Forgotten Sense

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In 1958 the Jockey Club opened the first ever Equine Research Station. I remember it well. It was in the heart of the horse racing industry in new market right next door to Hamilton Stud where I worked. Although initially their aim was to find cures for breeding problems their exceptional work quickly expanded and over the years they have completed research on practically every aspect of the horse thus benefiting all horses world-wide. However, scientists have been unable to fully investigate the horse’s olfactory (smell) sense, due to the fact that it is too ambiguous to scientifically measure. This can give rise to the belief that the olfactory sense is unimportant. Nothing could be further from the truth. What science has so far discovered is that the olfactory sense is linked to the endocrine system and therefore influences the horse’s behavior, health and reproduction.

The five acknowledged senses; are sight, sound, smell, touch and taste. Whilst sight, sound and touch are connected to the nervous system, the sense of smell is connected to the endocrine system and is the main influence on behavior. Much olfactory information is gathered by horses from the aroma of pheromones from other animals, which animals emit through the skin, breath, droppings and urine, consistently broadcasting personal olfactory details of gender, condition, danger, sociability, health etc. When these aromas are detected by other horses they instantly induce the appropriate hormone to deal with the relevant situation; for example the smell of the hormone adrenaline triggers the ‘flight-fight’ response. This is vital to survival but too much adrenaline too often can be counterproductive.

On the other hand, the hormone oxytocin is known as ‘the peace hormone’ because it creates calmness and social behavior, it is known also to create long-lasting benefits to health by influencing other health-giving transmitter systems and lowering cortisol levels and blood pressure. It’s the hormone responsible for sociability and for the dam bonding with her foal.

Horses are incapable of learning whilst their brain is excited or nervous; therefore when we are dealing with a nervous or fearful horse we must first get it to relax before we can ask for compliance; otherwise we are dealing with a brain which can only flee from us. This can be done by breathing calmly and deeply and sighing and also by introducing an aroma which replicates oxytocin. Horsemanship consists of understanding horses and knowing “Where to be – How to be – When to be” but these can be much more readily achieved when the person smells of oxytocin, because the aroma communicates – calmness and acceptance.

Many years ago it was commonplace for grooms to keep an old coat hanging in the stables to absorb the smells from many horses. Grooms would wear this coat if they had a difficult horse to calm. Experts went a step further; they concocted their own individual remedies of calming scents which they wore on themselves to calm horses. Some were so effective that the formula was only handed down to next of kin on the deathbed.

All race horse trainers will at some time come across a horse which is either highly nervous or fearful or aggressive, resulting in vital energy being lost, especially through box-walking. These problems can often be reduced or even overcome by introducing the smell of oxytocin. The only artificial scent capable of replicating the smell of oxytocin is the aroma of Pax herbal mixture. This was scientifically proved in 2002 by Japanese equine scientists. But this has been known in Britain for centuries. After the Second World War (1948) the combustion engine began to replace horses as a source of power. During the transition from beasts of burden – to sports animals, old ways were forgotten. Consequently this valuable information was almost lost as new ideas became the norm in the horse world.

Irene French

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