Want to Improve Your Horse Care? Use Your Senses!

When most equestrians think of senses, I imagine that the sense of sight first comes to mind. What is more gorgeous to look at than a horse, right? But a person who is sighted often forgets that people can and do absorb information in other ways.

Years ago, I volunteered at a therapeutic riding center. I later became a NARHA certified instructor (NARHA has since changed its name to PATH International- Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship). I eventually worked at the center as a staff member. My experiences there gave me lots of exposure to folks with sensory differences. It made me think about the varied ways that many different kinds of people experience the world.

If you are sighted, you absorb a tremendous amount of information through your eyes. It is easy to forget that there are other senses that can give us “insight” into the world around us.

We can use other senses in our backyard horse-keeping to either add to the information that we absorb through our eyes or lead us to an awareness that we might not have “observed” otherwise.

Sometimes we can pick up on issues that are not actually visible to the eye but rather knowable through touch, smell, hearing or resonance. Here are some examples of how I try to incorporate the use of multiple senses in my backyard horse care.

TOUCH– We can feel texture, heat, cold and movement through our hands. This can help us detect health issues that we can only feel and not see. For example, at the start of Winter, I was running my hands across Shiloh’s back and felt a lump. His coat was thick enough at that point in the season that the lump was not at all visible. Upon further inspection, I believed it to be a small spot of rain rot. I applied sheath cleaner to remove the scab, gently cleaned the area with water and kept an eye on it. The skin quickly healed over and the hair grew back before the worst of Winter (if it had not healed or if it had started to spread, I would have called a vet out to take a look and give an official diagnosis and advise me on a course of better treatment). Periodically running an un-gloved hand through my horse’s Winter coat helped me nip a potentially big problem in the bud.

Here is the spot on Shiloh’s back where I felt a lump. You can see his pink skin showing through after the hair crusts were removed.

SMELL– Thrush, a festering wound and dental issues can emit distinct odors as can moldy hay. Ditto for a stall that needs cleaning. Not to get too gross, BUT, when my horse, Bear, has experienced diarrhea, I notice that it has a differing odor from normal horse manure. I can often tell if he has been recently stressed just by how a manure pile smells before I even get close enough to see its consistency. I know, not the most pleasant subject, but if you are a backyard horse-keeper, these are the kinds of details that you will want to note. No one else may be around to notice and address the issue if you don’t.

HEARING– There have been several times I have heard a problem before I saw it. A lose shoe can’t always be seen but it can be heard, especially on a hard surface. Another example is my experience of filling up the water trough on a hot summer day and then heading into the house with my back turned towards the pasture. If I had not heard the tell-tale sloshing sound, I would not have realized that Bear was standing in the water trough giving himself a nice splash bath. While I don’t begrudge him the opportunity to cool off, he tends to splash every last drop of water out of the big rubber buckets. If I don’t hear the noise, he and his pasture mates will be without water all night long. And yes, I often place a second big rubber bucket out in the heat of Summer, but Bear has been known to take a double-bath . . .

RESONANCE– This is a word that you see used in many diverse areas of study from physics to marketing. One of my favorite definitions of the word comes from music where resonance is described as “reinforcement and prolongation of a sound or musical tone by reflection or by sympathetic vibration of other bodies” (taken from yourdictionary.com). Have you ever had a feeling about your horse? An intuition about something going on with him or her? An impression of what they might be thinking? Sometimes those are informed by something you see, hear or smell, but sometimes not. It comes from a totally different place outside of those senses. While some people dismiss those feelings as too “woo-woo” to be real, there is scientific backing for the idea of resonance or vibration between beings, including across the horse-human divide. Of course, we can mistakenly project our own thoughts and feelings onto our horses (people do this too each other all the time), but we can also accurately pick up on things going on with other people and animals. And our horses and other animals can pick up on things going on with us! Listed below are some links that discuss fascinating research into these areas. I often ponder ways that my horses and I can influence each other through this concept of resonance; I think about how I might be able to use the idea of resonance to set a positive tone for my horses when I am with them in my backyard.

https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2016/02/how-horses-read-human-emotions/471264/

https://thehorse.com/136859/scientists-study-horse-human-heart-coupling/

https://thehorse.com/121855/horses-react-to-human-heart-rates-study-finds/

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/24360574_Investigating_horse-human_interactions_The_effect_of_a_nervous_human

I suspect that horses, and animals in general, are much more adept at experiencing the world across their many senses than humans generally are. I think this is part of why so many of us are strongly drawn to them. In being around them, we get this marvelous opportunity to stop overthinking and to start feeling/sensing.

Note that using our senses of touch, smell, hearing and resonance doesn’t have to be all about problem identification! Using all our senses can enrich our positive experiences at the barn if we pay attention.

Think about the smell of fresh hay, the softness of a horse’s muzzle, the sound of a gentle nicker or the feel of electricity going through you as your horse gallops around the pasture with his tail raised and mane flying. And let’s not forget about riding. Riding a horse is its own exquisite feeling. All that dynamic movement is amazing.

Being around horses, whether on the ground or in the saddle, can be quite the sensory experience. That is, if we notice it. If we allow it.

You may note that I did not mention the sense of taste. I omitted it because I can’t think of anything that might be safe to taste in the course of horse care, other than sharing human-edible treats like apples, carrots and the like.

So, what senses do you incorporate into your own horse-keeping?

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