The Science Behind Feel

In this excerpt from Horse Brain, Human Brain by brain scientist and horse trainer Janet Jones, Jones explains what it is that gives us “feel” in and out of the saddle.

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The horse’s brain is focused on the present external environment and does not mull internal plans, intents, and thoughts. His eyes, ears, nose, and skin catch some information that human senses cannot detect, but he misses other sensations that the human can detect. With all these differences, we might despair at the idea of communicating directly, brain to brain, with a horse.

Yet there is one means of sensory communication that is direct—that is, not mediated by language, symbol, gesture, or equipment. It’s called proprioception, the sense of body awareness that tells us where our bodies are in space and where our horses’ bodies are while we ride them. With practice, human proprioception allows us to feel where our horses’ legs are, how they are moving, whether their backs are relaxed or tense, how their bodies and minds change in response to the slightest human motions.

Equine proprioception, in turn, permits our horses to sense the pressures, locations, and tensions within their own bodies and ours. At any mounted moment, a horse with sharp proprioception knows not only where his legs are, but also where your legs are and what they’re doing.

Let’s suppose that when you bend one knee a tad and press that calf against your horse’s side, he canters forward. Both of you have just made use of proprioception. Your brain initiated the amount of calf contraction that was necessary then released that contraction smoothly just as the horse’s brain picked up your signal. Sensing your leg pressure, he changed gaits. His brain calibrated the speed of that gait according to the amount and velocity of pressure against his side. It’s like a very complicated close-contact dance, with you and your horse fused in muscular coordination at the level of both brains. Some of your neurons transmit a signal, some of his pick it up, and so on back and forth between the two species.

Author Mark Helprin has noted the connection between horses and dancing. “The horse moved like a dancer, which is not surprising. A horse is a beautiful animal, but he is perhaps most remarkable because he moves as if he always hears music.” We humans can learn to join that equine dance as full partners.

Horse sports place steep demands on the human proprioceptive system. All athletes have to control muscle contraction, but we have to contract our muscles while simultaneously keeping them relaxed—almost the perfect oxymoron. We must isolate muscles within a natural group, flexing some while loosening or neutralizing others. Equestrians need precise gradation of muscle tension to cue prey animals in smooth gentle ways. Our brains need to sense not only our own joint angles, muscle lengths, tendon tension, and postural balance, but also our horse’s joints, muscles, tendons, and balance. Every athlete’s proprioceptive nerves work hard, but the riders are really huffin’ and puffin’.

We can improve riding skill by turbocharging the brain’s proprioceptive power. As a nice side effect, our horses’ proprioception also develops and mutual communication within the team soars. These improvements require some work, but they pay off big time in:

  • Creating more precise aids
  • Establishing a common balance between horse and rider
  • Building the horse’s straightness, bend, engagement, and agility
  • Reducing the risk of human or equine injury

Most importantly, proprioceptive fitness helps your horse solve the largest obstacle to training: understanding what you want him to do. Too often, we assume horses are refusing to do what we want, when the real problem is that they don’t know what we want. Good proprioception makes our requests clear.

Remember: It’s Complicated

Proprioception sounds almost simple when we analyze each step independently. But even the most basic equestrian movement—say, one leg’s pressure—puts many different nerves to work. A human leg contains 43 major muscles from hip to ankle. To squeeze a horse’s barrel, each muscle must sit at the proper location while flexed or relaxed to varying degrees. Thousands of proprioceptive nerves are sending messages to both brains simultaneously when you press your horse’s side with one leg. And we’re not even counting all the tendons, ligaments, and joints that are involved in such a “simple” act.

This excerpt is adapted from Horse Brain, Human Brain by Janet Jones, PhD, and reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books. You can purchase the book here