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!