Horses have a much better sense of smell than us and can detect smells from considerably further away. Obviously in the wild this has huge advantages as it allows them to identify the smell of a predator who may be lurking in a hedge. However, it also allows them to identify water sources which may be far away.
For stallions their sense of smell allows them to identify a mare who is coming into season, even up to half a mile away. Stallions will then use the flehmen response – which is when they curl the top lip upwards. This action closes the nostrils and thus traps the smell inside the nasal cavities allowing the horse to analyse the smell more carefully.
A horse’s face is long, this makes room for all their molars but also for the extensive nasal cavities. These nasal cavities are coated with mucous membranes which hold the olfactory nerves. However, there are also vomeronasal organs found in the floor of the nasal cavity. These are also lined with mucous membranes and contain more fibres which link to the olfactory nerves. These are very efficient at identifying details about another horses scent which allows horses to identify one another in addition to their emotional state.
We see how horses use their sense of smell in this way when they meet for the first time. They position themselves nose to nose which allows them to sniff the others breath. They will take turns to blow into the others nostrils which the other horse will then read and memorise. This can lead to the horses becoming companions but can equally lead to a fight!
Mare’s use their ability to recognise scent to identify their foals more than they use sight. Horses are also able to recognise the smell of their owners and can identify when medication is added to their feed even if you have mixed in molasses or mints!
This is how horses are able to tell if a rider or handler is nervous and horses have been known to react differently to their owner if they arrive wearing a different deodorant or perfume.
I often see my horses standing in the field with their heads raised, are they looking at something in the distance or can they smell something but can’t see it???
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