Laura’s Pony Notes: A Pony’s Sense of Touch

By Laura Michaels, Pony Wrangler at Cape Hatteras National Seashore 

Since touch is the most direct form of communication between ponies and other ponies, and ponies and people, it is important that people understand and be aware of how ponies respond to touch.  

Some general information about a pony’s sense of touch 

The skin is the largest organ on a pony’s body, just as it is on a person. A pony’s skin has several jobs, from providing a protective barrier, regulating temperature, and providing a sense of touch. The skin has three layers: the epidermis, which is the outermost layer, the dermis, which is the middle layer, and the subcutis, which is the innermost layer. Different breeds of ponies have different thicknesses of skin and coats, which make some ponies more sensitive to touch than others.  

How sensitive a pony also depends on its age and training. Older ponies tend to be less sensitive to touch. A pony that is highly sensitive to touch with gentle and light training will usually stay that way. Ponies usually prefer to be stroked rather than patted by gently massaging their head and going in a circular motion. 

Since a pony’s skin is filled with nerve endings that can sense the tiniest touch, a pony will respond to pressure by moving away in a predictable response. On a single hair on its skin, a pony can sense anywhere a fly lands on it and twitch that muscle to get it off it. Ponies can also sense vibration, heat, and cold.  

A pony’s muzzle and whiskers 

A pony learns more about the world around it through its mouth and muzzle. The muzzle has nerve endings, making it highly sensitive to touch.  

The muzzle whiskers of a pony are extremely useful to help them navigate around objects. Their whiskers help a pony estimate the distance between its muzzle and an object around it. Since a pony can’t see angles below its head, its whiskers help guide the pony and help it explore and identify objects. A pony will accept a new or strange object more easily when it touches the item with its nose or foot. 

Ponies whose vision becomes impaired rely on their other senses to compensate. Their muzzle whiskers help them understand their surroundings, map their landscape, and pick up details about their environment that makes them feel safe.  

When a ponies eat, their whiskers together with their lips guide them toward the foods they like to eat, and away from undesirable foods. Ponies also have whiskers above their eyes, which help them know if anything is close to their eyes. The whiskers, known as vibrissae, have lots of nerve endings. Vibrissae let the pony know how close they are to something. Through the muzzle and whiskers, a pony gathers a tremendous amount of tactile information. 

Ponies need to touch each other 

Ponies show affection to other ponies and people by nudging, playing, grooming, and nuzzling. Touch plays a part in their happiness, their general well-being, and their sense of security. As herd animals, ponies need to touch to know that other ponies are at their sides. Touch, it is believed, also helps them to move along together and helps them be more cohesive in times of danger.  

Touch is also a form of social support when horses feel stressed. Foals press their bodies against their mother when they get frightened. A mare will brush her foal with her muzzle as a gesture of reassurance.  

Ponies also scratch each other – especially in areas that another pony can’t reach itself –with their teeth in a sign of friendship. Touch is important in the courtship ritual between horses, and herd relationships are reinforced with mutual grooming.  

From a pony’s skin to its lips, its hair, its nose, and its muzzle, touch is a pony’s most acute sense! 

A note from Laura: I learned new information from researching these pony notes. Mostly, how much a pony’s whiskers near its mouth/muzzle help it with eating! Ponies are masters of discerning good versus bad, or unhealthy. And if you spend time with them, you just might observe their mutual grooming, especially with the main herd.  


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