The Nose Knows

By Terry Golson

Tonka is a laid-back guy and he travels well. Some horses kick, fidget and work up a sweat when on the road. Not Tonka. He arrives at the destination looking as if he’s only just stepped onto the trailer. While I get things organized, Tonka, bright-eyed, looks around.

in trailer


Sometimes he’ll neigh, announcing his presence and asking if there’s anyone there that he knows. No one ever neighs back. That’s usually it for the hollering.

Last year, though, we went to a show with his paddock-mate, Maggie. They’ve been together since the fall of 2014.

with Maggie


Tonka has no issue leaving Maggie at home to travel to a show solo. But it turned out that if he knew she was on the premises, he wanted her within view at all times. At that show last year, when Tonka and I left the warm-up area to go into the ring, Maggie was out of sight. He neighed several times as we trotted up the center line, and again at the canter, and again as we walked out of the ring. When a horse neighs their whole body tenses and shakes. Not what you want during a dressage test! Since that event, Tonka does get tense when Maggie is out of sight at a show, but he no longer neighs constantly. We also continue to have no issues when traveling alone, which is why I was surprised that Tonka neighed and neighed at our last show. Maggie had stayed home.

Letter Perfect Farm 2016 USEF/USDF Recognized Level 1 Show #1 Competition # 329242


I looked around. What could be setting him off?

Horses see the world differently than us – literally through different eyes. To survive they need the ability to discern movement and patterns at a distance. That they can do far better than us, but the trade-off for that acuity is that what they see isn’t necessarily in focus, nor in the brilliant colors that we know. However, their eyes are designed perfectly for an animal that relies on staying close by their herd mates and keeping a distance from those that want to eat them.

Maggie is a steel gray mare. Her coloring is not that common. Perhaps Maggie is the only horse Tonka has ever known that looks like that. Which is why when he saw this horse at a trailer a few down from where we were parked, he shouted Maggie!

Letter Perfect Farm 2016 USEF/USDF Recognized Level 1 Show #1 Competition # 329242


It wasn’t simply the light color. In the warmup arena, Tonka had settled in and was quiet. He ignored this big gray gelding. At least we humans call it gray, but it’s not at all patterned with dark dapples like Maggie.

Letter Perfect Farm 2016 USEF/USDF Recognized Level 1 Show #1 Competition # 329242


Then that gorgeous mare entered the ring. Tonka looked up. He hollered. She didn’t even look his way.

Tonka knows not to trust his eyes. He used his nose. I could feel him take a deep inhale breath.

Letter Perfect Farm 2016 USEF/USDF Recognized Level 1 Show #1 Competition # 329242


A horse’s sense of smell is far better than ours and conveys information that we are oblivious to. (For details about a horse’s sense of smell read this and this.) One good sniff and Tonka knew all he needed to know about that steel gray animal. Yes, she was a mare, but no, she wasn’t Maggie. From then on, as pretty as she was, Tonka ignored her.

Letter Perfect Farm 2016 USEF/USDF Recognized Level 1 Show #1 Competition # 329242


Part of developing a partnership is for each of us to trust that what we perceive dovetails with what the other is experiencing. There are times that Tonka spooks at something that I know isn’t dangerous. For example, almost silent bicycles appear quickly and with silvery glints of light. My human vision can make better sense of a bicycle than my horse’s eyes can. Tonka knows this – and that when I tell him that the thing hurtling towards us is okay, he trusts my judgement. What I never tell him is that what he’s alerting to is of no concern. I want his input, after all he knows things that I don’t. That rock outcropping on the trail that he snorted and hurried past every time we walked past for months? The one that looked normal to me? It turns out that it was a coyote den, I know because I finally saw the flash of grey tail. Tonka, of course, smelled the coyote. In fact, there were times that he alerted more adamantly at that rock than others – I’m sure he could smell if the coyote was nearby. For the last half-year he hasn’t worried at all by that rock. The coyote is gone. So, if Tonka neighs like a crazy horse at a show, I know there’s a reason behind it. Still, I want him to stop making a ruckus, and at the show I told him that his friend wasn’t there and to please quiet down. He didn’t believe me this time, not until he smelled her for himself, but I think that next time when I tell him She’s not here, he will trust me. If not, I’ll look for a steel grey horse and let him take a sniff.

Do you have a story about something that your animal was aware of and you were oblivious to? Please share! (Speaking of sharing, please use the social media button and share this post. Thanks!)

10 thoughts on “The Nose Knows

  • Kathy

    One day my dog(a pointer) kept pacing the perimeter of our lawn that abuts the woods. She would stop and look into the area sniffing. I could see this was different from her usual search for wildlife since she keeps her head down and roams the yard occasionally stopping to point. Little did I know that a murder had been committed about a mile away and the guy left on foot. He was caught in the woods behind my house! They brought a police dog in and he was the one that found him. I am glad for my dog as her unusual pacing caused me to bring us in. I thought she was alerting me to a coyote out there which is what she will do when one is in the vicinity.

  • Jan

    Very interesting blog. My memories of being on horseback are to faded to remember what went on
    Have to admit did make me giggle to think of you and Tonka looking for a grey mare so he can have a sniff…:)

  • Kim perkins

    I’ve been enjoying the sport of Nosework with one of my dogs. It’s similar to search and rescue, drug or bomb detection, etc. only in this sport the dog has to find and alert to an odor hidden in a room or vehicle. One morning I had taken my daughters ferrets out for some playtime before the dogs got up, and one escaped through a ripped window screen. It took me quite awhile to find the source of the escape( I thought the ferret was still somewhere in the house). Luckily, my nosework dog was able to locate the missing ferret after it had been outside for over an hour!

    • Terry Golson Post author

      I think that you should try nosework with your horse!
      Curious – was the ferret happy to be on the lam, or was she relieved to come back home?

      • Kim perkins

        I think that I am my horses favorite smell since he loves to bury his muzzle in my chest or neck and just inhale deeply. Bananas are a close second favorite smell. Yes, the ferret seemed a bit frantic when we found him under a hostas plant. Evidently he had just done circles around the foundation of the house until we located him. Since we are surrounded by woods and have the chicken coop in the back, I feel lucky to have found him!

  • Durbin Goodwin

    Horses really do have a sixth sense for that I am sure of. My oldest dog, which is a Golden Retriever, will know that my husband is arriving home long before the car even turns into the driveway. It amazes me each time. Reilly is particularly frightened of thunder storms and often will start pacing and panting long before even the first clap of thunder is audible to me. Instead of asking him to lay down, I respect that he is frightened over something and let him come tremble by my side telling him all is well with the world. He never believes me but knows he is safe with me.

  • Gin

    While trail riding with a friend one day both of our mares suddenly stopped and started huffing in great amounts of air. The refused to go forward so we decided they were smarter than we were so we waited until they settled down and would go on. And sure enough, a ways down the old logging road we were on we saw tracks where a bear had crossed the road. After having horses as many years as I have I’ve had a lot of time to observe how they use there sense of smell. I think it’s very interesting the way Tonka decided the gray horse wasn’t Maggie and ignored her. With the trust you and Tonka have built up together, I think he will probably believe you the next time he thinks he sees Maggie!

    • Terry Golson Post author

      Last week there was a bear on the lawn at the stable where I board Tonka! But it was early in the morning before the horses were turned out. It ambled away and the horses weren’t alarmed. So, not only do they know what’s around, but they know when to be worried and when not. Good for you to listen to your mare!

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