It’s a common misconception that horses have a thick hide (almost like an elephant), when, in fact, horses have very sensitive skin.
Yes, it’s thicker than human skin but it is also loaded with nerve endings.
Horses can feel a tiny little fly landing on them and then shake the skin right under the fly to get it to move.
If the fly jumps off and lands on a spot right next to the previous one, the process is repeated once again, or the fly gets a targeted swat with the tail.
Now, I’ve heard every kind of opinion on how you should touch a horse – from that, you shouldn’t clap them at all (only gently stroke them as if they were a precious porcelain cup) to that it’s okay to whip, kick and slap them because “they just don’t get it otherwise”.
The way I think about it is to compare their experience to my own – I can feel an ant crawling up my leg and brush it off, but I can also take a pat on the back from someone and not feel pain.
But I do not appreciate or enjoy being slapped too hard or punched (or whipped). So why should I treat a horse this way?
Touch is very important to horses because they are social animals
A mare reassures her foal with a touch of her muzzle, and foals actively seek physical contact with their dams.
Mares respond to the touch of their foals in various ways, including milk let-down in response to the nuzzling and sucking stimulus of the foal.
Horses also love a good roll in the dirt – not only because of the benefits to skin and coat but because they like how it feels, kind of like a massage.
Horses can spend hours grooming each other and sometimes just leaning against or rubbing each other.
Some horses enjoy being groomed and scratched by humans so much that they visibly relax, they can lean into the groomer, sigh and murmur, raise or lower their heads, start quivering the lips as well as try to groom you back.
Horses especially love a good scratch when shedding season is in full swing!
Touch develops relationships and is comforting and reassuring
Grooming can occur between two best friends – they will often be seen standing out in the pasture in a nose-to-tail formation in a kind of “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours”.
Grooming is also a way for a subordinate herd member to show submission, respect and affection towards a dominant member, or a foal to an elder.
The intent behind the touch is what the horse reads.
If you approach a horse when you’re stressed or angry the horse will pick up on that and may associate anything you do with anger and stress.
Similarly, if you use a heavy-handed touch without meaning to, the horse will note this as well – and he might tell you that he doesn’t like it even if he tolerates it.
I’ve seen little kids who have a close relationship with their ponies run up to them, arms wide and laughing, for a hug and the ponies have just responded positively to even very rough hugs because they read the positive intent behind it.
The magical muzzle
We can’t talk about the sense of touch in your horse without talking about the muzzle.
That magical, delicately soft spot you want to keep touching for longer than your horse has the patience to let you.
Any rider or horse owner will be quick to tell you that there are few things softer than a horse’s velvety muzzle and that playing around with it passes for good entertainment.
A few of my favourite pastimes include gently pressing my flat palm into the upper lip of the horse to get it to wiggle or to let the horse pry a treat from my closed hand with his upper lip.
Feeling that soft muzzle work dextrously in your hand is just amazing.
Sometimes, all the sensory hair on the face can be shaved off for competitions or shows, in order to make horses appear tidier.
This isn’t something I endorse, because it significantly reduces your horse’s ability to observe his environment.
As a result, his behaviour may temporarily be altered and cause him so much stress that he becomes ill.
Your horse has something called prehensile lips
Prehensile means that they are developed for grasping and holding things.
Just as we can use our fingers very gently, to touch a butterfly without damaging the wings, or apply pressure when needed, to open a tight jar lid, horses can also manipulate things with their lips.
Their lips make it possible for them to sort through and pick up even small grains with precision to get all the tastiest morsels – kind of how we pick through a bag of candies with our fingers to eat the ones we like the best first.
Among other things, horses learn to be very apt at picking pockets with treats in them, or even, picking locks!
Why it’s important that you understand your horse’s sense of touch
The sense of touch in your horse is highly developed and the most sensitive areas on your horse are the lips, nose and mouth.
Understanding just how sensitive your horse is (because there are individual differences in this too) can really help you in your working and training.
Since your horse can feel the slightest touch with their lips, you should develop a soft hand and make sure to only use bits and bridles that fit your horse perfectly.
Also consider, that even the slightest shift in weight in the saddle will affect how the horse moves.
Have you ever had someone piggyback on you and have them move around and going against the movement you’re trying to do?
Become supple in your body and learn how to move in concert with your horse so that you can maximise on momentum.
Your position is critical when you’re asking your horse to perform specific manoeuvres.
Exaggerated movements, poor position and excessive force are confusing to your horse and result in poor performance.