Tests done by Evelyn B Hanggi, MS, PhD at Equine Research Foundation in Aptos, CA, and reported
at the Dec 2005 AAEP convention confirmed that horses possess true stereopsis, that their visual acuity as
about 20/30 (dogs 20/50, cats 20/75-100) and that horses are color-deficient, possessing trichromatic vision—they
show the same pattern as humans with red/green color deficiency.
However, they can discriminate a 1x2x5/8
inch green object against the same green background. Additionally, it is confirmed that a horse seeing an object
with one eye transfers the information to the other eye. However, horses may not generalize objects which have been
rotated, or presented in a novel place; thus a horse that shies going in on a trail and then accommodates to an object
may shy from the same object coming out as it is in a new context (direction).
Mental Aspects of Horse Training
Horses have advanced learning abilities including categorization and concept.
Horses trained to discriminate between black figures with open centers and solid black figures with operant conditioning
then subsequently discriminated between other novel open or closed objects.
Horses trained to choose a larger sized object (big bucket, little bucket) would then choose a picture of a larger bucket,
and also would choose the larger of two balls, PVC connectors, or green plastic flower pots. All horses responded to the
concept of relative size.
Incorporating variety into the horse’s program, both from the ground and in the saddle enhances horse’s generalization. Horses trained
in only one discipline are frequently not allowed to participate in activities other than what interests their riders.
They go through mechanical motions that rarely enhance any cognitive skills.
For example, high level dressage horses that are rigidly trained do poorly in simple learning tests. They are prevented
from learning to learn or generalizing.
Classical and Operant Conditioning and Reinforcement
Horses that are rewarded by quick feeding after inadvertently banging on a wall, kicking, or pushing on a gate quickly
learn to repeat the act for feed. Conversely, horses learn that the sight of a syringe is associated with restraint,
pressure, discomfort, or pain and that reacting badly tends to delay the negative. Ditto for intranasal vaccination or tubing.
What can the Horse Owner Do to Reduce Stress in the face of a Veterinary Visit
Horses learn with positive reinforcement. Approach a horse with a small bucket of concentrate and only allow a mouthful reward
immediately after finger contact on the neck. Do not reward noncompliance. Repeat 30 times and until compliant.
Ignore escape attempts. Graduate to a gentle push on the neck with a ballpoint pen. Repeat 30 times or until no adverse
response or until positive response (neck held towards person doing pen push. Graduate to a toothpick. Repeat 30 times.
Graduate to a closed 3 cc syringe needle cap.
Reward quiet behavior while opening syringe case.
Have your veterinarian use a TB syringe and needle and reward with concentrate.
Have concentrate bucket available for all veterinary visits.
Repeat positive reinforcement with a finger with molasses on it, then honey, in the corner of the horse’s mouth. Then put
honey on the tip of an empty deworming syringe. When the horse is totally compliant, give honey, molasses, or sweetened applesauce
with the syringe. Reward with cookie or concentrate from bucket. Repeat until compliant for oral medications and deworming
Repeat the same process with a gentle finger in the nostril, then with a moistened Q-tip until compliant for intranasal
vaccinations or just keeping the nostrils clean.
In addition, an owner can work with a horse for farriery by familiarizing the horse to the gentle touch of a rope around the pastern, and eventually to picking up the foot with the rope, rewarding first an instant of give, then longer periods of acceptance, always rewarding compliance. Eventually, the horse should accept placing the foot on a block or a shoeing stand, and tapping the bottom of the foot.
All efforts to ease the horse’s natural alarm in the face of strange folks, smells, and handling will greatly ease future treatment.