Like Pepi Le Pew, the instant I smell something horsey, that mystical magical finger of perfume tucks under my chin and blissfully draws me toward any horse or horse barn, even as I hear people groaning, “That’s gross! Ewwwwww!”
As writers know, smell is one of the most powerful sensories instantly evoking a memory from a mother’s perfume or a villain’s aftershave. I learned just how powerful this is when I walked into a local feed store and the aroma of sweet feed greeted me. I was immediately transported to my feed room in my barn at feeding time. I almost cried wishing it were true.
However, have you noticed how if we are around a fragrance/odor for long we don’t smell it. A friend of mine went to Mackinaw Island in Michigan where no motorized vehicles are permitted. So, horse and buggies are a main transportation there. My friend quickly realized how the island smelled ‘kinda horsey’. I would imagine most pioneer towns and farms would have also smelled this way but the locals wouldn’t have noticed. They were too used to it. But what about that new bride from the city discovering her new hubby is a farmer?
Like all animals, horses have an odor that is unique to them. Ponies, draft (the big horses) or average horses have their own ‘smell’. I can’t describe the differences, but we’ve all smelled a horse and recognize it. When horses are worked out, they sweat and lather and this wonderful fragrance manages to get onto rider’s clothing as pant legs, hems of long draping gowns, gloves from patting or stroking a weary horse’s neck. This hefty fragrance is pungent in saddle blankets. Now, imagine a cowboy sleeping under the stars using his saddle blanket for warmth and his saddle for a pillow. But I’m sure he doesn’t even notice anything but campfire smoke and the smell of coffee. But what about a city slicker’s reaction on his first night out-of-town?
And leather, that yummy smell that we usually associate with new cars. I think car leather is more processed but still close to the smell of a saddle, bridle, halter, or lead rope. Usually these are made of leather but a lead rope or halter could also be made of a rope that would pick up this horsey, leather, dirt smell.
To clean ‘tack’ (saddle, bridle etc) you use clear glycerine soap (yep like what we use on our faces) then oil with the rich leathery scent of Neatsfoot oil. So when your rider puts a saddle on his stallion or settles down in onto the leather, he’ll know if his groom has been doing his duty by the way the saddle feels and smells clean. Or sweaty.
Instinctively, it seems, we know a healthy smell from something not right. Hooves are like that. When your hero is cleaning his horse’s hooves (which he does each night), he’ll know if all is well. Hooves have a nice, dry, musty smell. But they can rot if standing too long in too much water or muck (dirty stalls full of …you know). Then, they stink worse than old nasty sport socks.
Our hero also may notice that somewhere along the way, his limping stallion has stepped on a rusty barb, nail, or some odd metal piece and by smell alone he’ll know if it’s infected, which is a serious situation for his horse. You know the 14th century proverb:
For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.
And an infection could have the same effect as a lost nail.
All infections are serious. And logically, horses are as capable of getting cut from barbwire, bullets, thorns , arrows, and so on just as humans. You can imagine the many things that could cut skin and cause infections especially if the horse is kept in filthy conditions as a stall, corral with other mud-covered animals. So a sick horse simply doesn’t smell right.
Now as for barns…they should also smell right. Fragrances of clean golden straw, clean fresh hay like new-mown grass, fresh grains as corn, oats, bran fill barns. And there is that heavenly fragrance of sweet feed, the mixture of oats, cracked corn other grains, tossed together with molasses. This perfume does not exist in filthy barns where odors of thick urine, wet manure, moldy hay, and dusty grain prevail.
There is also the aroma of new or old wood for the stalls and walls. The hallways can be packed dirt or, in wealthy stables, the hallway could be paved with treated wooden bricks as it was at Longview Farms in the Draft Horse barn in Kansas City. Or, the hall could be concreted and then carpeted with woven hemp for footing as it was in the Longview’s Hackney Barn.
The Hackney Barn also had a wash area much like a car wash. Bring the horse in, ‘cross tie it” (one rope or chain on either side that is attached to the halter to keep the horse in the middle) and turn on the water hose. Spray warm water over this well-worked and weary horse, and then scrape down using a ‘scraper’ (long metal stirgil as the Romans would call it) to remove the watery lather and sweat. Rub down with cotton rags or straw (a poor man’s rag). Once reasonably dry, toss a ‘cooler’ (wool or cotton blanket) over the horse to keep him from chilling and start walking to ‘cool’ the horse completely down to normal body temperature. (You’ll see this after a race at the race tracks or at any horse show.) Now, of course this ‘cooler’ smells wonderfully sweaty and very horsey.
So, like the buttery cinnamon fragrance of apple pie, be it from a candle, pie, or a person’s perfume, this fragrance can transport someone to that favorite dinner or season or that special place with a beloved someone. For horse lovers …the fragrance of something horsey does just the same. Enjoy making your historicals this fragrant…we horselovers will appreciate it.