There are several reasons why we choose to use horses for therapy and learning. One reason is their exquisite sensitivity as prey animals. Each morning, a horse approaches the day with an attitude of, “What might try to eat me on this day?” Although they have been well domesticated, they still retain that primal instinct of self-preservation. All of their senses are biologically designed to keep them safe.
Compare the head of a horse to that of a dog. Unlike a predator, a horse’s eyes are evenly spaced on either side of his head and are among the largest physical eyeball of any land mammal. He has a field of vision that extends almost 350 degrees around his body with a small blind spot directly in front of and behind him. While grazing, he can lift his head and shift from binocular to monocular vision in an instant. His eyes are acutely attuned to anything that resembles the quick movement of an approaching predator and he must make constant judgment calls about potential threats.
Here at the farm, the way a horse sees is one of the first things that we often discuss when explaining equine behavior. We even have a specially made mask that offers an approximation of a horse’s visual field. We will often have the kids try the mask on and simulate haltering, feeding treats and leading so that they can have instant insight into the mind of the animal with whom they are about to work. It is always cool to hear their amazement as they wear the mask and watch how their body language changes without them even realizing it. In that first moment, their heads are often high and turning side to side just like a startled prey animal.
As people, we have a tendency to assume that every creature sees the world as we do, both literally and figuratively, and one big stepping stone to relationship is the empathy that develops when we adopt a much different perspective.