Can Horses Really Smell Fear? Yes, And That’s Not All

Last Updated on March 18, 2022 by Allison Price

Recall your first encounter with horses. Did you know that horses can smell fear? That was sound advice.

When someone smells a certain chemosignal, they emit that same chemosignal. Chemosignals, which are chemical signals that the human body emits mainly through sweat, are chemical signals. Researchers have discovered that horses can also sense human emotions.

Antonio Lanata (University of Pisa) and his colleagues discovered that horses can sense fear and joy. These are only two emotions that researchers have identified. Further studies could reveal horses can sense other emotions, such as fear and happiness.

Researchers speculated that horses can exhibit unexpected reactions when ridden by nervous people. Our research led us to believe that horses’ olfactory system could be able to detect human emotions through the axial chemical signals humans emit.

Can Horses Really Smell Fear

The horse study involved human participants who watched either scary or happy movies and then collected their sweat using armpit pads. The subjects were asked to follow a strict protocol for two consecutive days before collecting their sweat. This included avoiding exposure to alcohol, tobacco, and other odors that could affect the results. The subjects were also asked to avoid exercising too much.

Seven horses from different breeds were equipped with wearable telemetry devices to measure their heart rate variability. Their autonomic nervous system reacted when they were allowed to touch the armpit pads containing fear sweat or happy sweat. The heart rate and breathing are controlled by the autonomic system.

This study was based on sophisticated telemetry instrumentation and showed a significant difference in the horses’ physiological reactions to human fear and human happiness.

Lanata concluded that “our results showed that human body smells induce sympathetic and parsympathetic changes in horses and stimulate them emotionally,” Lanata said.

Instinct or Learned?

Lanata explained via email that horses sense emotions when they are introduced to people. This information is used to tell the horse how to respond to the person.

The study revealed that horses respond to the scent of happiness and fear in humans. But are these learned reactions or instincts? If a person who has been most frequently handling a horse is aggressive when they are afraid, such as striking it, would the horse expect to be struck by fearful humans? If the horse has had a history of dealing with fearful people, such as those who retreat or allow horses to take their own course, does that mean the horse will bully any human who smells fear?

Happiness is simpler than you might think. Everyone knows that person whose smile makes everyone feel happy. Science has proven that horses can recognize happiness expressions in facial expressions, and that a pleasant odor could help reinforce this perception.

With the knowledge that horses can sense human emotions, could it be possible to fool the horse by using a scent that masks that of a human?

Lanata replied, “What an interesting question.” To be honest, I don’t know the answer, but I believe it is possible if we could produce an odor that evokes positive emotions. We are actually working on it to create real emotional odors. It is a different work.

Walter Farley, an internationally acclaimed children’s author, offered what he called “The Arabian Secret” in his novel The Horse Tamer.

Two parts oil of rhodium, one part cumin and one part anise are enough to make wild horses approachable. Place the oil in a sealed bottle. Close the cork until it is ready to use. Use a little of the oil to rub on the horses’ hands. Then, hold the bottle tightly until ready for use. Rub a little on your horse’s nose when you are near enough. Within 10 to 20 minutes, the horse will be ready for you kindness and your plan of teaching.

It is hard to find oil of rosewood oil that isn’t synthetic in today’s world. However, cumin and anise are essential ingredients in any good chef’s kitchen. These spices were tested by the writer when he was asked to halter-break a group six-month-old, untreated weanlings. The results were amazing. The owner was unable to even approach the weanlings. However, the aroma of anise and cumin attracted them and they were willing to be touched. Each one was quickly halted and then broken to lead.

Lanata stated that his team conducted their study in a laboratory where the questions were not answered. He believes that the results will open up new avenues for research into this fascinating phenomenon in other areas of horse-human interaction.

Lanata stated in an email that if his results were confirmed by us or other researchers, it would make many positive outcomes. He also noted that the trainer/educator should remember that the animal’s emotions are transparent to him, so unexpected reactions can be easily understood. These results may also be useful in animal-assisted therapies. This is especially true for people with disabilities, mental disorders or autism.

Allison Price
Allison Price

I’m Allison, born and raised in San Diego California, the earliest memory I have with horses was at my grandfather’s farm. I used to sit at the stable as a kid and hang out with my Papa while he was training the horses. When I was invited to watch a horse riding competition, I got so fascinated with riding!