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Horses Changing Lives

Equine Psychotherapy Consultant

Proprioception and Horses

Comments Off on Proprioception and Horses

Proprioception is the ability to know where you are and where your respective body parts are in relation to the environment.   Proprioception is a strange word, actually a combination of two Latin words that means- “awareness or a feeling of one’s own self”.  We know where we are in the environment through our senses, specifically our kinestic sense, and our non-verbal body language sense.  Those people diagnosed with Schizophrenia often struggle with gathering and acting on information for this sense.

Aristotle was the first to classify the senses. Our main five senses are:  sight (ophthalmoception), hearing (audioception), taste (gustaoception), smell (olfacoception), and touch (tactioception).  Our other senses include temperature (thermoception), kinesthetics (proprioception), pain (nociception), balance (equilibrioception) and acceleration (kinesthesioception). (1)  The proprioceptive sensors are the sensors found in muscles, skin and joints; the inner ear vestibular system, and the central nervous system. Two regions of the brain are responsible for this sense working properly: the Forebrain/Frontal Lobes and the Cerebellum/Hippocampus (at the base of the brain).   Both of these brain areas are neurologically damaged with the onset of psychosis (the prodrome of Schizophrenia) (2).

It was first suggested that disordered proprioception was a core feature of Schizophrenia by Sandor Rado in 1953 (3).   Because Schizophrenics struggle with integrating environmental sensory information, interacting with horses through experiential therapies such as EAGALA, can create new neuropathways for encoding sensory information.


Horses have hundreds of sensors per each square inch of skin all over their bodies.  Horses are very sensitive particularly around their lips, their nose and their eyes due to a higher concentration of sensors.  Whiskers are important to horses because they indicate when the nose is close to an object and they may be used while foraging to judge textures.

Touching plays a vital role in communication between horses and people.  People who participate in equine therapy learn as they build relationships with the horses. They learn where horses prefer to be stroked or patted.  They learn to communicate boundaries through touch with a horse when horse steps into their personal space, they learn when grooming a horse where a horse might have a tickle spot or likes to be scratched. Clients learn how much pressure to use on different parts of a horse – when to use gentle stroking on the face for example versus needing to be more firm when picking up a leg or a hoof.    I have used Linda Tellington-Jones’s, “T-Touch”® exercises with clients to explore further sensory integration with great success.


Vision is the primary danger detector for a horse. The horse’s eye is the largest of any land mammal and a third of all sensory input to a horse’s brain comes from the eyes.  Horses have monocular vision- meaning a horse can see almost all of the 360 degrees around him in the horizontal plane.  In the vertical plane, they can see almost 180 degrees, but a horse cannot see right in front of their nose or up to four feet in front of their nose.

Often in equine therapy sessions clients are challenged to create, build, and move a horse into, through, over or around objects.  Clients learn in their sessions to see things from another perspective, the horse’s, and they in working with the horse partner and learn to work together and navigate challenges. Clients learn to think not only about navigating the environment themselves but with a 1200 pound horse as a partner.


Horses have a well-developed sense of hearing. They use hearing to detect predators, to communicate with other members of their herd and to share how they are feeling.  A horse’s ear converts sound waves in the environment into information or action.  The part of the ear we can see is the external ear, or pinna, which collects sound and funnels it down on to the eardrum.  Each ear can be swiveled independently 180 degrees, or laid back, shutting it off.  Such mobility is achieved with sixteen muscles attached to the base of the ear (the pinna) (4). Did you know that humans have only three such muscles?

Horse’s ears are used to communicate their emotional state and intent.  Completely flat laid-back ears may indicate aggression, or may simply be protection against a loud noise.  If a horse has it ears straight up, they are usually interested in a something and are trying to gather more information and are listening hard.  If the ears are moving back and forth and swiveling around while you speak to them, they are listening, but also taking in other environmental information.

Clients learn to read non-verbal body language when they interact with horses.  They learn to notice a horse’s body cues to see if they are listening, and clients learn to wait for those cues from the horse to signal back to them that their request or message has been acknowledged though their ears or a horse’s movement.


As a horse approaches a strange object to investigate, not only are his eyes and ears directed towards it, but a horse also extends their head and neck to sniff the object with their nostrils.  Horses use smell to locate water, select food and avoid predators or dangerous objects.  Socially, horses use smell to recognize each other- horses exchange breaths through their nostrils when they meet, stallions smell mares to see if they are in heat and horses also smell other horse’s poop piles for information about who was in the area.

Clients who work with horses definitely become familiar with the smells at a barn.  Horses, like children and adults, can go out and play and get muddy and dirty!   When clients groom a horse they will begin to get dust, dander and dirt on them, and their clothes will definitely begin to smell like “horses”, like they have been at a barn!  In addition, there are many other types of pleasant and not so pleasant smells at a barn – hay, grain, and leather are some of the more pleasant smells, but the poop pile and the smell of equine urine can be quite pungent.   Clients learn horsemanship and barn operations in addition to working on structured interactive exercises with the horses, so often clients are picking up a pitch fork to scoop (clean) a stall, raking or sweeping an isleway.


Using all of our senses and finding environmentally healthy ways to integrate them, is a key when working with the Schizophrenic population who by the nature of their illness become internally focused.  This illness neurologically changes people at a key developmental stage of their lives.  By using an experiential therapy, specifically the  EAGALA model, clients use their senses in a new way, reconnect to the real world, not an internal delusional fantasy world, begin to learn about non-verbal body cues and through their experiences improve their proprioception abilities.


Kristi Seymour, MA, LPC, MBA








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