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Can Horses Smell Fear?
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Can Horses Smell Fear?

Yesterday I went for a walk around a large pond that was home to a lot of geese and ducks. Every day I’d walked there, the birds’ behavior seemed friendly enough -- they typically engaged in begging for bread crumbs. If came too close to the gaggle, the leader goose would warn me off with some deliberate and super-loud screeching.

Yesterday, though, there were no ducks or geese on the pond. As I rounded a bend, a large goose came out of the bushes, stretched and lowered his neck and head in a very weird angle, fully expanded his wings and approached me in a highly threatening manner. I realized that his flock was in the thicket tending to a crop of newly laid eggs. This chief goose was making sure I stayed well away.

I began to sense that the goose was going to attack me. He was following right on my heels, maintaining his fighter pose. I kept walking at a steady pace -- trying hard not to run -- but noticed that the hair on my arms was standing up and my body was throwing off some serious something -- maybe adrenaline or a fear pheromone. There was no doubt that I was scared -- I’ve heard that geese can be downright nasty.

After I was safely away, I got to thinking about whether a horse can smell fear from a human. After a bit of research, I discovered that:

  • Horses have the same five senses that we do: sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch.
  • Horses have a sixth sense: they’re highly attuned to sensing body language, or any changes in details around them.
  • It’s scientifically accepted that the ability to smell pheromones occurs only within the same species.
  • Horses sense rather than smell our fear through our body language and behavior -- a finely-tuned ability of prey animals.

I’ve been fearful when on the ground around a rearing horse, but forced myself to calm down while the horse did the same. If I’d started screaming or moving erratically and behaving in a terrified manner, my horse would have instantly picked up on those actions and might have bolted, thinking I was the problem that was creating fear in him. Then his “fight or flight” instinct might have been turned toward me -- I could have been seriously hurt through my own actions, which, in turn, would probably cause me to be afraid of horses in the future -- an unfortunate domino effect. What a losing scenario!

Horses are massive and unpredictable. Their ability to interact with humans is based entirely on the depth of trust they sense with us. To help them develop that trust, we must have control over our own emotions. A horse that senses his human friend is calm and soothing knows there is nothing to fear, can then feel safe and react calmly. It’s comforting to know horses can’t really smell our fear, but they’re masters at using their other senses to pick it up.

I did learn another valuable lesson: Beware of geese protecting their families!

 

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  1. julian johansen
    julian johansen
    hey. just wanna say that horses is NOT, and i repeat, is NOT unpredictable. and will NEVER hurt you if you got a good and healthy bond with your horse. its easy to creat that kind of bond, but taik very long time. all you have to do is stop using tools at any kind, and just be yourself and the horse. nothing more. spent time with it at the field. play with it with fx a big ball or something. allow yourself to be the weak, and be the one who is to learn from the horse, not the oderway around. in everything the horse do around you, is as you said ''talking'' to you true its body langues. if you ask it do do something fx, and it runs away from you, bugging, kicking in the air, its as to sayyy, nooooo! i don't whant to do that, its not in my intrist! and you shall as it friend accepth that, turn around as to walk away, sayin fine, then lets find something you like, its okay... there you have showed undestanding, and the horse may come back to your arms as nothing ever was wrong, and your friendship will have increste...
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  2. PonyGirl
    PonyGirl
    I enjoyed your post very much. I thought it was very thoughtful and well-written. After a lifetime of working with horses, I've come to believe that they can sense emotions in a way other than through body language (although they are excellent at reading that.) I have always been exceptionally good at getting horses to relax and trust me. (I pony racehorses for a living and this is a big part of my job). I have given a lot of thought to the circumstances that have led to my success. The conclusion I've come to is that I have a very strong feeling of protectiveness toward the nervous ones. And I think when I'm feeling like that, physically my body is producing oxytocin. I think the horses are able to sense (smell?) this. I think it is the adrenalin we produce that horses perceive when we're afraid. I also find that I am able to sense a horse's mood when he is beside me even though I'm not looking at him. A nervous horse and a calm horse "feel" as different to me as sun and shade on my face. I don't think what I'm sensing is some mystical mind reading. I think it has a definite physical component, although I couldn't even begin to say what exactly it is. This sense or feeling (both mine and the horse's) has always intrigued me and I would love to see some scientific research done on the subject.
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    1. MReynolds
      MReynolds
      I was so intrigued to read you reply, PonyGirl. You really seem to be extremely perceptive around horses, and for sure they can sense that. I'm sure that the very strong, calming signals you're emitting are quite a relief for many unsure horses. I wish you lived near me (Grass Valley, CA) so I could learn more from you!
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      1. julian johansen
        julian johansen
        hey, just wanna say this... if you have seen the documentary, 'the path of the horse' on youtube, or read the book bye stormy may. you will learn a lot better things abute this friendship, trust and bond with the horse. a horse that feal safe around you can run away from you, yes, but... if it got that kind of close bond and trust with you, it will allways turn around and come back to YOU to find safty, no matter how scaryid it is. everyone is welcome to write to me on my mail and disgues abute eaths of there problems, or things they like or don't like abute there horse, and i can help that person to get closer into there horses undestanding and perspectives. i allready write with one from this wepsite whos horse name is jack. and sins then, she have found her bond and undestanding of her horse getting stronger and stronger every time. and as she undestand it more and more, there is more and more of the things they used to do, thqt she chance, and she LOVE it!!! becurse she can feal how there bond and friendship keeps growing for eaths passing days.
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        1. MReynolds
          MReynolds
          Thank you, Julian, for all your information -- it's helpful! And thanks for the offer of help; I'll keep you in mind!
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          1. julian johansen
            julian johansen
            your welcome, if your intrested, you can taik a look on the youtube clip, the path of the horse. from that, you can get a preeety good idea of what kind of things i know abute horses. if you keep me in mind, remember to write down my mail julianj@live.dk and you can write any time you whant, and you'll have a respond within 12 hours max!
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            1. MReynolds
              MReynolds
              Thanks! I've got your email address and will check out the video now!
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