“But My Horse Asks Me to Maul His Nose.”
I had questions about my loudmouth party-pooper post last week where I wrote: “If we have a horse with so much anxiety that he rubs and mauls us with his nose, constantly agitated, we try to frame his insecurity as proof that it’s him wanting to be close to us, even as his heart rate climbs.”
In other words, sometimes calming signals are visible signs of anxiety, or even pain, that we often confuse for affection. I think we misunderstand the messages a horse gives with his muzzle most of all.
A reminder that the nose and chin are one of the most sensitive areas on a horse. The maxillary branch of the trigeminal nerve travels down the horse’s face, with a nerve bundle under the area the halter/noseband are positioned, and many smaller nerves continuing to branch out down to the muzzle.
These hypersensitive nerve endings in the muzzle are how foals find their way to nurse after birth, but predators also attack horses by biting them on the nose and eventually pulling them down. Complicated.
Calming signals shown in this sensitive area can be a visible register of pain. Nerve damage in the face is very common. Since digestion begins in the mouth, nose rubbing and certain sorts of mouth movements are signs of gastric pain, usually ulcers. Headshaking behavior is considered to be caused by overactivity of branches of the trigeminal nerve that supplies sensation to the face and muzzle. On the extreme, equine neurological disorders may be shown on the muzzle as well.
Foals are wildly sensitive, their muzzle twitches visibly as if the breeze makes them feel electric. And foals weaned too soon will carry that anxiety through life, frequently shown in their muzzle.
Some horses that are over-stimulated on their nose will begin nipping, also a sign of discomfort or anxiety.
If that isn’t enough already, a horse’s whiskers, coarse hairs called vibrissae or tactile hairs, help horses sense their environment. Horses have a blind spot under their muzzle and use these hairs to identify objects; it’s why they can clean up every blade of hay but leave debris and rocks. Sensitive.
From the standpoint of reading a horse’s calming signals, the nose and chin are very eloquent. Tight lines around their nostrils and lips are obvious signs of anxiety and tension. The ball of his chin might be hard to the touch, but slowly, when those whiskers start to move and the chin softens, the horse is moving into a more relaxed mode, his parasympathetic nervous system. It’s the first signal that licking and chewing are about to happen.
If a horse has a habit of mauling you, perhaps you’re teasing him with treats or perhaps it’s a sign of pain. If there is a chronic need to rub his nose, again pain or perhaps anxiety. It’s a common calming signal for a horse to drop his head and rub his nose on his knee. This movement releases anxiety and models a behavior for his handler. He needs a moment.
Lastly, horses are larger than we are. A human can leverage control over a horse by manhandling their faces. The reason it works is that muzzle area is hyper-sensitive and, in a sense, their weak link.
With all this knowledge about nerves in the muzzle and their uses, along with the most obvious sense, his keen sense of smell, when we meet a horse and he extends his nose to explore who we are, what do we do?
We grab their nose, of course. It’s soft and sweet. We kiss it and maul it. We believe that it’s the horse reaching out to connect with us in some special way, that an extended nose is an invitation for an embrace. Nope.
Sorry, says this loudmouth party-pooper. They are just giving us a sniff, curious about where we’ve been and if we have animal smells. But because horses can only focus on one thing at a time, once we grab their nose, in effect we stop their curiosity. We interrupt them.
It takes superhuman strength to not nuzzle a muzzle, but it means something different to a horse than it does to us.
In all the ways that a horse’s nose is sensitive, is that like being ticklish?
Do you enjoy being tickled? I know people who have an anxiety attack at the thought. Most of us stop breathing a second, tickling is complicated. We laugh but feel the opposite; trapped, controlled against our will. We laugh with anxiety, a human calming signal. Tickling creates anxiety mentally and physically for most of us, but we laugh compulsively while we hate it.
A horse’s muzzle is the easiest place to evoke a reaction in a horse, and if they go still and shut down, we need to be clear what we’ve done. If that touch encourages lip activity, isn’t that the same anxiety shown differently? And just because we can grab this most sensitive of places on a horse, should we?
So, when meeting a horse, with balled white-knuckled fists shoved in my pockets, I choose to keep my hands to myself. When the sniffing passes, I might put a hand on his body, but I avoid touching his face. I swear, it is the hardest thing for me around horses, but I want to respect that nose. I choose to be polite, despite my horse-crazy urge to touch that velvet soft nose.
What to do if you have a horse with a chronically anxious nose? Don’t exacerbate it. It would help him if you could breathe and let him hear the exhale, standing at his side and not in front… give him all the slack rope and open space you can. When you want to hug him, give him a signal he understands. Less high-pitched verbal chatter; let the air rest.
Instead, answer in a way that means more to a horse. Be eloquent with peace in your calm body. Give him space and the safety of a deep breath. Then, watch his eye soften in gratitude.