Because we rarely encounter problems with our horses’ ears, we often take them for granted. The equine ear, however, is an indispensable communication tool. A horse’s acute sense of hearing allows him to detect danger, communicate with other horses, and respond to his handler’s vocal cues. Even the direction of a horse’s ears imparts a world of information. If you watch carefully, they will reveal the animal’s temperament and will even let you know where his attention is focused. Because the equine ear can convey so much information, learning how your horse’s ears work and how his hearing differs from yours will help you to better understand and predict his behavior.

Structure of the Ear

Horses’ ears, like yours, are finely tuned instruments designed to convert sound waves in the environment into action potentials in the auditory nerve. This nerve, which is located at the base of the skull, then sends the information to the brain to be translated and interpreted.

To collect sound waves from the environment, a horse uses his pinna, the large, cup-like part of the ear that you can see. Made of cartilage, the pinna can rotate to capture sound waves from all directions. This useful ability is due to the fact that horses have 16 auricular muscles controlling their pinna. Humans, in contrast, only have three such muscles, all of which are vestigial (almost useless).

After being trapped by the pinna, the collected sound waves are funneled through the external ear canal (commonly referred to as the auditory canal) to the middle ear, where they cause the eardrum, a thin membrane, to vibrate.