Did you know the power of a horse’s scenting ability rivals that of a dog? Granted a tracking dog can outperform a horse in thick underbrush but horses have an advantage. Why is that? Airborne scents rise and when the winds change, hunting down a target can become a wild goose chase. A horse will zig and zag, following the movement of that scent to the target. The horse’s sense of smell is “one of the best kept secrets in the horse world” according to horse trainer Terry Nowacki in the article, “Horses as Bloodhounds.” He even conducts demonstrations where a volunteer runs to hide in the underbrush and then a horse trained in tracking scents wilwill run out and hide in the underbrush
Well, think about it, when you greet a horse, what does it do when examining you? It’ll look, turn its ears towards you, but most notably it’ll extend it’s nose towards you to smell you. In the wild a horse can detect danger not only by sight and sound, but also by smell. When the wind shifts the horse can pick up on predators hidden from sight, silent in their hiding spots. Therein lies another advantage for horses. When a horse is tired, most especially from exertion, what does it do? It blows harder, flaring its nostrils and taking in more scents. What does a dog do when it’s tired? It pants and breathes through its mouth instead of its nose, reducing the opportunity for olfactory analysis.
To us humans horses may all smell the same with that unique horsey smell. This smell varies between people from stinky to lovely (it depends if you ask a horse fanatic or not). Horses, however, identify each other by unique scents just like dogs, cats, deer, etc. Not only that but horses can also identify dangerous foods simply by the smell of them. How do they learn this? Through observation of their elders or through experience. Through personal experience I have found that some horses enjoy my scent very much. One horse at the center I volunteer at gave a lot of the other female volunteers some trouble. Before I was aware of that I walked the horse around for exercise as he was not allowed to run around on a recovering injury. While walking this horse around he followed close behind with his nose buried in my hair. How do I know he liked the smell in my hair? I would turn my head and he would curl his nose around to follow the hair. He even lipped at it! Never fear, my hair was not yanked on and we made it safely back to his stall with no other mishaps.
According to the above mentioned article horses also give different signs for scenting different things. The signals a horse communicates for a human would be different from, say, a wolf or a deer in the woods. The language horses communicate with can be complicated to decipher. In fact horses are the most difficult animal for animators to bring to life, the most prominent reason being that there are so many moving parts. Despite the challenge the movement of the horse is for some people it is rather fun to watch. The best way I recommend learning their signals is to observe a herd of horses interacting. Well? Go out and find a herd – or look up video recordings online. Teach yourself something today!