You Need to Know the Changing Eye

Story and photos by Leslie Desmond
Published in the August 1995 issue of The Trail Less Traveled

If you attend colt-starting and horsemanship clinics you're bound to hear people talking about the importance of a horse being able to "change eyes" comfortably before you throw your leg over one for the first time. With no lack of conviction, Buck Brannaman says at his clinics that "understanding why and how a horse changes eyes can save a person's life." At these clinics you can see colts and older, troubled horses who will run from flight or what they fear. They demonstrate over and over again how important it is for anyone involved with horses to get a handle on this essential function of the horse's instinct to survive.
If you have an opportunity to watch foals and yearlings long enough (not the stall-raised ones as much) you'll also see how the horse's particular type of vision--combined with the basic survival responses just mentioned--help him develop his strength and agility in the first few days and weeks of life. Don't be surprised if you see perfect sliding stops, side passes and turnarounds, a flawless passage, and the capriole. These are the natural, unblemished movements of the horse and they reflect the way his mind processes the way his eyes view the world.
I found out, and I've seen others learn the same way, that until a person gets hurt in a wreck, this notion of "changing eyes" is easily dismissed as a curious bit of horse trivia. Who can blame the beginning rider for that, when there are perhaps a hundred other details, mixed in with voices of past instructors, swirling around the brain at once? It is burdensome to keep a completely foreign point of view in the forefront of the mind. But, I've come to believe that understanding the horse's actual point of view is the most important thing a person can incorporate into their horse program, however modest or highfalutin it may be and regardless of all else that may concern it.
This business of "changing eyes" cannot, and should not, be reduced to a "how-to" format, but there are some things you can look for in your horses as you work with them that will help you come to better recognize and understand this--the way of the horse. I am hopeful that this introduction to "changing eyes" will inspire the reader to seek more information on his or her own.

e9ba582742In this photo, Leslie starts on the mare's right side and takes the forehand across to the right (by asking her to yield from pressure on the left side of her neck).                            
abd0e35d0eAfter that, the mare could see Leslie in the corner of her left eye as she prepared to arc off clockwise (right) around the pen.
36606c5219Rather than arc her neck to the right and risk having Leslie "disappear" in the blind spot behind her, the mare comes off the rail a bit to keep herself "safe"--according to her instinct. The mare isn't comfortable enough yet to pick Leslie up out of her right eye. This is a good illustration of a horse that isn't comfortable changing eyes.
Remember that double checking his blind spot is not something he'll think over, or need your permission to do. For you to think that he should is to err greatly. In response to a startling or unfamiliar movement, the horse will move whatever part of his body he needs to, as quickly as he needs to--as the instinct to survive dictates. It's as automatic to the horse as blinking. Consider this: It follows that to punish a horse by jerking his mouth, or getting after him with your spur and whip when he shies, or runs off, serves no good purpose for the horse. If you've learned to do this, you can unlearn it. To force him to confront his fear before you have prepared him to be able to stay will almost certainly ensure that he'll be worse next time--to say nothing of the respect he'll lose for you in the meantime. In a situation like this, the price of human ignorance is high; but the price of human stubbornness is sometimes fatal.
For your horse's safety and your own, prepare your horse well to move around safely in the human's world. Take your time so he can take his, and remember that the horse has a strong, natural curiosity about his environment. You can build on this to prepare him for almost anything you will need or want him to do.

Know How Your Horse Does See

It is important to keep in mind that the orientation of an animal whose eyes are positioned in the front of his face is very different from that of an animal who looks at the world from either side of his head. The horse, cow, goat, deer and other prey animals see from this vantage point. Predators like dogs, cats and humans have the ability to rotate their front-facing eyeballs up and down, and to the left and right.
Although we do see horses roll their eyeballs back under their upper eyelids when they yawn, or get bugs or water in them, the horse's elongated pupils are centered in a comparatively stationary eyeball that takes in a wide, binocular, peripheral view. This enables them to graze without moving their heads to the left or right, and still pick up the slightest movement in an area that encompasses approximately 270 degrees of the surrounding area. By tipping the bridge of the nose a few degrees in either direction, a horse can determine--at a glance--whether a sudden movement originates from friend or foe, and what response, if any, is appropriate.

