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Horses and Their Sense of Hearing

Updated on October 24, 2014

Horse's Ears Are Part of Their Body Language

Horses have superior hearing and movable ears.
Horses have superior hearing and movable ears. | Source

Horses Five Senses Are Superior to People

I can always tell which is the front end of a horse, but beyond that, my art is not above the ordinary. ~Mark Twain

Horses are amazing animals, for their beauty, their strength, and their grace. The more you learn about a horse, the more amazing they are. Horses are well designed animals that has allowed them to survive millions of years. They have five senses that are superior in almost every way to human beings.

Their sense of hearing and the ability they have with their movable ears allows them to perceive dangers in their environment.

The Superior Hearing of Horses

According to a study done by the University of Kentucky, horses use their sense of hearing to:

  • listen for sounds

  • to determine where the sounds are coming from

  • to try to identify the sounds

Horses can hear a range of frequencies from very low to very high. The horses ears are the most movable of any animal. They can move their ears 180 degrees from front to back using ten different muscles. This allows the horse to concentrate on the direction the sound is coming from and single out one specific area to listen to and direct their attention to the noises of a possible predator. If the horse feels threatened, they can run the opposite direction.

It is believed that horses can hear sounds up to 4400 meters, which is equivalent to about 2.73 miles.

Human beings are able to hear sounds ranging from 20 Hz to 20 kHz, and are most sensitive to sounds around 1kHz to 3 kHz range. Horses are thought to hear from 55 Hz to 33.5 kHz. It is believed a horse is most sensitive around 1 to 16 kHz. Horses have more sensitivity to higher frequencies and lower frequencies than people, but there is not a well-defined best frequency. Horses can hear high-pitched sounds that people can't. People can hear some low pitched sounds that horses can't hear.

Horses are also very sensitive to the tone of voice of a person. Their hearing is superior to people’s. Horses can pick up vibrations through their teeth that are transmitted through the ground. They can also pick up vibrations that are low frequency through their hooves. This helps the horses be alert to predators.

Horses can hear sounds that are further away than people can hear. A horse is more sensitive to loud noises than people are. The wind can confuse horses because they hear many sounds from so far away.

Horses Have Movable Ears

The position of a horse’s ears can tell us where the horse is directing their attention and even the attitude of the horse. Ears that are flat back may indicate fear or anger. Drooping ears usually mean the horse is relaxed or sleepy.

Horses respond well to a human’s voice that is calm, confident, and even toned.

A horse’s hearing is better than a person's in many ways. They hear at higher frequencies than people do. They hear at lower frequencies than people do. A horse can transmit vibrations from the ground through their teeth as the horse grazes. The vibrations is conveyed to the middle ear and then through the jawbone. A horse also picks up vibrations through their hooves, and this helps alert the horse to predators.

Horses can hear sounds from further distances than people can. Often these sounds are several miles away. Because of their hearing sensitivity and their sense that they are prey animals, horses spook easily when they hear loud noises Even the wind, which blows things and allows the horse to pick up more noises from far away, puts the horse on greater alert.

A horse’s ears display their feelings of friendship, irritation, acceptance, dominance, and submission. Where they are looking, what they are watching, the things they are focusing on is often in the direction a horse’s ears are pointing. It is believed that horses read another horse’s ear position the way people read another person’s facial expressions. This helps horses understand what the other horse is thinking and to alert the other horse of potential danger. Studies show that animals pay attention to the gaze, head orientation, and eye direction of another animal. But horses eyes are on the side of their head. It is their very movable ears that tell another horse much more about what the horse is paying attention to.

Anatomy of a Horse's Ears

In the recently reported study, researchers in the School of Psychology, led by Jennifer Watham, at the University of Sussex in Brighton in the United Kingdom created an experimental design to analyze ear and eye positions in horses as a means of communication. They were able to show that one horse transmitted information to another about where food was through the positions of ears and eyes. When the ears or eyes were covered up, this transmission of information did not occur.

Horses can listen to more than one thing at a time.

The anatomy of a horse’s ear: A horse’s ear, like a person’s is divided into three portions:

  • outer ear - called the auricle or pinna - this is area we see and shows the mood of the horse. Made up mostly of cartilige and covered by skin and hair. The pinna is designed to capture sound wave and send them towards the ear canal and then on to the eardrum. The ear canal is very long in a horse. At the end of the ear canal is the ear drum. The ear drum called the tympanic membrane, which picks up sound waves that allow the horse to hear.

  • inner - cochlea which has to do with hearing and vestibular system which has to do with balance.

