PRO­PRI­O­CEP­TION

EQUUS - - Conversati­ons - By Janet L. Jones, PhD

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

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