Why Do Horses Wear Blinders?
Horse tack, such as blinders, can be confusing for beginner and even novice riders, particularly when it comes to accessories. Blinders are often added to bridles for a variety of reasons, and you may have seen these in the form of partial plastic cups that are placed along the outside of the horse’s eyes. These can be a great tool for a few different reasons.
Why do horses wear blinders? Most commonly seen in carriage horses and racehorses, horses wear blinders to both encourage focus and limit distraction. Because a horse’s visual field is estimated to be around 350 degrees, distractions can come from almost anywhere around the horse. Blinders can help keep horses calm, and the people around them safe.
There are several different kinds of blinders, and each can be effective depending on its intended purpose. Keep reading to learn about the different types of blinders, how they are used to aid in a horse’s behavior and emotions, and what may be mistaken for blinders.
Top Reasons Horses Wear Blinders
Horses Wear Blinders To Prevent Them From Spooking
You don’t have to be around horses long before you will see one spook. When the stakes are high, in the likes of horse races and competitions, any competitive edge that can help your horse avoid spooking can make all the difference.
Horses can become alarmed when they see, hear, or feel anything that is unexpected. Common visual triggers include plastic shopping bags, floating balloons, or even shadows. I was once riding a seasoned Palomino that spooked when he saw a rock on the ground. It wasn’t even a particularly big rock.
Horses are prey animals, and while they are strong, capable animals, their first line of defense is almost always to run. Because of the placement of a horse’s eyes, they have a remarkable 350-degree field of vision. They are always alert – constantly scanning the horizon for potential threats, even while grazing.
Even the most experienced horse can spook. Frightened horses may freeze, switch direction suddenly, spin, rear, buck, or bolt. All of these behaviors are an equine’s natural response to a threat, but all of them can be dangerous to the rider or humans around them. This is an important reason that some working horses will wear blinders.
One of the most common situations in which you will see blinders is with carriage horses. These are horses that pull carriages in tourist locations, cities, parades, and even amusement parks. There is an immense amount of visual stimuli in these situations, and even the most docile carriage horse will be alert to the countless unfamiliar sights.
A carriage horse that is wearing blinders will still hear the activity going on around him, but will not be able to see to the side or rear of him. This cuts down significantly on the horse’s field of vision, therefore limiting the possibility of a dangerous spook.
Horses Wear Blinders To Help Them Focus
Because of the prey nature of horses, they will naturally be focused on their environment as opposed to what is directly in front of them. This is one of the reasons that a bond between horse and rider is so beneficial – when a horse trusts his rider, he is more likely to focus on his human as opposed to worrying about keeping himself safe.
In addition to preventing a horse from spooking, another benefit of limiting the horse’s field of vision is that it keeps him focused on what is in front of him. This is an obvious benefit for a carriage horse but is also the top reason that racehorses wear blinders.
Distracted horses don’t win races, and if a horse is focused on the fans in the audience or the many horses around him, he will not be focused on the finish line. Blinders can also be used to prevent the horse from seeing its jockey – jockeys use whips as an aid in a race, and some horses can become distracted by trying to anticipate the use of these aids.
Horses May Wear Blinders To Keep Them Calm
Some equestrians have found that blinders can calm particularly anxious horses. A number of seemingly normal sights and sounds can trigger a nervous horse, and limiting the horse’s visual stimuli can help bring that level of stress down. This can be especially helpful in a horse who is traveling or getting accustomed to a new environment.
Horses May Wear Blinders To Protect The Eyes
Horses may also wear (full) blinders to protect injured eyes. Eye injuries or illnesses are not uncommon in horses, and a horse may find himself needing treatments or even eye surgery. Using a blinder on an injured eye will keep it protected, clean, and free of pests as it heals (flies have a special affinity for horse eyes).
Blinders can afford another type of eye protection as well. When it was common to see carriages and coaches used for transportation, you would often see teams of horses – two in the front, and two behind them. Due to the early reining mechanisms, the eyes of the horses in the rear could be hit or irritated by the reins that connected the four horses to the driver.
Drivers began using cups along the outside of the rear horse’s eyes to protect them from the reins. It wasn’t until later that the benefits of using similar cups to keep the horses focused was discovered.
Different Types Of Horse Blinders
There are a few different kinds of blinders, or blinkers as they’re also known, depending on the purpose they are designed to serve. Here are some of the most common:
- Carriage Harness Blinders: The blinders that a carriage horse wears will often come with the bridle and harness. These are usually square-shaped plastic cups that have rounded edges that are attached to the headstall of the bridle. They sit right at the outside of the eyes so that the horse can only see what is directly in front of him – similar to how you would see if you placed your hands at the outside of your eyes.
- Standard Blinders: Many racehorses wear standard blinders, which restrict ⅔ of the horse’s visual field. These blinders are attached to a mask that the horse wears, with the cups allowing the horse to see only what is directly in front of him. Many of these also have a hole in the center of the cup so that the horse can see any other horses that are closing in on him.
- French Cup: The French cup blinder is another one commonly seen on racehorses masks – this is a less restrictive cup that limits the horse’s peripheral vision.
- Full Cup Blinders: Full cup blinders are just as they sound – full plastic cups that allow no sight at all. These will often be used to protect injured eyes, often with one cup pulled out to allow the healthy eye to see. These may also be used in racehorses who tend to veer one way or the other, with the full cup on the side the horse tends to drift toward.
- Shadow Roll: Shadow rolls are fleece tubes that secure to a horse’s noseband with velcro. This prevents the horse from seeing the ground beneath him. These are most often seen in racehorses and are used to prevent them from becoming distracted by the shadows of the other horses.
- Winkers: These have a variety of names but are similar in appearance to shadow rolls. These fleece tubes are secured to the horse’s cheek pieces though, instead of the noseband. They are commonly seen in Australian races and are used to limit the horse’s peripheral vision.
Horse Blinders vs. Fly Masks
If you have been confused by horses that you’ve seen on pasture with masks on, you’re not alone. What you are seeing is most likely a fly mask, commonly mistaken for blinders. Fly masks are mesh masks that are used to protect the horse from pests, most often seen in the Summer months when flying insects are at their peak.
Fly masks may also cover the ears or may not. They do not have holes around the eyes, but the horse’s vision is not obstructed, as the mask itself is mesh and breathable. It would be impossible to create an effective fly mask that had cut-outs around the eyes, as flies are especially attracted to the secretions that come from the eyes of a horse. This is very irritating for a horse, and most horses greatly prefer fly masks over fly-infested eyes.
Blinders Are Important For Both Horses And Humans
Some people may think it cruel for horses to wear blinders, but the truth is that they are very effective in keeping a horse focused and calm, which then impacts the safety of both the horse and the humans around it. In fact, one may consider it cruel to expect a horse to calmly pull a carriage through a parade of people without the aid of blinders.
Next time you see a horse with blinders on, consider that he is focused on his task at hand, and appreciate the fact that he is able to do so without a barrage of scary sights.