  • middle - made up of the eardrum a three tiny bones that sit in an air filled chamber. The three bones are called the malleus, incus, and stapes, which is latin for hammer, anvil, and stirrup.There are also two muscles, the oval window and the eustachian tube. The eustachian tube is a small tube that connects the middle ear to the back of the nose which allows air to enter the middle ear. The middle ear is the tympanic cavity. The malleus is attached at one end to the tympanic cavity. This starts a chain from one bone to another. The end of the stapes siton on a deeper membrane which separates the middle ear from the inner ear.

Within the inner ear are fluid filled channels that are lined with thousands of sensory cells that signal to the auditory nerves for hearing and the vestibular nerve for balance. Sound waves are transmitted to the brain and translated into what we hear.

When a newborn foal is born prematurely, the ears are often floppy, with poor development of cartilage at its base, A newborn horse that is sick or depressed, the ears will show issues that need attention right away.

A horse’s ears should be symmetrical.If one ear is flopping to one side, there could be a problem with paralysis or other neurological problems.

The inner ear plays an important role in the balance of a horse. The auditory nerve is located at the base of the and send the information it perceives to the brain where the sounds get translated and interpreted.

Horses and Their Five Senses

Horses have superior hearing to humans.
Horses have superior hearing to humans. | Source

Horses Can Move Their Ears to Focus on Sounds

Horses have 16 auricular muscles that control their pinna. People only have three muscles, which are pretty much useless in humans.

In a horse, the pinna collects sound waves and funnels it through the external ear canal, also known as the auditory canal. Then the sound waves go to the middle ear, which triggers the ear drum (a thin membrane) to vibrate. The vibrations are sent to the ossicles, where the three tiny bones and send the sounds to the inner ear, where the sound waves vibrate in the cochlea, which looks snail shaped. In the cochlea, sensitive hairs cells act as transducers. When the hair cells bend, an electrical signal stimulates the auditory nerve, which send impulses to the brain.

As a horse responds to the direction of a sound, they will flick their ears towards the sound. This is called the Pryer reflex, and helps them focus on the source of the sound. Seeing the direction their hears are pointing towards indicates what they are paying attention to. A horse will use their sense of hearing to help them pick up the sounds of a predator and other dangers in their environment. The earlier a horse can perceive impending threats, the earlier they can run to a safer place.

What horses do with their ears, also tells people about the horse’s temperament. Ears that flop forward or out to each side, are found to be kind and generous horses. Horses whose ears are pinned back are thought to be angry. This pose of pinned back ears is believed to date back to prehistoric times when horses would pin their ears down during a fight to prevent their ears from being damaged.

Horses hear sounds at high frequencies, but they are not good at locating the origin of the sounds. Some horses get nervous around certain sounds even are jumpy even though there is no predator. This happens if a horse associates the sound with negative prior experiences.

Although horses can listen to more than one sound, they don’t react to every sound they hear, and filter much of what they hear so that they can respond, by fleeing if necessary, to threatening sounds.

A horse’s hearing is far superior to that of people and is a necessary part of their survival instincts.

Comparison of Horse and Human Ears

People Hearing
Horse Hearing
movable ears
some people can wiggle their ears
can move their ears 180 degrees
sound range
hear sounds ranging from 20 Hz to 20 kHz,
10 muscles that move the ears55 Hz to 33.5 kHz
express feelings
point in the direction of the sound
have 3 bones that conduct sound
how many auricular muscles in the ear
3 tiny muscles that do nothing
16 muscles
Horses have superior hearing and can move their ears more than human beings can.

Horses Communicate With Their Ears

Horses rely on communication between other others to protect themselves against predators
Horses rely on communication between other others to protect themselves against predators | Source


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    • toknowinfo profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago

      Hi Dim, It is always nice to get a visit from you. I am glad you are enjoying my articles. Happy and Healthy New Year

    • Dim Flaxenwick profile image

      Dim Flaxenwick 

      5 years ago from Great Britain

      Love this. I love horses but know little about them.

      Now l know a little more.

      Thank you for writing a whole series of hubs on Horses.

    • toknowinfo profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago

      Hi Romanian,

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I am glad you learned some new things about horses. You might want to read my other horse articles too!

    • Romanian profile image


      5 years ago from Oradea, Romania

      It's an interesting article, I found new things about horses after reading this hub.

    • toknowinfo profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago

      Hi Bill,

      I wrote a series of six articles about horses and their senses.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      5 years ago from Olympia, WA

      I thought I had read this, but obviously I was mistaken. Very interesting information about my favorite animal. Thank you!

    • toknowinfo profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago

      Hi Virginia, Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I am glad you like the series about horses and their 5 senses.

    • VirginiaLynne profile image

      Virginia Kearney 

      5 years ago from United States

      What interesting information! I love this series. I think it will be helpful for lots of people and enjoyed by all horse lovers!


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