Equines and Their Fine Sense of Smell

Horse Quencher comes in 4 fabulous flavors- Apple, Peppermint, Butterscotch, and Root Beer. But why does this matter? Does your horse care? How important is scent to a horse?

Much of the information horses receive about their world is gained through their sense of smell. Karen Briggs from TheHorse.com takes us through a few very interesting scenarios that will help us understand the vital role scent plays in a horse’s lfe.

Scenario #1: A mare lies in the straw, devotedly licking dry her newborn foal. As she does so, she breathes deeply of the baby’s scent, memorizing it so that ever after she can identify the foal as hers out of the herd.

Scenario #2: A young gelding being turned out with a group for the first time trots optimistically towards his new pasturemates. Out of the herd swaggers the “alpha male” of the gelding group, neck arched and ears flicking back and forth. He meets the newcomer nostril to nostril, and both breathe deeply of the other’s scent. After several seconds of breathe-snuffling, the pair shift to sniff each other’s flanks, then under the tail. A couple of squeals ensue from the contact, then, introductions having been made, the alpha gelding accepts the new horse as a submissive youngster who won’t be a threat to his position, and the youngster immediately acknowledges the elder as his new leader. With the pecking order thus established, peace reigns in the herd.

Scenario #3: A group of feral horses grazes in a valley, enjoying the late summer sun on their backs. Some 50 yards away from the herd, even the stallion seems relaxed, until he suddenly flings up his head. Nostrils flaring, he’s instantly on full alert, although his eyes can’t perceive any visible threat. The faint predatorial scent of a cougar has registered in his olfactory sensors, and it’s time to get his herd moving away from the danger.

As a human, it is hard to understand the extraordinary sensitivity and ability of the equine nose. It has been said that for humans, scent is the strongest sense connected to memory.

According to fifthsense.com, the sense of smell is closely linked with memory, probably more so than any of our other senses. Those with full olfactory function may be able to think of smells that evoke particular memories; the scent of an orchard in blossom conjuring up recollections of a childhood picnic, for example. This can often happen spontaneously, with a smell acting as a trigger in recalling a long-forgotten event or experience.

David Whitaker, PhD, of Middle Tennessee State University states, “Horses depend on their sense of smell the way we depend on language.”

It’s generally agreed that dogs are the domestic animals with the most sensitive noses, but horses aren’t far behind. As prey animals, it behooves them to be able to detect even the slightest scent of danger on the wind. They’re also quick to detect the “smell of fear” in other animals and in humans (probably an emanation of chemical signals we cannot detect). Many trainers over the centuries have agreed that horses also seem to be able to recognize the smell of death, sometimes reacting suspiciously to a spot where another horse has died, sometimes for months or years after the animal perished.

Perhaps because our own olfactory abilities are so limited, we have found it very difficult to study the intricacies of the horse’s sense of smell. As equine behaviorist Bonnie Beaver, PhD, of Texas A&M University notes, “Olfaction is difficult to study because humans have such a poor sense of smell and do not appreciate all the complications that can occur during such research.”