Horse Behavior: Horses Identify By Scent

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Question Category: Horse Behavior

Question: I have noticed that when I have been doing house cleaning and I visit the horses with the chemical smells on my hands that the horses seem put off by the odor. This made me wonder, is there a smell or scent that horses like? I have heard that jasmine has a positive effect on horses, what do you think?

Answer: This is a good question and the answer might give you a better understanding of horse behavior and how your horse’s mind works. First of all, understand that a horse uses all five of his senses to identify another animal or an object. Input from all of the senses lets him sort and categorize the object in his mind. If it looks like a bucket, sounds, smells, feels and tastes like a bucket, it is indeed a bucket. Often times we don’t allow the horse to receive all this information, usually because we are in too big a hurry.

If you let a horse take all the time he wants to explore an unknown object, he will look and listen intently, then once he has determined it won’t eat him and flight is not necessary, his curiosity takes over and he will approach the object. The horse’s sense of smell, feel (tactile) and taste are all in the mouth area so he will approach with his nose. This is the point at which humans usually interfere either because they think the horse is going to eat the object or they simply don’t have the time. But if you allow the horse to fully explore the object, he will then smell it, feel it with his muzzle, then put his tongue on it for the taste test. The horse files away all this sensory input into his mind and sorts the object this way.

Another behavior to look at is when horses encounter a strange horse for the first time. There is a very systematic process that takes place. First, the two horses come nostril to nostril to smell each other’s breath. Then they move back to smell each other in the genital area; then they will come back head-to-head. At this point, one of two things happens: the horses become friendly or you’ll hear a squeal, which means aggression may ensue (which is why you want to give plenty of room to the two horses so you don’t get nailed in the striking or kicking that may ensue). Horses identify each other in many ways but appear to rely heavily upon smell.

Many old timers will tell you that the best way to make friends with a horse is to blow into its nose. This is a good example of treating a horse like a horse, which is good, but it is not safe. I’ve had enough oral surgery to know I don’t ever want my head anywhere near a horse’s head. The horse’s head is a large, hard, heavy object that can move quickly in any direction for any reason (think of how many times you have seen a horse swing his head quickly to bite a fly on his side). Let me say this again, never put your head close to a horse’s head. The propensity for a head injury is high.

So how do we greet a horse, keeping in mind natural horse behavior and safety at the same time? Every time you approach a horse, whether you are known to him or not, come within about four feet of the horse (approaching toward his shoulder, not directly in front), then stop and reach out your hand, palm down (palm up may give him the impression you are offering him a treat), and wait. He will reach his nose toward your hand and smell. If you are new to him, he may smell very intently with one nostril and then the other. Wait until he finishes smelling and pulls his nose away, then you are welcomed to come into his space. If you are well known to the horse, he will just reach out and gesture toward your hand with his nose and give a little nod that means, welcome friend. Get into the habit of offering your hand to the horse every time you approach. It only takes a few seconds and the horse has time to accept your presence, rather than rushing to his head and getting the horse tense and defensive before you even start your session.

So back to your question about scent…. With the chemical smells on your hands (or perfume, aftershave, hair treatment, etc.) the horse is put off because he cannot recognize your natural scent and the smells are very foreign. He wants to smell your natural odors in order to recognize you. I would avoid using any scents at all and just let him rely on his extremely discriminating sense of smell. He will be most comfortable with the scents he recognizes as you. As for scents the horse might like, I’d guess he’d like something like alfalfa and molasses.

Julie Goodnight

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