How well can horses see in the dark?

The average horse’s night vision is nowhere near as good as many people believe. Neuroscientist Janet Jones, PhD, sets the record straight.

Question:

Just how well can a horse see at night? I’ve been told they have excellent night vision, but I wonder if that’s true. Because of an unusual work schedule, I’m often at the barn before dawn or well after dusk.

Many people believe the myth that horses see better in the dark than people do. (Adobe Stock)

I’ve noticed that my horse navigates his pasture very cautiously in the dark— he won’t come trotting up to me as he does during the daytime. And when I take him from the lit barn to the dark pasture, he will stick by the gate for a very long time, as if he’s figuring out where he is. I’ve had the veterinarian out to check my horse’s eyesight, and he’s been declared healthy and normal. His vision seems fine during the day. Is he just scared of the dark?

Answer:

Your horse isn’t scared—he just can’t see as well as you might imagine. We humans believe all sorts of myths about equine vision. But the fact is that horses see the world very differently than we do.

One of the strongest myths is that horses see well in the dark. After their eyes are gradually adjusted to the dark, horses can make out dim edges of objects. It’s similar to what we might see in partial moonlight. Color and texture are not visible, and detail is at a bare minimum. Equine depth perception is also impaired at night.

A healthy horse’s ability to see at night is nowhere near as good as a human’s ability to see in the daytime. In fact, even in the daytime horses do not see details, colors or textures as well as we do, and they do not see the same vertical range of vision that we can detect above and below our eyes.

Equine vision is different

Human eyes adjust from brightness to dark in about 25 minutes. Your horse’s eyes require 45 minutes—almost twice as long! So when you lead a horse from a sunny pasture to a dim barn, he can’t see inside the barn like you can. When he moves from a bright warm-up arena to an indoor arena, he is at a strong disadvantage. The same is true when he moves from dark to bright, like from a stall to her turnout. Age plays a role, too: Older horses take in less light than young horses do and have more trouble seeing even when their eyes are healthy.

Knowledge is important on this topic because people want so badly to believe that horses have excellent night vision. It’s more convenient to load Buster at midnight after a hard show than to wait until morning, it’s easier to finish a jumping or barrel-racing lesson in the arena after dusk, and nobody wants to pay for the electricity needed to light an indoor arena properly.

But failure to understand the pitfalls of equine night vision leads well-intentioned owners to risk their horses’ welfare and their own safety.

Janet L Jones, PhD
Neuroscientist and Horse Trainer
Author of Horse Brain, Human Brain
Durango, Colorado

About the author: Janet Jones, PhD, applies brain research to the training of horses and riders. She earned her doctorate in cognitive science from UCLA and taught the neuroscience of perception, language, memory and thought for 23 years. She has schooled hundreds of green or difficult horses and competed in hunter, jumper, halter, western pleasure and reining disciplines. Her most recent book, Horse Brain, Human Brain, was published in 2020.

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