Although it is largely the sense of touch that humans signal to the horse when riding, a good understanding of all the senses is very beneficial to effective horsemanship. The horse's hearing is far superior to that of a human, and his eyes work in a very different way to our own. As well as using body language to communicate with other horses, the horse relies on his senses of touch, smell, and hearing to exchange information and establish relationships. Let's look at three of the senses, and how they relate to riding:
The horse has a highly developed sense of smell. In the wild, this sense is vital for finding fresh food and water, and for sensing the presence of predators before they can be seen or heard. The sense of smell is particularly important to mares and stallions in the breeding season, but it is important to all horses as a means of recognizing members of their own herd; horses have communal rolling areas so that the herd has a single scent. It has been suggested that the horse can smell fear, although he is more likely to be picking up on a rider's nerves.
Horses will spontaneously reject bitter-tasting food by spitting it out. This reaction is a defense mechanism to help prevent them from swallowing poisonous plants (which often have a bitter taste). Conversely, horses enjoy sweet foods, and we can use sugar lumps, mints, and carrots as rewards in training. If you give a horse too many sweet treats, however, it can encourage him to nip, so be warned! The horse's taste buds are less well developed than our own. Horses always smell their food before tasting it to check what it is. We can use sweet-smelling additives to encourage horses to eat food that they would otherwise not be keen on.
In humans below the age of 25, the range of hearing extends from approximately 20 Hz to 20 kHz. In contrast, horses have a range from 55 Hz to 35 kHz, which means that they are able to hear many higher frequency sounds that we cannot hear. This is why horses become distracted for what appears to be no good reason. In addition they can rotate their ears more than 180 degrees, pinpointing the source of sounds from a great distance. Generally speaking, the ears show where the eyes are looking, but they also signal a horse's emotional state, i.e. ears pricked forward show a horse who is startled or alert and interested in something. When a horse is frightened, angry, depressed or in pain, he will flatten his ears backwards. Horses are sensitive to voice tones, as any horse owner will know, and can distinguish between harsh tones of anger and gentle tones of praise. So the voice should definitely not be underestimated as a riding aid.
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