The Senses: Hearing Copy
Horses rely on a keen sense of hearing to alert them to danger and changes in their environment. Not only is the horse capable of hearing a wider range of both lower and higher frequencies than humans, but the shape and mobility of the ear itself acts as both a filter and amplifier to intensify their sense of hearing.
It is said that the eyes follow the ears and the mind follows the eye, so if you observe the movements of the ears you can anticipate where the horse will want to look and where his attention is headed. In addition to audible sounds, horses have the ability to “hear” the vibrations associated with changes in weather (impending storms, earthquakes and wind patterns). As anyone who has seen a horse pastured behind electrical fencing can attest, horses also seem to be able to “hear” or “smell” electrical current.
Unknown noises can be extremely worrisome to a horse, as can sounds that cannot be visibly connected to their source. Similarly, a soothing voice using low tones can be reassuring and calming. It can be useful to talk to the horse or even use audible breathing to keep a horse connected. On the other hand, constant unintentional talk can be irritating or at least distracting to a horse, which will begin to “tune-out”. Horses do not rely on audible communication to the degree that humans and many animals do.
Vocalizations do not constitute a large part of horse communication. Most expressions are accomplished through body language or gesturing. However, there are a few clear vocal messages that horses use to express their emotional state and to indicate distress, danger or excitement. Whinnying or neighing is often associated with separation or concern. Squealing is a defensive signal more common among breeding animals during arousal or from mares unreceptive to advances. Unfamiliar horses may squeal when they are introduced, a polite request to “back-off”. Snorting or blowing is used to express concern, fear or excitement. The nicker is an inviting low-pitched sound that is used as a greeting between companions, mares and foals and in early stages of courtship.
Most horse people cherish the sound of their own horse nickering upon seeing them. If we are vigilant about our observation, we will see that the horse is often providing us expressions of their affection. It is the wise horse person who recognizes the primary importance of body language, using verbal communication to support that body language without overwhelming the horse with needless conversation or chatter.
Bear in mind that the senses of hearing and vision may diminish in the horse with age, just as with humans. When working around geriatric horses, be sensitive to this fact and be sure that you stay within the horse’s field of vision whenever possible to avoid startling them and be aware of your environment.