I was visiting a local barn, and the sudden appearance of brightly colored heads over the stalls took my breath away. All the horses had bright head coverings on, many with strange designs and patterns, and one even sported a set of blinking sexy eyes painted on.
My friend asked me why the horses’ eyes are covered. Even though I occasionally cover my horses’ eyes because of eye infections, there are many other reasons for covering or limiting a horse’s vision.
There are many reasons for covering a horse’s eyes. The most common reason is to protect against flies, especially when the horse is struggling with a medical eye condition or infection. Trainers also cover horses’ eyes to limit their distraction and increase focus. During races, work, and other activities, the jockey will often cover a horse’s eyes to limit vision and reduce startling them.
It’s a little more complicated, and I will walk you through these reasons in more detail. Then, I’ll show you how to fit a horse fly mask properly so you don’t injure or hurt your horse. Let’s dive in!
Reasons for Covering Horses’ Eyes
There are many reasons to cover a horse’s eyes. And, just because a horse’s eyes are covered doesn’t mean they can’t see. Most horse-eye coverings are made from a semi-transparent mesh that allows the horse to see still.
Let’s get into the most common reasons for covering a horse’s eyes:
1. Protection From Flies and Irritants
Several medical conditions heal easier if your horse’s eyes are covered and protected from flies. These include runny eye infection, recent eye surgery, or light sensitivity. Covering their eyes helps protect them from light, wind, and foreign objects, like hay particles and insects. The most common of these eye coverings is a fly mask.
A fly mask is a mesh cover that slips over your horse’s ears and straps around the lower jaw with velcro. Some fly masks come fitted to flat nylon halters, but these can be dangerous if your horse is grazing in a large pasture or an area fenced with barbed wire or if the pasture has many trees as the halter can hook and cause serious injury to your horse.
The velcro fitted fly mask is designed to rip away if your horse should accidentally hook the mask on something. These masks keep your horse’s eyes free from bugs like flies and midges, and it also helps diffuse the wind that may be blowing in your horse’s eyes. I’ve noticed that it greatly impacts healing when your horse has a weepy eye or a serious eye infection. These fly masks also help prevent sun damage to horses with light-colored eyes or pale eyelids that can sunburn.
If you want something a little more close-fitting, you can opt for a lycra fly mask (Found here on Amazon), which pulls straight over your horse’s head, sitting snugly against their skin.
Fly masks can also help protect their ears or nose. Some horses have very pink skin on their noses, which can become sunburnt. Having a fly mask fitted with a nose-sleeve helps keep the sun off their soft nozzles, which can prevent sunburn.
Horses with sensitive ears, who tend to headshake when their ears encounter any bugs, benefit from having a fly mask fitted with ear veils (Found here on Amazon). These cover the ears with a mesh section to keep bugs out.
When a horse has their mane and forelocks shaved off, such as polo-crosse ponies, require a little help to keep the wind and flies from their eyes and faces. It is vital to help protect them with a fly mask. Other horses rub their forelock off due to ticks or itchiness, and they may require a fly fringe, which artificially replaces their forelocks to help them protect their eyes.
2. Training Reasons for Covering a Horse’s Eyes
There are many reasons why covering a horse’s eyes, even partially, is beneficial to the horse and rider during training. An easily distracted horse can benefit from having a correctly fitted set of blinkers attached to its bridle. Should a horse have an eye injury that has impaired their vision, such as a cataract or corneal scar, they may be less spooky during training and riding when that eye is covered with a blinker.
When you are desensitizing your horse to different things, you may choose to cover their eyes partially, and simply covering their eye with your hand can help you break their fixation on a frightening object.
3. To Maintain the Safety of Carriage Drivers and Passengers
Carriage drivers use carriage blinders that slip onto the horse’s bridle. These partly block the horse’s vision, thereby preventing the horse from seeing behind them. This helps the horse remain calm when they are hitched into the traces of the carriage.
Another reason carriage horses are often fitted with blinkers or blinders because they don’t always pull with the same teammate. Having them unable to see the horse next to them helps them be calm and avoids them fighting while harnessed, which can be really dangerous.
They also help horses to adjust to the sounds and busy world of cities. Blinders minimize the sight of cars, bikes, and people passing them and help to keep them calm.
4. Eye Protection
Carriage racing, also called harness racing, usually uses goggles to prevent mud from flying into their eyes when they pass behind the horses in front of them.
4. To Reduce Peripheral Vision
Racing blinkers are usually hard-shaped cups that cover the horse’s peripheral vision. Racehorses are often fitted with this to prevent them from seeing the other horses coming up behind them. When racing, a horse may not listen to the jockey if they see the other horses. It helps the horse focus on the track ahead of them.
If a racehorse is skittish or tends to react when they see the rails and the starting box, it can also help fit them with racing blinkers.
5. Reduce Startling
Some horse sports require the rider to lean to the side, often wielding a hammer, sword, or lance, such as polocrosse or gymkhana (or tent-pegging). This can frighten the horse, so wearing a blinker may help prevent the horse from seeing the weapon slide past them. This makes it safer for the horse and rider as the horse will be less inclined to jump to the side or spook.