His Movements, His Mind

When a horse is unsure of what he sees, he might whirl sideways quickly so he can see better. Sensing danger, but lacking confidence in the footing or his own ability to outrun a predator, he might opt instead to pound the dickens out of the menace. Or, he could snort a warning and bolt forward before swinging around to face what he fears. Minutes later, he might have to light out for a mile and a half before he'd feel ready to stop and sniff the wind. It all depends. You can't know what his moves will be. Bear in mind. too, that the horse's characteristic behavior--his instinct, his nature--isn't going to be altered a whit by the fact that you are sitting on his back with an agenda, and the spurs and whip to implement it.
Learn instead to anticipate the problems, and be there for your horse. The better you get at this, the better prepared you'll be to work with your horse instead of against him. It might help you to understand how to change eyes if you take a turn in your horse's shoes.

cef536cbeeIt took several tries before this mustang could travel clockwise comfortably at a walk as Leslie came into view in the mare's right eye. At first, she would clamp her tail and scoot off in a rush around the pen before she would tip her nose in the new direction of travel. Eventually, she could bring her front end across easily in both directions, leave quietly, change eyes with Leslie behind her and walk away without a brace.

To find out what changing eyes means to the horse, get down on your hands and knees and crawl around, and really cover some ground. Imagine that your eyes are located between your cheekbones and your ears, and remember all the while to "look" at everything with your new eyes. (I've done it plenty and my students improved their horsemanship skills by doing it. I got the idea in the first place by watching Ray Hunt crawl around to demonstrate the horse's point of view himself.)
Soon, you'll discover that each eye has a distinct and simultaneous view of each of two separate horizons. The horse gets two completely different views of the corral, the paddock, the open range, the road and the traffic. You begin to understand what your horse might be trying to tell you when he leaps sideways like a cat, or hurls himself around stiff-legged to get a better look at something.
Despite his inherent inability to understand the human's view of the world, the horse is often expected to exist calmly and safely, even gratefully, within it. In most situations, there is no preparation, no framework, for him to understand how to do this. Wrecks, both minor and major, are frequently the result of what many would call routine practices that "any horse should be able to handle." (Did anyone ask the horse?)
In horse trailers, in cross-ties and at hitch rails everywhere, horses are tied up with the expectation that they ought to be able to stand calmly. When it comes to the horse, there ought not to be any "ought to's" and there should not be any "should's." That thinking isn't horse like. Unless you're half horse (some people are, you know, but they're as rare as hen's teeth), you won't know what response a horse will have to a situation until he reacts. Even then, you probably won't understand what happened from the horse's point of view.
Similar misconceptions are widespread about horses who have been "professionally trained." Most people assume that if a horse has been trained, he should be able to be saddled and ridden. They have been trained, no doubt. But, how, and for how long? For what purpose? With what preparation?
Here are the main points I make clear to myself before I tie a horse up or throw a leg over for the first time.

  • Top of the list: Do I know how well the horse changes eyes?
  • Also very important: Can he put a float in the line? Can he keep one there? (See Five Steps to Put Float in Your Lead Line)
  • Can the horse be driven, and lead from either side with a float in the line?
  • Can he separate the front end and the hindquarters and does he reach equally (with the front and hind ends) through his turns?

Preparing Your Horse to Change Eyes

Four helpful tips:
The following suggestions are intended to help prepare a horse to change eyes comfortably on objects in front of him and behind him. As you and your horse practice and improve at these, you increase the chances that you won't get hurt and your horse won't end up one-sided and bracey.

  1. Before you tie, saddle or mount your horse the first time, be sure you can lead and drive him at a walk, from either side, with a float in the line. You'll want to have him switch back and forth comfortably between leading and driving--traveling from left to right, and right to left. Be sure to get him coming across with the forehand smoothly, and yielding his hindquarters, in both directions (refer to photos above).
  2. If you have access to a roundpen, get him comfortable driving at a walk, get him comfortable drawing off the rail and going in the other direction until you can send him out ahead of you in a figure eight around the pen without him getting tight through the turns as his nose tips in the new direction and he picks you up in the corner of his other ("new") eye (see photos above).
  3. Work with your horse until he can leave in both directions calmly. Also move up from the walk to the trot, back to the walk, up to the trot and into the lope for one or several strides. Then let him come back down to the trot. From there back down to an energetic walk, for a few strides before you draw him off the rail and he faces up. Work at this until he travels smoothly up to and back down from the walk, trot and canter.
  4. Desensitize your horse with the halter rope, or the coils of your rope. Help your horse get used to being touched "on either side, from either side and across" his neck, back and hindquarters--on all parts of his body . Help him learn to get comfortable with you asking him, from both sides, to yield his head, neck, shoulders, ribs, hindquarters and all four feet, separately, before you tie, saddle or mount him. Remember to adjust to fit each horse and the moment's particular circumstances. It will not work to rush or force this process. If you think you may be operating around your horse in an unsafe manner, don't be shy about asking for assistance from someone qualified to help you. Remember, your body is a precious single issue commodity-not easily repaired and never replaced.