Your horse forcefully nudges your jacket pocket. What does he want? Oh, right, you put a handful of peppermint candies in it last night when you were leaving the restaurant. Sniffing them out is a pretty good feat for that long muzzle.
While the vision and hearing of horses has been studied thoroughly, the equine sense of smell has been largely ignored. Recent work, however, has shown that horses do (of course!) rely on their sense of smell as well as sight and hearing. (For fun, check out the horse Maximus in the animated movie Tangled.)
While horses use vision and hearing as their primary senses to avoid predators while grazing, smell is important, too. Horses can identify their owners by smell as well as their veterinarians (often not in a positive way). I owned an Arabian gelding who would go ballistic at the smell of alcohol. His blood draws were done with hair wetted down with water.
Not surprisingly, scent is an important factor in equine emotional wellbeing. Rachaël Draaisma has been a pioneer in the field of equine mental health. Following in the footsteps of Norwegian dog trainer Turid Rugaas, she has written a book on the calming signals and language that horses use with each other. Working on play and enrichment for horses, she also ventured into whether scentwork training and play were options for horses. The answer was a resounding “yes.”
One of the easiest ways to start is with a “scent garden.” You can place a towel or tarp on the arena floor and put some interesting smells, treats, or a combination of the two on it. You could put some vinegar, some apple slices, maybe some pieces of carrot. Most horses will approach with caution. After all, this is a new and strange thing in their well-known environment. Typically, a horse will do wide, looping circles combined with pretending to ignore the new object.
Circles will get tighter and tighter until your horse actually sniffs at the towel. He will then snarf down the offered treats. If you do this often, your horse will now approach his free time in the arena with an eye open for anything new but with a positive association.
You can also start to place treats for him to find. Initially these objects should be visual, so your horse can use both his eyes and his nose. Gradually increase the difficulty by hiding the treats. Again, think back to your horse checking your pockets for peppermints.
At this point, you may want to add tracking to your horse’s skill set. To teach this, start your horse off at a cloth “marker” with your scent on it. Rub it on your hands and then step firmly on it. Take a step and place a treat down on your footstep. Add steps very gradually. Then you can put a “jackpot” at the end. As with the scent garden, start by using treats that are easy to see, then increase the difficulty so your horse has to use his nose. Much of this work can be done with your horse loose in a safe area.
For tracking, your horse should start on a loose lead rope. Scentwork is voluntary, so your horse will have to choose to sniff on his own. You can encourage that by pointing to the treats when you start training, but back off as soon as he shows initiative.
The towel or tarp is a contextual cue that can be used as the “start article” whether you are simply playing scent games with your horse or practicing tracking. For times when that “starter” isn’t available, you can teach your horse a cue word such as “find” to indicate what you’re doing.
Playing scent games with your horse provides enrichment, which is particularly important for horses who spend a fair amount of time in stalls. Empowering your horse will decrease stress and improve overall behavior, resulting in a calm, non-stressed horse. Plus, scent work can be taken on the road. If you trailer your horse to your vet, you can bring a towel and some scent treats with you to relax your horse when you arrive.
The plus to these scent games is that your horse will pick up confidence as he succeeds. A confident horse is easier to live with as well as easier for your veterinarian and farrier to work with. In addition, a curious horse is more fun to interact with than one who is fearful.
Some trainers and horses take scent work to an even higher level. Horses tend, in general, to air scent versus following tracks on the ground. Most horses will do both to some extent and your work with the footsteps helps to develop tracking ability. Developing your horse’s ability to air scent can actually lead to working in search and rescue and narcotics detection.
Why train a horse for these tasks when we know dogs are so very capable? A horse can cover ground faster than a dog. He will also pick up a slightly different scent trail due to his size—moving his head up and down covers a wide range of air currents, more than a dog can. Think of playing games with your first horse as a kid. Did you ever run and hide? Your horse certainly used vision to seek you out, but he was also sniffing for any scent of you on the air.
And while some people have a fear of dogs, most people do not see horses as threatening. In addition, a horse could help to carry an injured or disabled person back to safety.
The bottom line is that scenting is a natural behavior for horses. With minimal training, you can enhance your horse’s scenting abilities. By doing so, you increase his confidence and minimize his stress. This has all been extensively shown with dogs, but more information is building on using scent games for horses. A benefit is that you can take your scent games on the road, helping your horse to handle new experiences and new environments, all part of the positive Fear Free experience.
This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.
Deb M. Eldredge, DVM, is a Cornell graduate and the first recipient of the Gentle Doctor Award. She is an award-winning veterinarian and writer.
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Photo of Dragon, an off-track Thoroughbred, courtesy of Verne Sullivan.
Published February 13, 2023