Saturday, September 25, 2010

How Do Horses Recognize Other Horses? Part Two: Some Anecdotes

This post is a follow-on to this post I did a few days ago on equine color vision. I think the way horses perceive color has something to do with how they recognize other horses - I'm not aware of any scientific articles that support these speculations of mine.  To my mind, there are two visual principles that allow horses to recognize other horses (and people) at a distance - dark/light contrast, shades of the primary colors horses recognize, and sensitivity to movement/patterns of carriage.

Once horses are close together, smell may play a powerful part - we've all seen examples of the arched neck/smelling nostrils way that horses get to know one another at close range.  I've also experienced horses putting their nostrils to my face or chest and smelling me.  I also thing that verbalization is a powerful horse identifier - horses call to other horses to get a response and every horse has a unique set of vocalizations that identify them when they respond.  One of the first things horses do when they see a horse they think they recognize is to call, I believe in hopes of getting a response that is recognizable.

Before I give my (entirely hypothetical) conclusions, a couple of anecdotes concerning Lily.  Some of you may remember that Lily is our retired jumper mare who now lives at Paradigm Farms in Tennessee. Here's an irrelevant (but nice) picture of Lily, who managed to roll in the mud before Melissa captured her for a bath:

In the spring of 2004, we took Lily and Dawn to a Mark Rashid clinic in Wisconsin, the first one we'd ever attended.  This was very much spur of the moment - Mark had held a clinic that we had audited and added another clinic at the last moment starting when the last one finished.  We managed to secure two slots (out of eight) and brought Lily and Dawn up.  My daughters were 14 and 12 at the time. Lily was extremely herd-bound and very excited - she did her signature bolt-and-buck with my 14-year-old daughter  - on the first day.  By an odd coincidence, there were at least three other horses at the clinic who resembled Dawn.  When I say they resembled Dawn, I mean that they were red bay mares of almost exactly the same shade with no white markings on their faces and legs.  Other than that, they really didn't look much like Dawn (to me) - they were different breeds - I think there was one Paso Fino and one QH, and other than their color and absence of markings, they didn't look like Dawn at all in body type (to me).

The odd thing was that each time Lily caught a sight of any of these horses, the "Dawn clones", she would immediately start calling and frantically trying to get to them.  She was clearly thinking that there was a possibility that they were Dawn and she was trying out her hypothesis.  She would call and try to get over to them - this made for challenging riding for my daughter - Lily was not easy to ride at the best of times (she had been my horse before she was my daughter's) and this made things pretty exciting.  This leads me to my first thought about horses recognizing other horses.  I think they are very sensitive to variations in shade/color - all these mares were, by coincidence, almost exactly the same red shade as Dawn - their color visions allows for this degree of precision although the colors don't look like what we see - and the leg and face markings were also very important - Dawn has none and neither did any of the other horses.  I think horses identify other horses in large part by exact color and also leg and face markings, and then try other means to pin this down - calling to get a response (I think they can easily and precisely identify other horses by their calls), and, at close range, sniffing nostrils to catch the other horse's scent.

Then there's another odd anecdote about Lily.  At the last barn we were at before our current barn, there were a couple of appaloosas.  Lily was absolutely and completely terrified of them - if they were in the ring at the same time she would spook and bolt, and in fact do almost anything to avoid going anywhere near them.  They were both relatively "loud" appaloosas with big white blankets and spots.  It was very clear that she was convinced that they were not horses at all but rather some form of large and very dangerous predator.  Now the barn was a hunter/jumper barn with very few appaloosas, and I expect "culture" had some effect - I suspect she had never seen an appaloosa before. At horse shows, we had to be careful to watch for appaloosas in the warm-up ring as she would completely loose her mind if she saw one - luckily she did jumpers and there aren't usually that many appaloosas around at these sort of shows!  I think their bold patterns, with high contrast, were very startling to her.

So, I think that horses initially identify other horses at a distance by precise shades and absence/presence of black points and/or white leg and face markings, and pin this down by call/response and ultimately sniffing at close range.  In addition, and as shown by the attention to white markings and patterns, horses seem to have a high degree of sensitivity to white/dark contrast, which is consistent with what I understand about their vision.

Finally, all my horses, and the others at the barn, recognize me at a great distance - several hundred yards - regardless of the clothes I'm wearing - by my "gestalt" - how I move and carry myself - and also my my voice.  I think horses have to use somewhat different techniques to recognize us than they use to recognize other horses, but that just indicates to me how capable and sophisticated their identification methods are.


  1. I think you're right. Mine really key into sound. I know every one of their different greetings and whinnies--each is very unique. I haven't really noticed mine going to horses with similar colors to those in the herd, but I'm going to pay closer attention next time I'm in a group and see.

  2. Kate, I was going to make a similar comment about Panama recognizing me from very far away. That's an interesting anecdote about Lily trying to get to the other horses that looked similar to Dawn. I don't think I've ever encountered a horse being wrong about recognizing a horse.

    Before the anecdote about Lily being wrong, I was going to say that I suspect their senses are more powerful that we can even imagine. For one thing, I think their sense of smell is not limited to close range, as ours is -- perhaps Lily incorrectly identified those horses as Dawn because all of the smells of a strange place confused her and made a correct identification difficult.

