Pricked up, drooping, or swivelling rapidly - a horse’s ears are always up to something! In this post, we’ll delve into horses’ hearing to help you understand how horses perceive the world.
The large, cup-like pinna - a part of the outer ear covered in skin, fur, or hair - funnels sound waves toward a horse’s inner ear. Horses’ conical ear shape allows them to focus their attention on one sound at a time.
Horses tend to pick up frequencies between 55 and 33,500 Hz, and humans those between 20 and 20,000 Hz. Horses’ ability to pick up higher-frequency sounds helps them hear predators. Interestingly, horses can detect low-frequency sounds while they’re grazing since vibrations travel via their hooves and jawbone to their ears.
Horses can detect sounds up to 4 km away and within a similar decibel range to humans, although their ears are better at hearing faint sounds. Horses are also experts at noticing our tone of voice.
Horses’ ears contain 10 muscles, as opposed to 3 for humans. Their ears can each rotate 180°, allowing them to listen to 2 different sounds simultaneously.
Horses’ Hearing Behaviour
Once its ears have determined a sound’s approximate location, a horse turns its gaze in that direction. It may raise its head to get a better view, then freeze to avoid being noticed. If the noise came from anything threatening, the horse will bolt.
As prey animals, horses find sudden noises frightening - especially in unfamiliar environments. Some horses particularly react to sudden noises. You can buy equine earplugs at a tack shop or insert cotton wads.
As a longer-term solution, try desensitization (gradually exposing the horse to frightening sounds in a nonthreatening environment) or counter-conditioning (rewarding the horse after it’s heard a scary sound).
Like humans, horses’ hearing can start to go for various reasons. Some horses with a splashed (white) coat pattern are born deaf. Others lose hearing in one or both ears due to an infection, head trauma, insects like ticks, a disease or other health condition, or ageing.
Horses seem to suffer from less age-related hearing loss than humans, although that could partly be because we tend to be exposed to more noises and toxic substances. Since hearing loss tends to start with higher-frequency sounds, you might not realize right away if a horse struggles to hear.
In general, it can be difficult to notice a horse’s hearing troubles since it takes in so much information using its vision, smell, and sense of touch. To check for deafness, see whether the horse reacts to a sudden noise like clapping your hands, or try a brainstem auditory evoked response (BAER) test.
There’s no way to cure horses’ hearing loss, although there may be a treatable issue like ear mites. However, deaf horses can get along perfectly fine, as long as their training and handling includes more visual and tactile cues.
Do you have a new appreciation for horses’ ears? Let us know in the comments!
Hello, My name is Shelby Gatti, and I am the owner of Shelby Ranch. I love being able to share my passion for animals with you and your family. At Shelby Ranch you can expect a ton of family adventure from horseback riding to mechanical bull riding & axe throwing.