Horse Senses, Part II

Learn the importance of your horse’s sight and smell senses.

This post is a continuation of last week’s post about a horse’s sight and smell. This week, we’ll discuss taste, hearing and feeling.

As riders, we seldom stop to consider or don’t understand that this wonderful, willing, giving horse experiences the world around him in a much different way than we do. Like us, however, the horse experiences the world through his “senses.” Like humans, the horse has the same five senses. As horsemen, we must remember that the horse’s senses are different from human senses in many ways. The five senses are sight, smell, taste, hearing and feeling.


The third sense, taste, is self-explanatory. Some horses prefer certain tasty treats, and others prefer different sensations through taste. Sometimes a horse will lick you to get the salt off your body. (But do not let a horse lick you, as that is putting the horse above you in the herd hierarchy.)

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We can use the sensitive ears of the horse as an instrument panel. The ears not only hear very well, but they can also tell us about the horse’s interest, his disposition and his alertness. Because the ears are able to be used in a directional manner, the horse hears things that we do not. For example, I was riding in Griffith Park, a hilly park in the middle of the greater Los Angeles area, when my horse started pointing his ears sharply at a huge bush, then sharply back at me. I neither heard nor saw anything, but the horse kept up the ear movement, prompting me to take a look. Behind the bush was a doe with a newborn fawn. If the ear signs had been ignored, a memorable experience would have been missed.

I use the horse’s sense of hearing to establish “ground discipline.” Ground discipline is defined as having the horse comfortable with me telling him what to do, at any time the horse is handled from the ground. I speak to the horse every time I approach to help the horse to be aware that I am near, and he stays comfortable while being approached.

To walk, use the voice command “walk.” To stop, the voice command of “ho” is used. To back, use the voice command “back.” And to trot, use the command “trot.” Using ground discipline every time the horse is handled, the horse learns to be obedient, becomes more comfortable in following your directions and does not have to guess what is coming up next.


Last, but far from least, is the horse’s sense of feel. A horse has a very wide range of feeling. A horse can tolerate a high level of pain. This can be observed watching horses romping and playing because they kick and bite each other with a great deal of force. While playing, the pain seems to be tolerated, but on the other end of the spectrum, a horse is sensitive to the slightest touch, like a fly landing on him and to the weight shift on his back from a rider.

While riding horses, sensitive feeling can be used to great advantage. The definition of an aid is “the way to talk to the horse” – telling the horse what you want him to do through his sense of feeling. This could be considered a brand new language for a rider to learn. The difficulty in using aids correctly can be compared to patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time, then reversing the movement without changing your hands. This means that the rider must learn to be well coordinated with not only the hands, but with all parts of the body. The horse is sensitive to everything he feels, so it is important that any touch or weight shift (use of balance) on the part of the rider means something to the horse or the horse could become confused or ignore the feel of an aid used improperly.

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It’s true that if you thump your horse hard enough, he will walk or do what he thinks you want him to do. A better way is to whisper – ask your horse to respond to your wishes by using gentle, light, invisible touches. The opposite of whispering is screaming; this is thumping your horse to demand his movements. Don’t “mumble” when you ride your horse; this means you do not clearly use the touch system to communicate with the horse. Continual or accidental touching can be very confusing to the horse. Being aware and in tune with your horse’s five senses will make your partnership better than ever.

Don Kleckner is a life member of CHA, which is an AQHA educational marketing alliance partner. To find a CHA instructor or accredited equine facility near you, click here.