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Your Horses Sense of Smell
 By Winniefield Park   •   18th Oct 2016   •   2,085 views   •   0 comments
Your Horses Sense of Smell

How does a horse smell? Well, most of us would agree they smell good. But what about their sense of smell? Thatís good too. In fact, a horseís sense of smell is much better than ours. We humans have two smell reception patches high up in our nasal patches, each made of five or six million cells. Horses have two centers for smell reception: the olfactory and the vomeronasal organ. These sensors have an estimated 25 million to 100 million receptors. Theyíre not the best smellers around, though. Dogs have over 220 million receptors. So our sense of smell is still pretty weak compared to horses, but dogs are super sniffers, able to smell things like color and electricity.

How does their sense of smell work? Those soft nostrils are very flexible and a horse is able to flare them outwards. This allows them to take in more of the surrounding air. Deep, rapid sniffing helps gather more of the scent and brings it to the olfactory patches, located high up in the nasal cavity. Throughout the nasal passages are tubes formed by the turbinate bones. This helps toss the scents around, so the molecules are well exposed to the receptive cells. Here the scent molecules reach the cells that then send messages to the brain, where the molecules are then interpreted. The olfactory area helps a horse determine what food is good to eat, find water, and identify its family and friends, as well as detect predators.

The second scent receptive organ, called the vomeronasal or Jacobsonís organ, is located beneath the nasal cavity. Most mammals have these organs, with the exception of sea mammals and humans. This organ works separately from the main olfactory organ and helps the horse interpret scent molecules in pheromones. Pheromones are chemicals that animals release that can be recognized by other animals. While not voluntary, it is a form of communication. The main purpose seems to be so horses can learn about each other's sexual status. A stallion may know when a mare is in heat and when another stallion is nearby. There may be other things that a horse learns through the vomeronasal organ, but like much of the horseís sense of smell, it hasnít been thoroughly studied.

If you see your horse lifting itís head high, and curling back its lip it is using the vomeronasal organ. This behavior is called the Flehmen response, and itís thought to help drive the scent molecules to the vomer. It's most often seen in stallions, but mares and geldings may do it occasionally. Horses arenít the only animals to do this. Other animals such as cattle, pandas, goats and cats also do this.



A horse is always using its sense of smell. We probably do too, but we are only conscious of it when we smell a strong odor. But a horse is always processing the surrounding scents. They can smell us probably before they see us. They are constantly scanning for good food, predators and how their pasture friends are faring. They can pick out changes in their food, such as when we try to sneak a medicine into their feed. And, we may inhibit that constant communication of odors when we spray then with scented products like fly repellent, grooming sprays, and stable deodorizers. Some people do it intentionally by putting strong smelling substances like Vicks VapoRup in their nostrils. One studied showed that foals with Vicks in their nostrils couldnít identify their mothers. It is commonly done to stallions taken to events so they donít get interested in any mare that might be in season.

Horses may not be able to track like scent hounds. But while riding on the trail, your horse may have dropped its head and snuffled its way along the track. No doubt its head popped back up within Ďscentí of the barn. We donít know precisely what information a horse is getting when they do this, but it's no doubt it experienced the scent of the forest trail, and who went before in a much richer way than we did.
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