A Horse’s Stifled Senses

A reader wonders if there’s a connection between a horse’s spooky behavior and hearing impairment.
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Hearing is an important sense for horses. Their rotating ears impart a keen ability to locate and orient potential threats. | Photo: iStock
Q. My laid-back horse gets excitable when we ride off-property, so recently I put foam “ear balls” in his ears when we rode out. He seemed more relaxed, but started spooking at random things, which he never does. My friend theorized that this was because he had lost one of his senses and was now relying on sight. She thinks this might be why horses get jittery before storms, as well—the wind affects their hearing. Is there truth to this?

Jessica, Springfield, Missouri

A. Although I don’t know of scientific evidence to back it up in horses, your friend’s theory is reasonable in regard to what we know about mammalian behavior. Whenever a sensory modality is altered significantly, you can expect behavior to be affected, as well, especially short-term. And for horses, their hearing is such an important sense. Those rotating ears impart a keen ability to locate and orient to potential threats—far more so than in humans. It’s probably the most common explanation I’ve heard or discussed with equine behaviorists and trainers regarding horses spooking. In the case of wind, not only is the horse’s hearing likely affected but there’s also the added visual factor of objects’ sudden erratic movements in wind gusts.

To make a recommendation for your horse, I would have to consider how dangerous the spooking is and if he’s improving with ear balls. For safety’s sake I might consider taking him for hand-walks with the plugs in or taking him out with a mellow companion horse

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Sue M. McDonnell, PhD, is a certified applied animal behaviorist and the founding head of the equine behavior program at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine. She is also the author of numerous books and articles about horse behavior and management.

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