Weekly Training Tip from Kate Chadderton: Horsemanship and Your Senses

Kate Chadderton is an Australian native who operates her competition and training business in Annapolis, MD and Aiken, SC. She’s back again to share weekly tips and advice with EN readers. Keep an eye out for a new tip each week from Kate!

Kate Chadderton and VS McCuan Civil Liberty. Photo by Leslie Wylie.

Both humans and horses have five basic senses, although not all of them immediately make sense to use in your training. Ironically, as riders, we are fairly in tune with the horse’s senses but not so much ours and how they affect our riding and horsemanship. Below I try to go into each sense for both horse and rider and how they relate to each other.

Touch — This is the most obvious sense when it comes to riding.

Horse: As horses can’t understand our spoken word (although I had a pony when I was younger who I SWORE knew at least 100 words, especially when it came to food types!) they rely on our feel/touch for communication.

Human: We are taught that touch is super important from our very first interaction with horses. We learn to be gentle and to touch the horses where they like and avoid areas they don’t. As we progress as riders we learn about touch/feel and how to communicate through our reins, seat and legs. Too strong or too light of a touch can lead to confusion between the horse and rider — i.e. too strong of a half halt will get a strong and negative reaction from the horse

Sight — Sight is another obvious sense to use in horsemanship, and is generally learnt after touch.

Horse: Being prey animal, sight is an extremely important sense to their safety and comfort. Just try walking up behind a horse or skittish horse to see how observant they are!

Human: Sight is super important to horsemanship as it’s almost always our first opportunity to asses a horses well being. You can see a lameness, a cut, an injury (and goodness knows there are about a million different ways a horse can injure themselves!). You can see in a horse’s eye that he’s ‘not feeling himself.’

Hearing — This may seem a bit more like the horse’s responsibility but the horseman has an equal part in this sense.

Horse: Again, horses use this sense as part of their security program in the wild. A good stallion or lead mare always has an ear on their environment so they can alert the herd about danger. This transfers through to the riding horse; you’ll find that more careful horses react to the sound of rails falling, snow sliding off the roof, squirrels running through the bush, etc.

Human: This isn’t an obvious use of your senses with riding. However it drives me CRAZY when I see riders schooling or hacking with ear phones in. Firstly, you and your horse are now working in different environments; he’s not listening to that super awesome new Selena Gomez/Drake song and you can’t hear that horse running around in the field next door making him anxious. You can also hear a loose shoe, hear a car coming up behind and hear the dogs chasing squirrels through the bush and therefore can prepare your horse appropriately.

Smell — Again not so obvious from the riders stand point but still useful.

Horse: Horses use smell to find safe forage and to smell prey. On a side note, it’s another pet peeve of mine when riders shave horses whiskers. It’s cruel by taking away part of both smell and touch. You only have to watch a horse forgoing to see just how much they rely on them. And no, shaving their whiskers doesn’t not help them score better in the dressage ….

Human: While not as important as the other senses, smell is still useful. You can smell thrush, you can smell the freshness of your horse’s grain and hay, you can smell the cleanliness of their stall — all important things to a horse.

Taste — This is the only sense which is overwhelmingly more important to the horse than the rider.

Horse: Related to smell, horses use taste to asses the quality of their food which is super important.

Human: There’s not much a human can use taste for with horsemanship, except maybe to check the treats are tasty and fresh!

The next time you’re riding, try using your other senses for a while and see how much more you in tune you get with your horsemanship!