Since horses see colors differently than humans, so it’s important to consider jump colors as they can influence horse and rider safety. Horses have dichromatic vision, which means they have two receptor types (light-sensitive cells in the retina of the eye) used in color vision. This gives them limited color vision, with the ability to see only one or two colors. However, they can be better at differentiating between different degrees of luminance (how light or dark an object is), and at detecting hidden objects.
Research done by Sarah Catherine Paul and Martin Stevens explored horse vision and the visibility of jumps in horse racing.
“This means that they have reduced color vision compared to humans, seeing colors along a continuous range from blue to yellow, and therefore cannot distinguish between many of the colours that humans see as red, orange, and green, unless they also differ in brightness,” the pair say.
For their work, 14 horses were trialed over a pair of jumps that differed only in the color of the takeoff board and midrail. Each horse was jumped over a pair of fences three times. All trials were filmed and the jumping efforts analyzed.
“Fence color significantly affected the way a horse jumped the fence with regards to its takeoff and landing distances, and the angle of takeoff that a horse made during a jump,” the pair reported in the journal, Applied Animal Behaviour Science.
“We found that, for horses, orange has poor visibility and contrast against most surroundings. In comparison, yellow, blue, and white are more conspicuous, with the degree of relative contrast varying with vegetation or background type.
According to the research, fence color influenced both the angle of the jump and the distances jumped: Bright blue produced a larger angle of takeoff and jumps over fluorescent yellow fences had shorter landing distances compared to orange, with bright blue fences driving a similar but non-significant trend. White was the only color that influenced takeoff distances, with horses jumping over white fences leaving a larger takeoff distance.
Overall, the researchers found that in jump races, current colors used as visibility features on fences and hurdles in UK horseracing are typically not optimized for maximum horse vision. Using different colors could improve visibility and improve safety and welfare. The caveat is that colors need to be suitable to the fence and the surroundings. Light blues provide higher luminance contrast than darker blues but blues and whites could blend in with the sky if used on top of a fence with no treeline behind it. Yellow was highly effective except in strong shadows and should therefore not be used at the base of jumps.
While the research was conducted for horse racing, the findings of the research could also be used for other jumping disciplines including eventing and show jumping. Making it easier for horses to assess and recognize the jumps can only make the sports safer.