Predator odour per se does not frighten domestic horses
Horses frequently react nervously when passing animal production farms and other places with distinctive smells, leading riders to believe that horses are innately frightened by certain odours.
In three experiments, we investigated how horses respond to (1) urine from wolves and lions, (2) blood from slaughtered conspecifics and fur-derived wolf odour, and (3) a sudden auditory stimulus in either presence or absence of fur-derived wolf odour. The experiments were carried out under standardised conditions using a total of 45 naïve, 2-year-old horses. In the first two experiments we found that horses showed significant changes in behaviour (Experiments 1 and 2: increased sniffing; Experiment 2 only: increased vigilance, decreased eating, and more behavioural shifts), but no increase in heart rate compared to controls when exposed to predator odours and conspecific blood in a known test environment. However, the third experiment showed that exposure to a combination of wolf odour and a sudden stimulus (sound of a moving plastic bag) caused significantly increased heart rate responses and a tendency to a longer latency to resume feeding, compared to control horses exposed to the sudden stimulus without the wolf odour. The results indicate that predator odour per se does not frighten horses but it may cause an increased level of vigilance. The presence of predator odour may, however, cause an increased heart rate response if horses are presented to an additional fear-eliciting stimulus. This strategy may be adaptive in the wild where equids share habitats with their predators, and have to trade-off time and energy spent on anti-predation responses against time allocated to essential non-defensive activities.
Title: Predator odour per se does not frighten domestic horses
Authors: J. Christensen, M. Rundgren