Many horse people have similar trigger smells that take us back to a fond memory, like fly spray, gas station coffee or fresh shavings.

We all get stuck in the house every so often. Sometimes events are cancelled and our plans change to, well, no plans. Sometimes the weather will foul us up and bring in a heavy snowstorm or an icy rain. And once in awhile, a global pandemic hits and it becomes borderline illegal to step out into the world and live our normal lives. So we sit and reminisce, confined to a few walls and our own thoughts, too many cleaning products, families and imaginations. 

And while we are on the topic of imagining, I’d like to marvel for a minute at the incredible ties our senses have to specific memories. For some people, the smell of an old, musty library book puts them right back in their days of studying for college. Others might take a bite of warm apple pie and be right back in Grandma’s kitchen. Seems pretty normal. But I’m guessing that cowboy and horse-type people have stranger sentiments than most. Because, as I would imagine, our lives are filled with odd happenings and situations that regular people may not relate to. 

Smells like horses, fly spray or old gas station coffee bring people fond memories.
Photo by Ross Hecox

I know a lot of people who can take one whiff of the sharp, punchy odor of undiluted fly spray,and it just makes them feel like summer has begun. A bottle of liquid glycerin leather soap, with its smooth, lathered scent and tacky feel on an old rag flashes me right back to being a kid, cleaning saddles with my friends on a foggy afternoon. 

One thing I’m particularly sentimental toward is gas station coffee. It’s always the wrong temperature — either burned and scalding hot, or tepid and not strong enough. The artificially flavored creamers and powdered half-and-half leave something to be desired, yet the very thought of stopping at the break of dawn to caffeinate myself before my day leaves me excited for a crummy Styrofoam cup. Cheap coffee brings me right back to early morning ranch horse shows and cold-morning brandings on the central coast of California. Pair that brew with something sugary wrapped in cellophane and I’m trekking halfway across the country with a Haflinger mare and a Quarter Horse gelding in my Donahue trailer, going back to school after a summer of work. Or I’m headed out before the sun with my husband, going to work horses on a cow in Texas before it’s too hot for our animals.   

I’ve spoken to several people about their trigger smells and tastes and it seems that a lot of us share the same types of memories. There is always a fondness for the unmistakable, earthy and wonderful smell of horses, but it goes beyond that. Anyone out there that gets taken to a place in time by the smell of clean shavings, dewy alfalfa, pungent thrush, burning hair, good ol’ feedyards, or Pepi Coat Conditioner? How about lunchtime, with horse show concession stands and sale barn burgers? Ahhhh… unforgettable. 

But, as most of these snowstorms and viruses tend to do, this time of waiting and wishing will pass. And for those of you who might be quarantined to your house temporarily, smelling the irritating fresh scents of household cleaners and hot baked goods, have faith. It won’t be too much longer and we’ll all be on our way to our lives again, sipping watery gas station coffee and happily inhaling that, uh, unique smell of feedyards soon enough.

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