatively poor "accommodation" (the ability to turn the eye within the socket to focus on an object), as they have weak ciliary muscles [22]. However, this does not usually place them at a disadvantage, as accommodation is often used when focusing with high acuity on things up close, and horses rarely need to do so. Instead, the horse often tilts its head slightly to focus on things without the benefit of a high degree of accommodation.[3]

Disorders of the eye

File:Equine solar keratosis carcinoma in situ.jpg
A horse with solar keratosis carcinoma
Any eye injury requires immediate veterinary attention.

Any injury to the eye is potentially serious and requires immediate veterinary attention. Clinical signs of injury or diesase include swelling, redness, and abnormal discharge. Untreated, even relatively minor eye injuries may develop complications that could lead to blindness. Common injuries and diseases of the eye include:

  • Corneal abrasion
  • Corneal ulcer
  • Keratitis
  • Conjunctivitis
  • Uveitis: including recurrent uveitis and periodic ophthalmia ("moon blindness"). Spontaneous Equine Recurrent Uveitis (ERU) occurs in 10-15% of the equine population, with the Appaloosa breed having an eightfold higher risk than the general horse population.[23]


  1. Soemmerring DW. A comment on the horizontal sections of eyes in man and animals. Anderson SR, Munk O, eds. Schepelern HD, transl. Copenhagen: Bogtrykkeriet Forum; 1971.
  2. Knill LM, Eagleton RD, Harver E. Physical optics of the equine eye. Am J Vet Res 1977; 38(6):735–737.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Sivak JG, Allen DB. An evaluation of the ramp retina on the horse eye. Vision Res 1975; 15:1353–1356.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 Riegal, Ronald J. DMV, and Susan E. Hakola DMV. Illustrated Atlas of Clinical Equine Anatomy and Common Disorders of the Horse Vol. II. Equistar Publication, Limited. Marysville, OH. Copyright 2000.
  5. "Choosing an American Paint Horse" PetPlace.com web site accessed July 20, 2007 at http://www.petplace.com/horses/choosing-an-american-paint-horse/page1.aspx Note American Paint Horse is a breed wherein most representatives are of pinto coloring
  6. "Cream dilution (CrD." Australian Equine Genetics Research Centre, web page accessed July 20, 2007 at http://www.aegrc.uq.edu.au/index.html?page=30056
  7. Locke, MM; LS Ruth, LV Millon, MCT Penedo, JC Murray, AT Bowling (2001). "The cream dilution gene, responsible for the palomino and buckskin coat colors, maps to horse chromosome 21". Animal Genetics 32 (6): 340–343. doi:10.1046/j.1365-2052.2001.00806.x. PMID 11736803. "The eyes and skin of palominos and buckskins are often slightly lighter than their non-dilute equivalents.". 
  8. "Genetics of Champagne Coloring." The Horse online edition, accessed May 31, 2007 at http://www.thehorse.com/viewarticle.aspx?ID=9686
  9. Miller, Robert W. Western Horse Behavior and Training. Main Street Books, 1975. ISBN 0385081812 ISBN 978-0385081818
  10. Barnett, Keith C., et al., Equine Ophthalmology London: Elsevier Saunders, 2004. ISBN 0702027480
  11. 11.0 11.1 Sellnow, Happy Trails, p. 46
  12. Eye Position and Animal Agility Study Published. The Horse: Blood Horse Publications. March 7, 2010. http://www.thehorse.com/ViewArticle.aspx?ID=15938. 
  13. 13.0 13.1 Animal Eye Care. "About animal vision." Accessed March 11, 2010
  14. Horsewyse: How horses see. Date Accessed 7/11/07
  15. Harman AM, Moore S, Hoskins R, Keller P. Horse vision and the explanation of visual behaviour originally explained by the ‘ramp retina’. Equine Vet J 1999; 31(5):384–390.
  16. McDonnell, Sue. "In Living Color." The Horse, Online edition, June 1, 2007. Web site accessed July 27, 2007 at http://www.thehorse.com/viewarticle.aspx?ID=9670
  17. Carroll J, Murphy CJ, Neitz M, Ver Hoeve JN, Neitz J (2001). "Photopigment basis for dichromatic color vision in the horse." Journal of Vision,1(2):2, 80-87. Article online at http://www.thehorse.com/viewarticle.aspx?ID=9670, accessed July 27, 2007
  18. Stachurska A, Pieta M, Nesteruk E. "Which obstacles are most problematic for jumping horses?" Appl Anim Behav Sci 2002; 77(3):197–207.
  19. Wouters L, De Moor A. Ultrastructure of the pigment epithelium and the photoreceptors in the retina of the horse. Am J Vet Res 1979; 40:1066–1071.
  20. Saslow CA. Factors affecting stimulus visibility for horses. Appl Anim Behav Sci 1999; 61:273–284.
  21. Giffin, James M and Tom Gore. Horse Owner's Veterinary Handbook, Second Edition. Howell Book House. New york, NY. Copyright 1998.
  22. Prince JH, Diesem CD, Eglitis I, Ruskell GL. Anatomy and histology of the eye and orbit in domestic animals. Springfield, IL: CC Thomas; 1960.
  23. Current Research, from Blindappaloosas.org


Premier Equine Classifieds


Subscribe to our newsletter and keep abreast of the latest news, articles and information delivered directly to your inbox.

Did You Know?

Modern horse breeds developed in response to a need for "form to function", the necessity to develop certain physical characteristics in order to perform a certain type of work... More...

The Gypsy Cob was originally bred to be a wagon horse and pulled wagons or caravans known as Vardos; a type of covered wagon that people lived in... More...

Archaeological evidence indicates that the Arabian horse bloodline dates back 4,500 years. Throughout history, Arabian horses spread around the world by both war and trade.... More...

That the term "Sporthorse" is a term used to describe a type of horse rather than any particular breed... More...