We’re often told that because horses are prey animals you shouldn’t look them directly in the eye but I’ve often wondered whether or not this was true, after all, my horses actively try to catch my gaze. With this in mind, I decided to research what horses prefer and what they think when we do look them in the eye. Like me I’m sure your be surprised by what I found.
Should you look a horse in the eye? Contrary to popular belief, direct eye contact is vitally important to horses and they rely on it to read your true intentions. Horses will also watch your gaze to see if you’re engaged with them or if there are any dangers around.
Eye contact is one of the most underestimated forms of equine communication and many people wrongly believe that you should avoid looking a horse in the eye completely but this couldn’t be further from the truth.
Do horses like eye contact?
If you think that, being prey animals, horses don’t like direct eye contact you’re not alone but that doesn’t mean to say it’s true though. Many people wrongly believe that because horses, historically, have had to keep an eye out for predators they don’t like direct eye contact but that isn’t the case at all.
Its often thought that predators stare at their prey before attacking so horses don’t like any form of eye contact as they perceive it as a threat but while horses are looking at your eyes they’re also reading your body language. This means that they read your intentions too and know whether you’re a friend or foe.
That’s not to say that horses don’t look out for predators though, even domesticated horses will keep an eye out but they also use eye contact (both with us and with other horses) to help determine if something is a threat or not.
Should you make eye contact with a horse?
We’re always told that looking any animal in the eye is perceived as a threat and when you consider horses were once predated this makes sense but to horses, the opposite is often truer. If you try to avoid looking directly at a horse, especially if they know you are aware of them looking at you, the horse, they’ll be suspicious of why you’re trying to avoid looking at them and will wonder what your motives are. This is why one of the main reasons why it’s better to look horses in the eye, not in a staring way, but in a friendly way.
On top of this, as long as the horse isn’t terrified, you can use gentle eye contact to reassure a nervous horse. When I say ‘gentle eye contact’ I mean looking the horse in the eye but with a softer body position, ie lower your shoulders and tilt your head downwards slightly.
Why is eye contact important with horses?
Our eyes (or those of any animal) are a direct link to our brain, they’re a gateway to our emotions, feelings, and intentions, all of which horses can read. This means that by looking into your horse’s eyes you’re able to communicate better with your horse because you’re not letting any words (or actions) get in the way of your intentions. It can also help to build a bond with a horse, the horse will look into your eyes for reassurance but it will also let them know you’re paying attention to them, understand them, and are looking out for them.
When it comes to training a horse eye contact is extremely important, if a horse is making eye contact with you they’re alert, listening, and paying attention to what you’re doing and asking them to do. If, however, your gaze is elsewhere then the horse will quickly disengage with you and lose interest in you and what you’re doing.
If a horse looks at you it’s advisable to return their gaze, avoiding doing so (when the horse clearly knows you’ve seen it) can give the impression you’re trying to hide your eyes and therefore could be perceived as a threat. Returning a horse’s gaze tells the horse you’re there and that you’re in control and that your intentions are benign.
Is eye contact important when catching a horse?
Some people say you need to keep your eye on a horse when you’re trying to catch them while others say that you should always avoid looking directly at them. The trouble is both sides have very strong and compelling arguments to back up their claims but the University of Pennsylvania decided to put this to the test to find out, once and for all, which is best.
The study had one person catch 104 different horses, 52 of the horses (group A) were caught while mainting eye contact while the other 52 (group B) were caught without any eye contact at all. Around three weeks later the same person caught the same horses but this time she didn’t look at group A at all and made direct contact with group B. The study concluded that making direct eye contact made no difference to whether the horses were easier or not to catch. [source]
While this was only one study, with a relatively small group of horses, I think it’s safe to say that using eye contact to catch a horse is down to personal preference and the personality of the horse.
When shouldn’t you make eye contact with a horse?
We’ve talked a lot about the benefits of making direct eye contact with horses but there are occasions when eye contact isn’t always a good thing, especially if you’re dealing with a new horse that’s nervous or fearful. In these circumstances, the horse may well see the contact as a threat and react negatively towards you. Instead, you should drop your gaze and lower your shoulders when you first approach the horse, you can also hold out the back of your hand too in order to demonstrate you’re not going to harm the horse. Very quickly the horse will realize you’re okay and not going to harm them, at this point you can make eye contact with them.
It might sound a little strange to say but you should also avoid making eye contact with a horse if you’re wearing sunglasses. I know you’re probably thinking that the horse can’t see your eyes but that’s exactly the point. Your body language will tell the horse you’re looking at it but the tinted lenses will obscure your eyes, giving the impression you’re trying to hide where you’re looking. To you, this won’t seem important but a horse will think that you’re acting suspiciously because he’ll think you’re trying to hide your eyes and therefore your intentions. This will make them nervous and uneasy and could result in them regarding you as a threat.
In an ideal world, you should avoid wearing glasses completely when making eye contact with a horse because the lenses will distort and blur your eyes but if you’re anything like me that’s not possible. My eyesight is so bad without my glasses I can barely make out one end of a horse from the other without them.
What message are you sending when you stare a horse in the eye?
Technically it’s not possible to stare a horse in the eye because, due to the position of their eyes, you can’t look at both eyes at the same time but let’s forget that for the time being and imagine we can. Okay so you’re staring a horse directly in the eyes, what’s going through their mind? Aside from the obvious, what’s this crazy person doing, the horse is likely to be on edge and nervous.
You only need to look at how a lion interacts with a zebra in the wild to understand why this is the case. If the lion has no intention of eating the zebra they’ll glance at the animal as it walks past but nothing more than that. The zebra understands the lion’s intentions and doesn’t attempt to run.
Now let’s imagine the lion’s hungry and is looking for his next meal, this time he’ll fix his gaze on a zebra and watch its movement, waiting to pick the right moment to attack. Now you can see how a horse might feel if you stare at it for a prolonged period of time.
Take home message
Far from avoiding looking a horse in the eye you should be actively making eye contact with them. It will help to build a bond with the horse but will also work to demonstrate to the horse that you’re on their side and can understand and work with them. In conjunction with your gaze, they’ll also read your body language to determine your true intentions.
That said though you should avoid wearing sunglasses when making eye contact and, if possible, avoid wearing glasses completely.
If you want to know more about how horses see the world and how their vision works you might be interested in this article: How horses see the world: the world from a horse’s point of view.
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