Horses have an acute sense of touch and their entire body has the same sensitivity as our fingertips. Therefore, touch is the most important tool we have when we communicate with or train our horses.
This sensitivity is due to a layer of ‘cutaneous trunci’ underneath the skin. Many mammals have this skin structure especially those that evolved in habitats where biting insect were a major problem. This structure allows horses to twitch their skin on any part of their body to dislodge an insect. Humans do not have this structure or ability.
This sensitivity to touch can be used to bond with a horse through scratching, rubbing and patting. It is always used in training through our hands, seat and legs. Horses can feel and respond to slight changes in weight, even through a saddle, so when we move our head and shoulders, our weight changes on our set bones and the horse responds. (See ‘The Rider’s Position’ for more details.)
The touch of our leg on a horse’s side can communicate a change of gait, change of direction and bend, to name just a few. These instructions are communicated by the position of each of our legs and the varying degrees of pressure that we use. (See ‘Riding Aids’ for more details.)
Our hands are also important, as they touch the horse through either a bit in its mouth, a bosal on its nose or pressure on its poll. The horse’s head is the most sensitive part of its body, which means that rough hands can cause great discomfort or pain to a horse. Therefore our hands should be steady and giving and only used to support, balance and indicate direction. Of course, in an uneducated or frightened horse your may need to use your hands as an emergency brake.
The long hairs on a horse’s muzzle are very sensitive. They allow the horse to feel objects that he cannot see. Due to the position of a horse’s eyes he cannot see down his long nose or directly in front of his eyes. When people shave these long hairs they are taking away the horse’s ability to feel with this part of his body.