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Dust In The Sunlight

Posted by vwkoch, in horse stories 19 March 2012 · 75 views

Sunlight is a scary thing.  Dust in the sunlight is even scarier.  At least, it is if youíre a Nervous Nellie of the equine variety.

It all started when we had a couple snowstorms, interspersed with warmer weather.  The outdoor arenas and trails therefore resembled either skating rinks or ponds, depending on the temperature at the time.  So, everybody was riding in the indoor arena.

The indoor arena is pretty dark in the best of circumstances.  Itís even worse when snow covers the skylights.  However, sunlight tends to come through holes in various places, creating sunny spots on the arena floor which horses seem to be unable to interpret.  Some horses (including mine) jump over these spots when the rider doesnít avoid them.  The horses donít know what theyíd be stepping on, so they decide itís better to be safe than sorry.  Sometimes, it really IS hard to tell what the spot is, so I can sympathize with the horsesí confusion.

Recently, however, there was a shaft of sunlight coming in through a gap between the sliding doors that lead outside.  It was pretty obvious what it was and where it was coming from, but I knew it would bother my horse.  I just didnít imagine all the different ways she found to be bothered.

When we first approached it, she hesitated but continued forward at my urging.  The line on the ground was only a few inches wide, so she didnít even try to jump it.  Nevertheless, when we were about halfway past the door, she flinched away as if she were being attacked.  I think sheíd been keeping an eye on the light as she passed it, but she couldnít see it while it was on her neck.  When it reached her shoulder, though, she noticed it was shining on HER, and she thought sheíd been hit.  By the time she reacted, however, we were already by the door, and the light was behind us.  Being the lazy horse she is, she quickly settled down once she knew she wasnít going to be eaten.

It only took a few more passes for her to decide it was safe to go through the scary light, so for awhile, we had a reasonably relaxed ride.  Then, a few more people showed up to ride indoors.  It didnít take long for us to come upon the shaft of sunlight right after someone else had ridden through it, leaving swirling dust in their wake --- highlighted in the narrow beam of light coming through the doors.  Now, we not only had the sun on the floor --- we had an inch-wide strip of moving horse-eating material rising directly up from that scary line.  My horse did a double-take and a stutter step, but at my urging, she agreed to keep going through the dangerous barrier, which made me very proud of her indeed.  (Ah, what little it takes to please the owner of a flighty horse!)

It took her longer to feel safe enough to go through the dusty sunlight without hesitating, but by the end of the ride, she moved through it just as well as all the other horses (whoíd basically ignored it from the start).  Then, we started cooling off --- which mostly means just following the rut around the edge of the arena until sheís cool.  Sometimes, I work on things like square stops, backing, turns on the haunches or forehand, shoulder-in or Ėout, etc., but usually, I just let her do whatever she wants (within reason), so she may stop briefly to beg treats from onlookers, stop in a corner to poop, stop to scratch her nose on her leg, or whatever.  This time, she decided to stop to avoid running into a wall.

Well, it wasnít really a wall, but it looked like one.  Enough people were riding at that point to cause the dust to hang permanently in the air, and instead of a cloud about three feet high, the cloud of particles (unseen except for those in the beam of sunlight) was about six feet high.  When you came around the corner and saw the dust in the sunlight (if you were looking), it really did look as if you were going toward a wall.

Of course, most people werenít looking at the dust, so they didnít notice the effect.  However, Tori noticed it immediately and came to a complete halt, staring in surprise at the wall that had suddenly come out of nowhere.  Because she had sensitized me to the dust, I noticed it, too, and because we were just cooling off, I DIDNíT urge her forward but just waited to see what she would do.  Although she was surprised by the wall, she didnít appear to be frightened by it.  (We were only walking, after all, and she already knew she could go through the dust without being harmed.)  She stopped and stared at it only briefly, then resumed walking and went through it without showing any concern, but if you could have captured the wall of dust and her look of astonishment in a photo, it would have made a cute picture indeed.

The experience made me think about horse vision, too.  There are many facts and myths out there about how horses see things.  We know they have color vision, although itís not as good as ours.  We think they probably have good depth perception only in a narrow area in front of them, where they can bring both eyes to bear.  We know they can see with each eye independently, which is something very hard for us to imagine.  There is a myth that what a horse sees with one eye doesnít transfer to the other side of its brain, but it IS a myth.  There is also a myth that theyíre afraid of puddles because they canít tell how deep they are, which is also truly a myth, I think.  However, there is a lot we DONíT know about how horses see things.

Vision is as much interpretation as it is anything else.  If it werenít, there would be no such thing as optical illusions.  Tori and I both saw the illusion of a wall formed out of dust, but I suspect that, many times, horses see an illusion that we donít, because we interpret things differently.  For example, when sun coming through a hole makes a spot of sunlight on the arena floor, it might initially look like a piece of paper or something to me, but eventually, I figure out that itís only a spot of sunlight.  Horses, on the other hand, probably canít figure out what it is.  All they can do is learn that they can safely step on it.  If they choose to jump it instead, they may NEVER learn to ignore it, and theyíll continue to jump it because doing so works for them.

I think theyíre afraid of puddles for the same reason.  They donít know what they are, so they donít want to step into them.  Especially when the puddle is reflecting something, the horse might not recognize that itís just a puddle of water.  Once a horse learns that puddles are safe to walk through, itíll usually do so, but itís something the horse has to learn --- maybe even for each different puddle.  My horse will usually walk through puddles okay, but she will sometimes hesitate if the puddle is reflecting a lot of sunlight.

She will also get scared of things like puddles or even manure piles when weíre heading toward them on the trail.  Many of the roads at our stable are white gravel, so things like puddles and manure piles stand out as dark spots on the road that probably werenít there yesterday.  Something that simple is enough to scare my horse into stopping and wanting to turn back toward (or even away from) home.  When I make her go on, she relaxes once sheís close enough to see what the dark spot really is.  I also see whatever it is as a dark spot originally, but given the context (a recent rain or the shape of the spot), I can quickly interpret what the spot is, whereas Tori has to be close enough for it to be obvious what the spot is without having to use context to interpret what sheís seeing.

Because vision involves subconscious interpretation, and because horses interpret context differently from the way we do, we will probably never really know how horses see things, even if we eventually learn exactly how their vision works.  For example, some people suggest that horses donít generalize, which is clearly not true, but I think it IS true that horses donít generalize the same way we do.  For example, if somebody moves a sign a few feet further down the trail, I may not even notice, because to me, itís still generalized to a sign in a certain AREA of the trail.  However, I guarantee that my horse will notice, because to her it was a certain shape in a certain SPOT in relation to other shapes on the trail.  I suspect all horses would notice such a change (although few people would), but only the flighty ones would react so that you would KNOW they noticed.

At any rate, I value the times when, like my horse, I see spots of sunlight as pieces of something on the floor, or I see dust in sunlight as a barrier wall.  Such shared visions help me to understand my horse better when she shies at something thatís clearly harmless --- at least, clearly harmless in MY interpretation.  As much as I love her, I know my horse is not a human, and she will never think like one --- nor will I ever really be able to think like a horse, no matter how hard I try!

April 2014

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