To use blinkers (blinders) or not that is the question!?
I have over the years seen many arguments for and against and I've also broken ponies with and without or introduced them at different stages of the training process. I have found that the answer depends entirely on the horse or pony in question.
Do You HAVE to Use Blinkers?
Well the simple answer to this is no, you don't have to. Should you? well that's an entirely different question. Even for combined driving events it is not compulsory to use blinkers though you are likely to raise a few eyebrows if you don't and this is not something commonly seen at competitions.
Horses rely heavily on information received through their eyes but in general it may surprise you to learn that their vision is slightly blurrier and less colourful than our own. They do, however, see movement very well.
The eyes of a horse are large and placed laterally giving them a much broader field of vision specifically designed to spot predators. They also have the largest eyes of any land mammal
So how does the anatomy of the horse’s eye affect its behaviour?
We all know the scenario; you’re leading your horse to the field on a windy day and a paper bag blows out from the side of a building and your otherwise quiet stead leaps in the air or barges into you! You saw the paper bag and immediately assessed that it was harmless, but your horse didn’t see it the same way you did, and this set off alarm bells created by hundreds of thousands of years of genetics and evolution. Think about the food chain and where the horse has evolved within it, they are prey animals. They have evolved with excellent hearing and a broad field of vision along with the ability to run away and run away fast. Our inability to understand our horse’s behaviour stems from the fact that we expect the horse to see things the way that we do but they don’t.
Humans, like most predators have binocular vision, our eyes are located close together and on the front of our faces enabling us to focus on prey in front of us. A horse’s eyes are located on the side of their faces giving them exceptional peripheral vision which is monocular as well as binocular. It has just two blind spots, one directly in front when an object is about 4 feet away, and one directly behind it around 10 feet long in a cone shape. The horse eye also has poorer ciliary muscles than humans making it harder for them to focus, this is why horses will sometimes raise and lower their heads in an attempt to focus an object. Additionally, each eye can be seeing a different picture sending confusing messages and reinforcing the flight instinct in the horse.
The horse’s eyeball also operates a bit like a bifocal lens so when its head is down grazing it can look through the top part of the eye to scan the horizon for predators. If it needs to look at something closer, it will raise its head to look through the bottom part of the eye. Let’s imagine you are riding along and a dog darts out of the bushes, you very quickly focus on it with the help of your excellent ciliary muscles and establish what it is very quickly. The horse, on the other hand, sees the flash of movement and may lift its head up or even come to a complete stop in order to focus on what was a blurred moving object.
Having its eyes on either side of its head the horse can be receiving two separate messages about an object. Consider a dog yapping around its legs and running from one side to the other. The horse gets two separate messages sent to its brain about the dog moving around it. Is it any wonder that they prance about trying to keep the dog in their vision? This is why, when training you should repeat everything on both sides of the horse.
The fundamental differences in our vision go some way to explaining the horse’s response to things that we don’t understand. As predators, sorry but that’s what our eyes say we are, we take half a second to process what we have seen and its detail. Thus, we can make a quick decision on whether that thing is a problem or not. The horse in the wild doesn’t have half a second which could mean the difference between life and death, so it sees a tiny movement and reacts. If the movement turns out to be something harmless like a paper bag as opposed to a lion that’s ok nothing is lost by running away from the paper bag, as far as the horse is concerned at least.
How Does This Relate to Driving?
When the horse has it’s head up in a normal position it is using that lower part of the bifocal we mentioned earlier, this is designed for seeing far away. So, the carriage directly behind it is not only likely to be out of focus, it’s also in the threat zone where a predator would typically attack from. Couple that with the movement of a carriage which the horse is instinctively programmed to react to first and consider later and you have the potential for a frightening experience for everyone. Once the flight instinct has been activated it is almost impossible for you or even the horse to control, it is completely at the mercy of every genetic and evolutionary factor. If this does occur chances are the only way it will end is when the horse has got so hooked up it can’t run any more or it has managed to destroy any remnants of the carriage behind it.
Using blinkers can remove the first trigger in the horse’s natural responses to a predator behind it.
There are many horses and ponies who drive very happily, in some cases better, in an open bridle and that’s ok. What we would say is that you need to be very careful how this is introduced and each case should be assessed separately. Some horses don’t take well to blinkers at all and it makes them very nervous. These horses may benefit from an open bridle or they may just need more time to become accustomed to wearing blinkers. I have used a mixture of processes over the years and no two ponies have been the same, they all move at different paces and all have hiccups at different points in the process.
Beyond Natural Instincts Why Do We Use Blinkers?
One important function that the blinkers perform is protecting the eye from the driving whip. We use very long whips when driving and some have long lashes which can sometimes be difficult to control, particularly for the inexperienced. An untimely gust of wind can be all that it takes to misjudge your aim, this is not something that happens in ridden horses. The problem may be particularly prevalent if you drive a multiple where you may need to touch up the leaders and are thus flicking the whip forward beyond the wheelers. Multiples also require reins to be passed all the way along from the driver to the lead horse’s bit and the rein passes through a ring on the side of the bridle of the wheeler. Without blinkers the rein could rub on the eye of the wheeler.
Each country has its own traditions when it comes to driving turnouts. In the UK it is very much traditional to use blinkers and it appears very strange to see a horse being driven without.
Training To An Open Bridle
Each horse is different, that’s the main thing to remember. If you truly believe that your horse is going to be happier without blinkers, then by all means work through the process. Go back to the beginning and run through the process of breaking but without blinkers. You must monitor your horse’s reaction at every point and if tension builds, stop! It just isn’t worth the accident. Be very careful though, you can’t expect an established driving horse to suddenly drive happily without blinkers, you’re just asking for trouble.
There is always the option for a halfway house in using half cup blinkers which will give the horse a bit more vision but not a clear view behind to the carriage.
A Couple Of Training Tips
I regularly remove the horse’s bridle while it is still stood in front of the carriage but not in any way attached to it. We very often will disconnect the horse then unharness it all while stood in the same position in front of the carriage. I hope that if I am ever unfortunate enough to have a bridle rubbed off at the halt in a marathon or when driving out round the forest with the flies irritating the horse, I will have a few more moments to do something before the horse panics because he is used to seeing the carriage there.
Use a gullet strap which connects between the noseband and throatlash and goes some way to preventing the bridle from being rubbed off. These also have a handy ring to clip a lead rope on to.
I always use an underhalter which is slim and comfortable for the horse but gives something to grab hold of quickly. Imagine you are hitched up and the pony rubs its bridle off. Not only can it now see the carriage, but you have absolutely nothing to get hold of. Your groom can run to the head as fast as you like but then what do they do with nothing to get hold of?
You can plait the bridle headpiece on by taking a piece of forelock and a piece of mane and forming a plait over the top of the headpiece. This is a really good way of keeping the bridle on, particularly with those troublesome little welsh fellows with the tiny ears and the big hair!
Yes, you can drive a horse in an open bridle but consider whether it is a good idea. Tread very carefully and understand why we use blinkers in the first place.
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