The way horses see the world is almost entirely differently to that of humans – from the distances they can see, to the colors they can process.
New research carried out by the University of Exeter not only provides a better understanding of equine vision, but also demonstrates how the information can be used to improve racecourse safety.
Crossbars and take-off boards for fences and hurdles have long been painted orange, based on what humans can see.
But according to research led by Martin Stevens, a professor of sensory and evolutionary ecology at the University of Exeter, horses see orange as a shade of green – meaning the fences currently used by the industry simply blend into the grass.
Janel L. Jones, who has a PhD in cognitive science, writes in Equus Magazine that details humans can see from a distance of 30 feet, can only be seen by a horse from 20 feet.
“A horse has to be 50% closer to see the same details,” she says. “A 50% deficiency is enough for any rider to consider … even in sunshine, the horse’s view of a jump is blurry, hazy, dim, vague … all the adjectives you’d rather not ponder as you’re galloping 30 feet per second towards a big oxer that could ruin your day.”
Researchers from the University of Exeter experimented with changing the color of obstacles to white and yellow.
While this didn’t necessarily mean the horses could see the fences any better, the different colors did change the way the animals jumped.
Researchers hope this study – conducted in collaboration with the British Horseracing Authority and the RSPCA – will improve the welfare and safety of horses and jockeys by reducing the risks of falls and injuries.
Stevens explains that horses only have two types of cone cells in their eyes, compared to humans who have three.
“Basically it means they can only see colors that we only perceive as blues and yellows and they can’t tell the difference between reds and greens,” he said.
So researchers compared the orange markers used at race courses with a wider range of alternative colors.
“What we did was take some of those colors that might be more visible and perform some behavioral trials in a training environment with horses to see how they are affected by other jump colors (through) their jumping behavior and distance,” Stevens explained.
Photographs help convince industry to make changes
By using a camera that is able to interpret certain wavelengths of light, researchers were able to transform photographs to illustrate how a horse might see colors in a particular environment.
“We make comparisons in terms of how visible colors are against different backgrounds, for example how a take-off board is against foreground turf, how visible an orange midrail is against a background fence and things like that,” added Stevens.
“Then we can really start to quantify just how visible those things should be to a horse.”
The color orange has been used in racing for quite some time – mostly for human benefit – and while Stevens says it’s known in the scientific community what colors horses can and can’t see, there wasn’t any research to quantify that in a racing environment.
“I think sometimes there isn’t always a link up between what’s known in the scientific literature and what’s known outside of science,” he says. “There hadn’t been any work that actually quantified just how visible the orange markers would be to a horse.”
David Sykes, Director of Equine Health and Welfare at the British Horseracing Authority (BHA), said that the research has provided a photographic demonstration of the significant differences between what horses and humans see.
“They’ve been able to do that and really convince us and validate to us that’s exactly what a horse is seeing and what you and I can see … and I can see there’s a definite distinction,” Sykes told CNN.
The research is a proactive step to improve equine welfare in horse racing, says World Horse Welfare chief executive Roly Owers.
“Our understanding of equine vision is continually developing but often this is not given enough consideration,” Owers told CNN in a statement.
“World Horse Welfare therefore welcomes the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) trial on new fence and hurdle design as it is incumbent on racing to minimize welfare and safety risk as far as possible.
“We are hopeful that by better delineating the edges of the fences and hurdles, the risk of falls and fatalities will be further reduced.”
More trials before it’s rolled out across racetracks
Sykes said the BHA will now independently verify the University of Exeter’s findings.
The BHA will roll out the color changes in some training establishments and gather feedback from trainers and riders. If it’s clear that horses are more confident, respectful of the fence and jumping cleaner and better, then the authority will look at rolling it out to a number of racetracks.
“What we’d be doing then is collecting data and saying ‘historically what has been the percentage of faller rate at that racetrack?’ We’ve now put this in place, following on from that what now is the percentage of faller rate and injury?” Sykes said.
“Obviously if the information that we get out of that is a significant change we’d be (rolling the changes) out as fast as we can go.
“But, if the evidence comes back and says it’s only marginal, we may be a wee bit cautious on how we roll that out.”
Since 2004, the faller rate in British racing has reduced by 29%, which the BHA says is “as a result of ongoing investment in racecourse safety and constant enhancements in racehorse care and training standards.”
And it seems preliminary trials carried out by Stevens are already proving to be a success, with jockeys confirming there was a noticeable difference in the way horses behaved.
“From riding over the different colored fences it was clear to me that over some colors the horses reacted differently and showed the obstacle more respect,” former Grade 1 winning jockey, Ian Popham said in a statement.
“I’m sure other riders will feel the same and this feels like a great idea and opportunity to make the sport safer for both horses and jockeys.”