nyone who who’s been around horses for long knows that they sense
the world in very different ways than we do. Their eyes, ears,
noses and skin are more highly tuned than ours and per-
ceiveceiv a range of information that human senses cannot
detect.d Their brains are focused on the external environ-
ment and do not permit them to mull internal plans,
intents andan thoughts. With all these differences, we might despair at the idea of
ever really communicating well with a horse.
Yet therethe is one means of sensory communication that is fairly direct. It’s called proprioception, the sense of body awareness that tells you where your body is in space. With practice, your own proprioceptive nerves allow you to feel where your horse’s legs are, how they are moving, whether his back is relaxed or tense, whether he is calm or frightened, how he changes in response to your physical pressure and release. Equine proprioception, in turn, permits a horse to sense the pressures, locations and tensions within their own bodies and ours. At any moment as he carries a rider, a horse with sharp proprioception knows not only where his legs are, but also where your legs are and what they’re doing.
Let’s suppose that when you bend your knee a little and press your calf against your horse’s side, he canters forward. Both of you have just made
use of proprioception. Your brain sensed the amount of calf contraction that was necessary, then released that contraction smoothly just as the horse’s brain picked up your signal. Sensing your leg pressure, he changed gaits. His brain calibrated the speed of that gait according to the amount of pressure against his side. It’s like a very complicated close-contact dance with you and your horse fused in muscular coordination at the level of both brains.
Horse sports place unusually steep demands on the human proprioceptive system. All athletes have to control muscle contraction, but riders have to contract their muscles while simultaneously keeping them relaxed. We also must isolate muscles within a natural group, flexing some while loosening or neutralizing others. Equestrians need precise gradation of muscle tension to cue horses in smooth, gentle ways. Our