6. Protection In Dangerous Situations
Many countries across the world use mounted police to help with crowd control. This can become a dangerous situation with people throwing things at the officers. As a result, police horses often wear clear face shields or visors to protect them from flying objects, damaging their eyes. While these are clear and the horses can see through them, these visors do cover the horses’ eyes.
7. Loading in a Trailer or Horsebox
Your horse may not like confined spaces, and helping them enter a small space like a trailer or horsebox might require that you place a cloth over their eyes or even use a set of racing blinkers so they can’t see the sides of the box. Be careful about only covering one eye as this may scare the horse more than covering both.
8. Preventing a Nervous Horse From Seeing the Veterinarian During a Procedure
When horses don’t like needles and injections, just like people, they do better when they can’t see the needle coming. So covering your horse’s eye on the side where the vet is working can help them be less jumpy. If the vet has to suture a cut in the horse’s line of sight, it may also help keep them blindfolded so they can’t see what is happening (even though they will be sedated).
9. Helping Your Horse Move Past a Frightening Object
Sometimes, while leading your horse, you may have to move past a too frightening object for the horse to pass. It is rare, but you may need to cover your horse’s eye on the side of the scary object. By covering their eyes, even for a few moments, you help them mentally calm down and “reset.” It can help soothe your horse.
How To Safely Completely Cover Your Horse’s Eyes
Items 1-6 only partially cover the horse’s eyes. While fly masks may seem to cover the horse’s eyes fully, horses can still see through them quite well. Blinkers, while solid, only cover the side of the horse’s eyes, and they can still see ahead of them without obstruction. So, why would you want to cover your horse’s eyes completely?
Horses are flight animals, so they rely on their senses to warn them of danger and guide them to safety. A horse will not willingly accept their eyes being covered unless they trust you, so be sure to build your relationship with your horse to cover their eyes completely safely.
When you cover their eyes with a non-transparent cloth, your horse may have a serious over-reaction the first time as their instinct is to run or bolt when they can’t see. Be sure to do so safely and calmly, having your horse haltered to help you control them better. Even fitting a fly mask for the first time can be daunting, so be sure you can control your horse or hold them with the halter long enough to take the fly mask off if your horse doesn’t tolerate it well.
Checklist for Safely Covering Your Horse’s Eyes or Face
When you cover your horse’s eyes, whether, with a permanent cover or a transparent cover like a fly mask, you must ensure your horse will be safe wearing these. Check the following:
- When you fit a fly mask for the first time, be sure to have a halter on your horse so you can restrain them if necessary and keep yourself safe too.
- Don’t send the horse into a large paddock with a halter if you are not 100 percent sure they will not hook on something.
- Ensure the eye cover is fitted in a method that will release when it hooks on something instead of twisting around the horse’s head and potentially causing them serious injury.
- If your horse needs to move around and graze, it is essential they can see through the eye cover and see where they are going.
- Fit the fly mask, fly fringe, blinkers, or blinders correctly to ensure the covering doesn’t cause rubbing or abrasion of the horse’s head and face.
How to Correctly Fit a Fly Mask to Your Horse
One of the most basic errors that first-time horse owners (and owners who have never had to use a fly mask before) make is the incorrect fitment of a fly mask. It’s not rocket science, but I’ve m going to show you here are the basic steps to help you correctly fit a fly mask and safely cover your horse’s eyes:
Step One: Show the Horse the Mask
This horse has an eye ulcer, which means she has to wear a fly mask to protect the eye. Showing her the mask allows her to calmly let me fit it correctly. Note how I stand with my body facing forward, the same as the horse. I keep a slight nose pressure to keep her head down with my right hand, and with the left, I start to raise the mask to her ears.
Step Two: Slip the Mask Over the Horse’s Ears
Slipping the earloop over one ear and then the next, I work with one arm supporting the horse’s face and the other passing under her jaw. This allows me to stop her from moving away or potentially hitting me in the face with her head.
Step Three: Pull the Fly Mask Into Position
Taking hold of the mask at the bottom, I can pull it down into position, checking that the two darts sewn into the mask are not pressing onto her eyes.
Step Four: Tighten the Fly Mask Into Place
Attach the velcro strap below the jaw as indicated, and move to Step Five to check the correct tightness of the mask across your horse’s face. If it is too tight, release the velcro a bit to help ease the tightness.
Step Five: Check the Fly Mask for Correct Tightness
The fly mask should fit no tighter than two fingers passing under the nose piece. This is to allow the horse room to move. Any looser and your horse will likely lose it for no reason, and any tighter, and it can damage the soft cartilage of their nose bridge.
Where Did Eye Coverings for Horses Originate?
Most likely, horse-eye coverings were first designed to protect the horse’s eyes during battle and jousting. The medieval knights would have fitted blinkers to protect their horses’ eyes from wood splinters from shattered lances as they jousted at tournaments.
In the confusion of a battle, warhorses would have behaved better if they could not see the enemy around them. Blinkers helped war horses focus on what the rider was telling them to do.
The original designs of harnesses and traces for carriage horses may also have posed a risk to horses’ eyes, which is why wearing blinkers might have become popular.
Covering your horse’s eyes is something you should do for a specific reason, not just because you can. Prepare your horse carefully, so this is not a frightening experience for them, and do so in a safe manner to ensure you and your horse are both protected.
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