What does a horse see in the mirror?

Interesting film of a horse's reaction to seeing her own reflection. She is clearly confused and goes to look behind the mirror to see where the 'other horse' is.

If you are interested in seeing what your horse thinks of a mirror this is a great environment to introduce one to gauge your horse's reaction. This horse is in her field with equine company, plenty of space to escape if she is worried and she can return to grazing if she is anxious.

Horse owners are often encouraged to put mirrors in a horse's stable if they live alone, are on box rest or even just generally anxious, as a form of enrichment. Some horse owners add them inside their lorry or trailer so their horse 'thinks they have company’ if they travel alone.

In studies looking at how horses reacted to the addition of a mirror in their stable, the initial response varied enormously – some approached it and immediately greeted their reflection, while others were aggressive towards it. Some owners report that their horse immediately calmed on seeing a mirror in their stable and it improved the quality of their horses lives. However in some cases this initial calming effect wore off after a month or so and the horse returned to being anxious. While mirrors may certainly help some horses, many are very worried by them. 

Horses have been reported to gradually become more anxious when the mirror is left in. Some have become aggressive and repeatedly attacked the mirror if it is not removed, even when they have never shown signs of aggression previously (I know of several who have injured themselves as a result of this). This is a great reminder that all horses are individuals and we need to assess the behaviour of each horse and act accordingly. Remember that your horse will have no choice but to live with the 'other horse’ in the mirror if they are locked in with them, and that may cause problems, rather than improve the situation. If you try a stable mirror and your horse shows any sign of becoming anxious, then don't leave him with it.

Of course horses need equine company and that is what we should all be aiming for. Using a mirror is simply putting a 'sticking plaster' on a much larger problem – social isolation. Horses are a social, herd species and it is unnatural for them to be kept away from their companions. Some horses are more anxious when stabled than others and we know that the stress and boredom of being isolated from other horses can lead to the development of abnormal behaviours such as stereotypies (aka stable 'vices'). Many horses are undersocialised and struggle with the presence of other horses so seeing another horse in a mirror in their stable can be very threatening to them. Socialising your horse is something that can often be easily fixed and a qualified behaviourist can help you and your horse address that. 

If your horse has to be stabled for long periods of time there are many ways you can improve his situation by enriching his environment. Have a look at the enrichment tips in my article 10 Steps to a Happy Horse’. Something as simple as having a cut out window so your horse can see, touch and mutually groom with his next door neighbour can make a huge difference to an anxious horse.

If you are going to put a mirror in your horse's stable then do make sure it is safe to use. Horse-safe acrylic stable mirrors are available from tack shops. Fix it at a height where your horse or pony can see himself at his normal relaxed head height. Put it somewhere he doesn't have to stare at himself all the time – don't fix a mirror the length of one stable wall for example – just put it in one corner so your horse can avoid looking at it if he wishes. Also fix it away from his normal feeding station so he doesn't feel threatened when he is eating.

References

The use of mirrors for the control of stereotypic weaving behaviour in the stabled horse - Lynn M McAfee, Daniel S Mills, Jonathan J Cooper

The use of a mirror reduces isolation stress in horses being transported by trailer - Rachel Kay, Carol Hall