Colour changes that can help horses see fences so much better
PUBLISHED: 11:45 10 October 2018 | UPDATED: 11:45 10 October 2018
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Red, orange and green are vivid, bright and strikingly different to the human eye but to horses they don’t appear that way. Sheena Grant reports on new research which is set to bring major changes to jump racing and perhaps other equestrian sports too.
Fences in British racing are set to undergo major changes after research proved what many horse owners have long suspected: there are major differences in equine and human vision.
Researchers say their findings that horses have reduced colour vision compared to humans and only differentiate objects in a palette of blues and yellows are important not just for racing but for other disciplines too and will be widely shared.
As a result of the research, which showed horses see the current orange framework used on jump racing fences as a shade of green, horseracing authorities have agreed to trial fluorescent yellow and white marks to aid visibility.
The cutting-edge research by the University of Exeter, commissioned by the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) and Racing Foundation, showed horses adjusted their jump angles when orange was not used, with white tending to produce a longer total jump distance.
As part of the research, the visibility of orange markers and other potential colours was tested at 11 racecourses, and – in collaboration with trainer Richard Phillips – the behavioural responses of horses to more prominent colours was assessed in a controlled environment.
Retired jockey Ian Popham, one of two riders involved in the trial, said: “From riding over the different coloured fences it was clear to me that over some colours the horses reacted differently and showed the obstacle more respect. I’m sure other riders will feel the same and this feels like a great idea and opportunity to make the sport safer for both horses and jockeys.”
The next phase of the project will see a more extensive trial take place at training grounds before rolling out the trial to a live racing environment.
At the same time, the BHA and RSPCA, who work together on an ongoing basis to develop new ways to make hurdle and fence design safe, will continue to look at whether any further improvements can be made to the construction of hurdles, alongside the different use of colour.
Professor Martin Stevens, chair in sensory and evolutionary ecology at the University of Exeter, said: “Understanding how animals see the world and using cutting-edge tools to investigate this has a valuable role to play in guiding the safety and welfare of animals and humans in a variety of contexts. This project demonstrates how modern science can look to have widespread positive implications in human society and our interactions with animals.”
BHA figures show the rate of fallers in British races has declined by 29% since 2004 because of a range of safety improvements and it is hoped this latest research will improve things further.
David Sykes, BHA director of equine health and welfare, said: “This project is an example of how British racing uses advanced scientific and veterinary research to constantly improve racehorse welfare, not only for thoroughbreds in Britain but across other nations and equine disciplines.
“As with the ongoing phased introduction of our padded hurdles – which have proven to reduce faller and injury rates – we will ensure to take our time with this project, make sure there are no unintended consequences and that the evidence of the ongoing trials continue to support the case for change.
“If that proves to be the case then we will look forward to seeing the new designs of hurdles and fences on racecourses, and hopefully further reducing our already declining faller rate.”
More on the science...
Horses see a reduced number of colours compared to humans and cannot distinguish between many of the colours humans see as red, orange, and green.
The jumping responses of horses to fences with orange, yellow, blue, or white take-off boards and guard rails was tested.
In the behavioural trials, horses responded to different fence colours and the colour of the fences plays a role in both the angle that horses jump a fence and the total distance. Horses adjust their jump angles with colours that are different to orange, and white tends to produce a longer total jump distance.
As a result of the research, a recommendation has been approved by the sport’s Racecourse Committee that a phased trial should be carried out using fluorescent yellow for all hurdles and guard-rails, and fluorescent white for take-off boards at fences. These colours have been determined to maximise visibility under a wide range of conditions for both humans and horses.
A project group will be created to manage the roll-out of the trial on training grounds, with results determining how it will be extended to a live racecourse environment and the results of the research will be widely shared with other equine sports.