    The other thing is that I truly believe there is some kind of "herd sense," and we can't even begin to understand how it works. Herds of horses, flocks of geese, and other animals who live in groups all know when to turn and which direction to turn in -- how do they do that? I don't believe that body language can entirely explain it. I think horses, just like other herd animals, read one another at a level that is completely imperceptible and incomprehensible to us, and that this helps them recognize one another, together with their vision and sense of smell.

  3. I can still recall my Boys bolting away from me one time when I went out to the barn for the first time in a long raincoat. Guess I didn't have legs, and despite my voice, they simply didn't recognize me.

    And too, the morning I put the fly mask on Tucker for the first time and Chance suddenly didn't recognize him and did all the sniffing, squealing and striking behaviors we so often see when two strange horses meet for the first time.

  4. It's my paint horses sadness that no one like him, no other horses. I wonder if that is because he is startling looking.

  5. My mare Lilly was pastured with a palomino gelding for a very long time and they were best buddies. When she injured her ligament last fall, she had to go across the road to the barn where the stalls were. Lilly's old pasture buddy, Ricochet, would be minding his own business with his new pasture buddy, and when I would take Lilly out of the stall for our daily hand walks, he would perk up at the sight of another horse, and then start frantically whinnying to her. He didn't do this to any other horse... just Lilly.

    Since she's a Paint, I think he could very easily tell that I was walking his old pasture buddy.

    And this was across a fairly long distance because she was across the road from him.

    I also think she recognizes me, but I usually say something to her when I see her. I'll have to start paying attention and not speaking to hear to see if she reacts to me. :)

  6. I find this very interesting, because grays are pretty rare amongst the Standardbreds, and it's even more rare that we get one at our farm. This summer a "white" mare came in, though, and several horses being led by her pasture for the first time spooked and did a double-take... I can almost guarantee they'd never seen a horse that color before!

    My own horse could not stop staring the first time we met a pinto, or Appaloosa... I could imagine him going: "Mom. Psst. MOOOM. Mom, don't look, but I think there's something WRONG with that horse!" He still seems pretty fascinated by them!

  7. We have had some interesting encounters with big horses at shows and clinics spooking when they see our painted pony, who is not only a very bold paint but 12.2h so they get a double whammy of "different" when they see him. It surprises me that there aren't more ponies at shows - but he's often the only one.

    Two funny stories: we hosted a clinic here a couple of years ago and one of the riders brought her almost 17h painted warmblood. He looked similar to our pony but super-sized. When she unloaded him off the trailer, I thought Keil Bay's eyes were going to pop out of his head - I'm sure he was thinking painted + gigantic pony = Thelwell nightmare!

    We have a small blanket that is a "cow print" - same colors as our pony. I was making a jump course one time and wanted to add some interesting colors/patterns/elements to the jumps so I took the blanket out and draped it over a jump. Horses initially freaked - I couldn't figure it out at first but we decided that out in the arena it actually looked like the hide of the pony stretched out, and maybe they were reacting to that in some way.

  8. I really like these informative posts you're doing!

    I've noticed that when I or one of my sisters (who are all about the same size) go to catch a horse they distinctly recognize us as opposed to if a larger person were to go out. Funny thing is there's this one horse at a barn who won't let men catch him because he thinks it means he's going to be worked, thus us smaller girls or kids have to go get him out of the pasture. :/

  9. I'm on my first cup of coffee, so these are some rather disjointed thoughts. First, excellent posts! I've read a lot of horse literature and never seen a better explanation of horse vision / color blindness.

    In Ohio, Dixie saw herself in a mirror leaned against the side of the barn. She was absolutely horrified and we spent 20 minutes, on foot, gradually getting closer and closer to the monster in the mirror. I wonder if she never realized she's a loud paint? I don't think she'd ever seen a mirror before.

    M's mustang hates people wearing orange. I have an orange winter coat (the better to be found by S&R teams) and he spent months hiding and sulking when he saw me in the orange coat. He has eventually realized that it's still me, even when I wear the Terrible Color. Reminds me of Temple Grandin's story about the horse who hated white hats.

    I do hope you get lots of pics of Lily and Maisie's reunion!

  10. Kate, such interesting anecdotes about Lily. I will watch the horses at my barn more carefully and see their reactions. With this in mind, wouldn't it be so interesting to see Lily and Maisieget reacquainted today?

  11. This is so very cool and interesting! Great post!!

  12. Fascinating! Now I'm thinking I should wear my whole costume out with Apache a few times before our Halloween ride at the end of the's leopard. And I wonder what she'll think of me as a leopard?
    Oh my!


  13. I was searching the web today curious to find information about horses recognizing other horses the same color as themselves. My daughter's horse is a black/white pinto and she is very attracted to my neighbor's pinto. Do pintos or paints know they are colored that way and recognize others the same color? Today she trotted to the fence whinnying to him. Each of our horses are with 3 to 8 solid colored horses but she is only interested in him (especially when she is in heat). He is the boy of her dreams.

  14. 3 bays and a paint - I don't know - perhaps your horse is looking for a familiar horse and he looks like a horse your horse remembers.


Thank you for commenting - we appreciate it. No spam or marketing comments will be published.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.