How well can horses hear?

Pricked horse ears

Horses can hear better than humans. They can detect a wider range of sounds in terms of frequency and their hearing is more acute. Whereas horses can hear sounds up to 25,000 Hz (25 kHz), humans can hear sounds up to about 20,000 Hz and this ability diminishes to 12,000 Hz by the time we are in our 60s.

Pricked horse ears

Pricked horse ears. Photo: thesandarenaballerina.com

Thanks to the 16 muscles that control horses’ ears, they are mobile, far more so than those of humans. Their ears can be rotated through about 180°. Humans can barely move their ear flaps (pinnae). This allows horses to pinpoint the source of a particular sound. Horses frequently detect the sound before humans. Their hearing is so good that you could almost believe that they have a sixth sense. This may account for the ability of animals such as horses to detect the beginnings of an earthquake because low-level geophysical vibrations precede earthquakes which can be detected at the lower end of a horse’s hearing range.

Impending earthquakes can cause horses to become agitated and vocal just before the earthquake occurs. This is an early warning system for people. As is the case for domestic cats, some people believe that horses can detect the changing magnetic fields of the Earth. They can use this ability to guide themselves. There have been many examples of domestic cats travelling long distances returning home after their owners have taken them from the home to a new place. People are dumbfounded by this ability but it may be because of their ability to detect the Earth’s magnetic field.

Because of the horse’s sensitivity to sound, noisy environments may distress them. This may happen if a horse is kept near a busy road or other transportation system. Horses under these circumstances can become highly strung. A lot of noise for people may become an unbearable cacophony for a horse. Horses may flatten their ears under these conditions but it probably won’t be enough.

Police and parade horses are trained to resist reacting to sounds such as cheering, shouting and the noise of brass bands et cetera. These well-trained horses will resist reacting but they will still feel the intensity of the sounds that hits them as evidenced by their body language. Dr Desmond Morris argues that when training a horse, the trainer should use their voice more often than they do rather than physical means such as pulling and tugging because horses have such excellent hearing. The softly spoken word issuing a command would suffice.