switch eyes

Teaching your horse to switch eyes will increase her confidence and help her calm down when objects approach her from behind.

Horses are unique creatures. They are larger and more powerful than many animals, yet have a desire to flee almost anything that surprises or startles them. Imagine if you weighed 1,200 pounds, were fleet of foot and could kick like lightning – what would you be afraid of?

Prey psychology and Sight

One reason horses fear so much is that they are prey animals, and prey animals instinctively know that predators want to eat them. Sudden movements and loud noises scare them.

The other reason is the way horses see. Like other prey animals, they see two very different images from each eye. What the horse sees from her right eye is not what she sees from her left. Unlike predators, who see nearly equally from both eyes, creating a single image, horses deal with two independent images at the same time. The eyes of a horse are designed so they can see attacks coming from the left and right at exactly the same time. It is a survival mechanism.

One Sided

Ironically, even with their ability to see independently from each side, horses seem to have a favorite or strong side. They have one eye they would prefer to see scary objects from. This preference for one eye over the other can create some issues for riders.

When a horse prefers to keep an object or predator in one eye, she often flips her head and body in a manner that places the object in that preferred line of sight. This is especially troubling when, for example, a dog or bicycle rider is approaching from the rear, and moves from one side of the trail to the other. As long as the dog or bike rider is far to the rear, the horse can see him from either eye; but as he gets closer, the horse has to decide which eye to keep on him. It’s the same with us. The farther something is behind us, the easier it is to see with a slight turn of our head. As the object gets closer to our backs, we have to turn our heads and bodies to view it well.

Why Train Both Eyes?

While riding, we may not realize the horse has picked up an approaching dog or bicyclist, say in her right eye. As the dog or bike rider nears the horse, he may move over to pass the horse on the left side – as he does, the horse will momentarily lose sight of him. If the horse knows how left and pick up the dog or the bicyclist in the left eye.

However, if the horse is more right eyed, she will often move her feet in an attempt to keep the dog or bicycle rider in sight. She may rush forward, turning her head more to the right in an attempt to stay ahead of the dog or bicycle rider. At the same time she is rushing forward, she may actually move her hind end to the left, trying to whirl around in an attempt to track the object with her right eye. Many people might think the horse is just facing up, or trying to protect her rear, but in fact she is simply trying to keep the object visible in the same eye. Training your horse to switch eyes will help her stay calm when objects such as dogs or people are approaching from behind.

Training Steps

One way to teach eye switching is to use a flag, and work it around your horse. However, this exercise is not about desensitizing your horse to a flag; it’s about vision. If your horse cannot tolerate a waving flag, then you need to work on that first.

It’s easiest to do the following technique if you think of your horse as a clock, with his head being 12 o’clock, and his rear being 6 o’clock. Based on the clock system, the left shoulder is 11 o’clock, and we will work in a counterclockwise motion around the horse. Some people ask why counterclockwise. The answer is simple; most horses are better on their left side, so you might as well start there.

1 Have someone hold the horse, if possible. Start approximately ten feet away at 11 o’clock, and begin gently waving the flag. If the horse stays quiet and stands still, begin walking in a counterclockwise direction towards ten o’clock, then nine, eight and stop.

2 Return to 11 o’clock and do it again. This time, walk until you are in the seven o’clock position, and stop.

3 Return to 11 o’clock, stand quietly, and let the horse have a mental break. Do this even if she is not reacting. Most people push through the exercise too fast; because the horse is standing quietly, they continue flagging and moving until the horse shifts her feet, and then they have to stop. But guess what? By doing it this way, the horse just learned that moving her feet makes the exercise stop!

4 Now start again at 11 o’clock and move all the way to the 6:30 position, staying at least ten to 12 feet away (out of kicking range). At this point, the horse might move her 32 equine wellness head slightly to the left to keep track of the object – allow it to happen, but try to keep her from moving her feet.

5 Once the horse can handle the flag going to the 6:30 position off the left hip, repeat the process on the right side, starting at one o’clock, and going through to the 5:30 position off the right hip. Notice that I did not ask you to go clear to the six o’clock position on either side – that’s directly into the horse’s blind spot behind the tail. You have to get the horse used to the flag moving down both sides before doing the eye switch.

6 With the horse prepared on both sides, you can now teach the eye switch. Start gently waving the flag at the 11 o’clock position and began walking towards ten o’clock, then nine, then eight, then seven.

7 At seven o’clock, stop moving the flag but keep walking around the rear of the horse past the six o’clock position and then to five o’clock.

8 At five o’clock, you can start waving the flag again and continue walking up to the one o’clock position off the horse’s right shoulder.

Note: As you get to the seven o’clock position, it is important to slow or stop the flag’s movement but keep walking until you get to the five o’clock position on the other side.

The handler needs to help keep the horse still, but not force her to do so. If she moves her feet, go back to working both sides with the flag. If she is quiet, but struggles to figure out where the flag went, the handler could gently move the horse’s head to the right as the flag reaches that side. Most horses will watch the flag go down the left side of their bodies, then move their heads to pick it up on the right side.

Once you have this technique down pat, you’ll be able to walk all the way around your horse waving the flag – even behind the tail – and she will stand still and turn her head instead of her body to switch eyes. This will help increase her confidence when dealing with objects from behind!

Scot Hansen is a natural horseman and retired mounted police officer, and has trained both riders and horses to work the streets. His award-winning Self Defense for Trail Riders clinics and training video have been widely accepted as the principal resource for safe trail riding and self protection. He has extensive knowledge of how horses think and learn and offers professional training and clinics in Thinking Horsemanship and other topics for both adult riders and youths. Find out more at HorseThink.com. To ask about hosting a clinic in your area, call 425-830-6260 or e-mail sandy@horsethink.com