Some facts of a horses ear/ hearing first:
Horses' ears are primarily for hearing, but they are also utilised to express and communicate (body language).
To explain a horses ability of hearing it helps to distinguish between loudness, pitch and localization.
The easiest to describe here, is the LOUDNESS.
We all know that the noise of a sound is measured in decibels. Studies figured out, the lowest sound a horse can hear is 7 decibels which is comparable to the sound of a person breathing quietly. Think about that for a second.
Isn't that amazing! It also means , we don't need to yell at our horses. They can perfectly hear us when we talk normal....
Horses can respond to a training command given at a very low volume. We don’t need to shout to be heard. Also, horses are very sensitive to the tone of voice. We need to use a confident tone and avoid overly emotional tones such as shrill, high pitches.
Horses can pick up many low frequency sound. They notice them through the vibration in their jawbone and teeth and also in their hooves.
That's why they stop grazing, stop grinding their teeth, when they hear a sound. So the grinding does not interfere with the transmission of the sound they heard to the brain for analysis.
Horses have learned within evolution to pay much more attention to small noises than we do.
Another reason we are not hearing these sounds might be that our minds are always too busy " listening" to voices in our head making plans for dinner, worrying about work etc.
Photo credit to msdvetmanual.com
What really surprised me within my research was, horses can actually hear the ultrasonic squeal of a bat or dolphin, the silent dog whistle and the sound of an insect. All inaudible for human ears.
An example from a life with a horse:
Everyone has experienced this scenario with their horse at least once:
Your horse seems to freeze within his motion and listens to something while you are telling him "its nothing there". Sounds familiar?
So now we know, its probably a frequency that we humans cannot hear, as explained earlier. And again it shows, horses behaviour ALWAYS means something!!! There is not such thing as "nothing".
They are prey animals, they don't have time to focus on " nothing", if they would, the tiger would be happy for the meal :). They always communicate with what they do, and even if they don't do anything it means they feel safe and rest.
Horses associate learned sounds with sights, smell, touch, experiences and knowledge. We know that horses can link the special vehicle sound of the owner when its feeding time ( but ignoring other cars passing by), or the sound of the bucket when grains are mixed for them.
Horses brains are very good in interpreting the sounds of other horses when they snort, groan, nicker, etc. They know who is making that sound, what mood the other horse is in and what he wants.
That's why your horse gets upset, when a stressed horse close by is snorting or whinnying.
They also recognize their owner from the voice, good news! Their brain is connecting the vision and hearing, which was thought is unique to humans.
So, we learned the horses ear is more than just a furry attachment to the head of a horse.
It is very complex in function and essential for the horse to explore the world around them. It is also very sensitive to sounds as we realized.
We have to take this into consideration when we change the environment of our horse through moving to a different stable or drive to a competition. If they are in a new setting, not knowing the other horses, and new sounds everywhere, it is a lot to process for their brain!!!!!
It is a very confusing, overstimulating noisy environment for a start. So we should not be surprised, if they get upset by changes.
It is our job as their owners to give them comfort and make them feel safe in a gentle and a patient way.
For more happy horses!
I hope you enjoyed reading this Blog and got some new knowledge out of it. It is my goal to help you understand your horse better and improve the quality of your time being together.
Inspired again by the book " Horse brain, Human brain" by Janet Jones
and the videos and books of Dr. Steve Peters.
Britta Bruns, Invercargill