The wall of the eye is made up of three layers: the internal or nervous tunic, the vascular tunic, and the fibrous tunic.
Although usually dark brown, the iris may be a variety of colors. This includes blue, seen mainly on double-dilute horses such as cremello and perlino, as well as horses with bald face markings, particularly sabino, overo or tovero patterns seen in pinto coloring; hazel/amber, usually linked to the champagne gene; and greenish-blue, usually seen in young horses with the champagne gene.
The eyelids are made up of three layers of tissue: a thin layer of skin, which is covered in hair, a layer of muscles which allow the lid to open and close, and the palpebral conjunctiva, which lies against the eyeball. The opening between the two lids forms the palpebral fissue. The upper eyelid is larger and can move move than the lower lid. Unlike humans, horses also have a third eyelid (nictitating membrane) to protect the cornea. It lies on the inside corner of the eye, and closes diagonally over it.
The lacrimal apparatus produces tears, providing nutrition and moisture to the eye as well as helping to remove any debris that may have entered. The apparatus includes the lacrimal gland and the accessory lacrimal gland, which produce the tears. Blinking spreads the fluid over the eye, before it drains via the nasolacrimal duct, which carries the lacrimal fluid into the nostril of the horse.
The ocular muscles allow the eye to move within the skull.
Like most animals of prey, the horse's eyes are set on the sides of its head, allowing it close to a 350 degree range of monocular vision. This provides it the best chance to spot predators. The horse's wide range of monocular vision has two "blind spots," or areas where the animal can not see: in front of the face (making a cone that comes to a point at about 3-4 feet in front of the horse) and right behind his head, which extends over the back and behind the tail when standing with the head facing straight forward. Therefore, as a horse jumps an obstacle, it briefly disappears from sight right before the horse takes off.
There is a trade-off to a wide range of monocular vision: The placement of the horse's eyes decreases the possible range of binocular vision (vision using both eyes at the same time) to around 65 degrees on a horizontal plane, occurring in a triangular shape primarily in front of the horse's face. Therefore the horse has a smaller field of depth perception than a human. The horse uses its binocular vision by looking straight at an object, raising its head when a horse looks at a distant predator or focuses on an obstacle to jump. To use binocular vision on a closer object near the ground, such as a snake or threat to its feet, the horse drops its nose and looks downward with neck somewhat arched.
A horse will raise or lower its head to increase its range of binocular vision. A horse's visual field is lowered when it is asked to go "on the bit" with the head held perpendicular to the ground. This makes the horse's binocular vision focus less on distant objects and more on the immediate ground in front of the horse, suitable for arena distances, but less adaptive to a cross-country setting. Riders who ride with their horses "deep," "behind the vertical," or in a rollkur frame decrease the range of the horse's distance vision even more, focusing only a few feet ahead of the front feet. Riders of Jumpers take the horse's use of distance vision into consideration, allowing their horse to raise the head a few strides before a jump, so that the animal is able to assess the jump and the proper take-off spot.
The horse also has a "visual streak," or an area within the retina, linear in shape, with a high concentration of ganglion cells (up to 6100 cells/mm² in the visual streak compared to the 150 and 200 cells/mm² in the peripheral area) . Horses have better acuity when the object they are looking at falls in this region. They therefore will tilt or raise their head, to help place the object within the area of the visual streak.
The horse is very sensitive to motion, as motion is usually the first alert that a predator is approaching. Such motion is usually first detected in their periphery, where they have poor visual acuity, and horses will usually act defensive and run if something suddenly moves into their peripheral field of vision.
Horses are not color blind, but have two-color, or dichromatic vision. This means that they see two of the basic three wavelengths of visible light, compared to the three-color trichromic vision of most humans. In other words, horses naturally see the blue and green colors of the spectrum and the color variations based upon them, but cannot distinguish red. Research indicates that their color vision is somewhat like red-green color blindness in humans. This means that certain colors, especially red and related colors, appear more green.
Dichromatic vision is the result of the animal having two types of cones in their eyes: a short-wavelength sensitive cone (S) that is optimal at 428 nm (pastel bluish-gray), and a middle-to-long wavelength sensitive cone (M/L) which sees optimally at 539 nm, more of a yellowish color. This structure may be due to the fact that horses are most active at dawn and dusk, a time when the rods of the eye are especially useful.
The horse's limited ability to see color is sometimes taken into consideration when designing obstacles for the horse to jump, since the animal will have a harder time distinguishing between the obstacle and the ground if the two are only a few shades off. Therefore, most people paint their jump rails a different color from the footing or the surrounding landscape so that the horse may better judge the obstacle on the approach. Studies have shown that horses are less likely to have a rail down when the jump is painted with two or more contrasting colors, rather than one single color It is especially difficult for horses to distinguish between yellows and greens.
Horses have more rods than humans, a high proportion of rods to cones (about 20:1), as well as a tapetum lucidum, giving them superior night vision. This also gives them better vision on slightly cloudy days, relative to bright, sunny days . However, they are less able to adjust to sudden changes of light, such as when moving from a bright day into a dark barn. This should be taken into consideration during training, as certain tasks, such as loading into a trailer, may frighten a horse simply because he cannot see. It is also important in riding, as quickly moving from light to dark or vice-versa will temporarily blind the horse, and make it difficult for him to judge what is in front of him. When riding cross-country, extra care must be given to obstacles set in the shade, as there have been cases where the horse has only had a stride in a dark area before the fence, and has misjudged the take-off and height of the obstacle, resulting in a fall.
Any injury to the eye is potentially serious and requires immediate veterinary attention. Clinical signs of injury or diesase include swelling, redness, and abnormal discharge. Untreated, even relatively minor eye injuries may develop complications that could lead to blindness. Common injuries and diseases of the eye include: