When discussing traits needed for a great scent detection animal, you have to first take into consideration the most important trait and a scientific rule, which is "Form to Function." Picture in your mind, a dog and a horse. When nature developed these animals, each received their own unique specialty characteristics (traits). Equines are not just animals that can air scent, they are designed as the ultimate air scenting animals. With their large nostrils and long necks, they can scent right on the ground like a dog, or they can scent detect six feet up in the air. This natural gift allows them to pick up on scent that would many times go right over the heads of K9s. This unique equine ability becomes extremely important when changes in environmental conditions cause scent to gather or travel at higher levels. Besides the obvious beneficial traits mentioned above, the horse offers many more than most people have considered.
When most people hear of horses being used for scent detection, they wonder how can this work? They can understand how a dog can do it but a horse they question. They have a presumption that a meat-eating hunter, which comes from the K9 family is needed for scent detection. This is a completely false presumption. The first fact that you need to know is that the hunting ability is way down on the list of qualities needed to make a good scent detection animal. The primary qualities needed are natural scenting instincts, play and prey traits (described as gaming desire), trainability, drive and incentive, all of which comes way before hunting desire. As a matter of fact, too much hunting drive will not make a good scent detection animal because pure hunting breeds can have trouble keeping their minds on the task at hand. Just to prove my point, letís use the US Border Patrolís dog breeding program as an example.
The US Border Patrol has developed the only large scale scent detection dog breeding program in the United States. They do not use any hunting breeds in their breeding program. Instead, they use four breeds of herding dogs. The breeds are Tervuren, Laekenois, Malinois and Groenendael. These four breeds are considered by most experts to be the best scent detection dogs in the world. The Border Patrol chose these breeds because they had the necessary qualities needed for scent detection. The fact that all the breeds used come from stock herding backgrounds is not just a coincidence. Trainability has been bred into all the herding breeds; it comes from many generations of dogs working at tasks as directed by their masters. As you see, hunting ability is not nearly as important as you may have originally thought.
Comparing The Traits Of An Equine To
Natural scent locating ability - The horse has been selectively bred in the wild to use air scenting locating abilities to search for choice feed, minerals, water, it's own kind and to avoid danger. The horse is perfectly designed to air scent, it can scent right on the ground or six feet in the air.
Prey and play drive - Most scent dog experts list play and prey drive traits together as one. They define prey drive as a willingness to chase. In this example I will include both prey and play traits in the gaming desire category. Many breeds of horses have a natural gaming desire bred into them; two excellent examples are Arabians and cow bred Quarter Horses. I have trained quarter horses for cutting that would just as soon cut a moving flag or a running person with as much enthusiasm as they would a cow. I have seen horses left in pastures with cattle or goats where the horses played with and chased the other animals until they were run right out of the fence. I have seen toys, such as balls, that were left in corrals with horses that ended up being totally destroyed from the horses playing with them. Horses love a good game of hide and go seek. (This is very important because really scent detection is just a game of hide and go seek.) This information tells us that horses can have a overwhelming desire for a wide variety of games that include the chase instinct.
Trainability and herding blood lines - Like I said above, herding blood lines really goes hand in hand with trainability. Like the herding types of dogs, many blood lines of horses have been selectively bred especially for herding purposes. Even though many different breeds of horses have proven to me that they can and are willing to scent locate, the cow bred bloodlines just seem to learn it more quickly. As far as trainability goes, all breeds of equine have proven they possessed this trait. People have even trained miniature horses successfully for seeing eye guide horses. They have served man well in many different jobs throughout time, so when it comes to horses, trainability is a given.
Drive - Natural drive is a trait needed for a good detection animal. Drive is defined as a force to go, to push forward. Drive is also a given when it comes to the horse. Speaking from personal experience, I have seen my detection horse on an actual search, plow through mud, snow, slush and flooded streams for three hours straight and then still pick up, follow and locate the hidden human scent source. Now that took drive! Another example is that many working cowboys ride for hours during the day's work, and even though the horse is tired, he will use his natural instincts to work cattle on it's own.
Incentive - After scent training both dogs and horses I have discovered that the equine actually has the greatest natural incentive to find a scent source. Because the combination of incentives are key elements of my innovative training program I will not list them here. I will reserve this secret for the people that buy my training booklet or hire me to put on training clinics.
Hunting desire - Even though hunting desire is way down on the list of necessary qualities needed, it still does exist as a factor in scent detection. So let's talk about the hunting ability, but first let's see how the word hunt is defined in the dictionary. Hunt - "To try to find or search, or to chase." The horse fits well into this category because, as I explained above, the horse uses natural scent detecting abilities to find and search for choice feed, minerals, water, their own kind and to avoid danger. The horse also fits into the third definition of hunt because it has a natural gaming desire to chase. (To read a story on a wild stallion using scent detection, see Natural Horsemanship page)
Furthermore, when discussing the hunt factor in detection horses, and when you take into consideration that the horses will have a trained rider on their backs and who will be fully capable of guiding the horse into positions where the horse can make a strategically precise search, you can see that natural hunting desire may not even be necessary at all.
The following story will give you another perspective on how strong the traits of gaming desire, herding, chase, and natural drive are in certain lines of horses. It will also prove that the horse does not fit into the typical prey animal category.
Have you ever watched a cat play with a mouse? The larger animal slowly stalks its prey. Every footstep is placed softly on the ground as if being placed on egg shells. The large animal's eyes are focused on the smaller animal with almost a trance like stare. When the large animal gets too close, the smaller animal tries to make a run for safety, but the stalker is too quick. With an uncanny ability to spin on a dime and use a powerful short burst of speed, he easily cuts off the escape route, just short of pouncing on the victim. The large animal does not want this game of cat and mouse to end too quickly. The stalker crouches low to the ground - its legs compressed downward like a tightly coiled spring and waits, mentally begging its victim to move. Then again the victim animal makes a sprint to escape. Once again, the large animal is too quick and cunning, the stalker again cuts off the escape route, but this time the victim comes to close to the stalker and the stalker stretches out his neck, opens its jaws and bites the victim as its powerful jaws close like a steel trap.
You could have easily thought I was describing the cat, which most people would say fits in to the category of a natural hunter, but no, I was describing one of the many cutting horses that I have rode or watched cut cattle. And, yes, some do try to bite the cattle although they are trained not to. Does the above described action fit your mental picture of a prey animal or a hunter? Much of the above is a example of the natural instinct that many horses have that show a drive to hunt for, chase or play a game. Many trainers call this instinct "cow," but really it is just a natural gaming desire which is much sought after in roping, cutting and scent detection horses.
( For more information on the necessary traits and abilities, see second half of Proof page.)
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