Calming Signals and Sensitive Noses.

“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 in 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.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Clinician, Equine Pro
Planning our 2019 clinic schedule now.
Email [email protected] for details or to be added to the email list.





This blog is free, and it always will be. Free to read, but also free of ads because I turn away sponsorships and pay to keep ads off my site. I like to read a clean page and think you do too. If you appreciate the work I do, or if your horse does, consider making a donation.

Anna Blake

58 thoughts on “Calming Signals and Sensitive Noses.”

  1. Anna, may I share out your article on heart horses? With yesterday being the one-year anniversary of the death of mine, I’d like to share the comfort and incredible insight your article provided to me with others who share such heartbreak. My horse was with me for 22 years; he was my everything.
    Of course, I would include credit to you.
    Thank you! I look forward to your blog every day.

    Sent from my iPhone

  2. So in reading this I am questioning my response to Barney’s rubbing and banging his nose on me – He can be a highly anxious horse due to his history of abuse and neglect – Typically he can be very “pushy” with his nose when we aren’t doing anything – maybe just standing still before a ride – or frequently over his stall door when I am in his space-

    I have always corrected this behavior – as an invasion of my space – I am very conscious of his history and my correction is “the mother look” and a stomp of my foot – if needed I say BARNEY!! I feel I have to do something as I don’t want to be hurt as he can really push.

    Should I just step back and lower my head and breathe????

    I have always taken this behavior to be more of impatience – ie; stop working on the neighbor horse and see me – or hurry up and open this door – He does do the whirly bird head swing when he is waiting on me ( He also does it when he is trying to get his friend to play in the pasture and if he sees we are going to do something other than go out to pasture) – when on trail rides he will rub his nose on his lower legs when his anxiety level rises – ( usually if we are leading or a tractor is working nearby)

    Thank you I enjoy your blog it makes me think !!!


    “Always be yourself, unless of course you can be a unicorn – then always be a unicorn”


    • Yes, Brycie, it sounds like anxiety and correcting anxiety doesn’t help much. That was the answer I was taught back in the day, if that is any help. These days I know more and yes, I’d move out of his space. I try to stay out of their space and working at their shoulder-girth area has been a great solution for the horses I work with. Good luck, great comment. I like that you are questioning.

  3. Hi Anna,
    Thank you, very interesting posts. I’ve learned a lot! Just wondering, after a ride, my horse (an OTTB) sometimes rests his face, and nose, against my chest and we stand quietly for a minute or two until he lifts his head. He seems very calm and peaceful. What do you think he is telling me? I am always quiet and gentle with him, and I don’t usually touch his face unless invited (I can tell he mostly doesn’t care for it). But he does this of his own accord.

    • I can’t guess without seeing him, I wouldn’t trade my eyes for anyone elses… I usually see things others don’t. That calm, closed-eye face is frequently a shut down calming signal so I would wonder. Again, without seeing it for myself, I can’t say. I don’t want to punish for that but I would always peacefully try to move out of his space and let him resolve it for himself. I want to encourage confidence, not dependence. Again, with kind breath and a calm body. Again, I CAN’T SEE THE TWO OF YOU SO I AM GUESSING.

      • Oh, I would never punish – I like it when he does that! But I will see what he does if I move away, and try to figure out what’s going on in his mind. Being with horses is so fascinating 🙂 Thanks for your thoughts, I really enjoy your blog! Vivien

  4. Love all your posts. Masterson Method addresses all the sensitive areas of a horse and how to release on the horse’s terms. I am new to it and grateful as it reveals more awareness to equine body language.

  5. Anna,

    Thank you again for another excellent post.

    On the topic of muzzles, I have a question: what does it mean when a horse rests its chin on your shoulder? My Norwegian Fjord mare does this occasionally, usually when she’s being groomed and very relaxed. It is probably how I respond (with a pet to the face) the causes some of the relaxation to be lost, so I’ll try to just breathe and do nothing or step back next time, but I’m not sure what she is trying to tell me.

    I have gotten *so* much better in how I communicate with horses since reading your books and following your blog – thank you from me, and thank you from my mare.

    Best regards, Jill

    On Fri, Nov 16, 2018, 7:33 AM Relaxed & Forward: AnnaBlakeBlog Anna Blake posted: ” “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 insecu” >

    • Thanks, Jill. That head leaning is something donkeys and draft breeds do sometimes. I think it’s relaxed but I also think it can be a bad habit when they lean on vets or farriers, so I don’t encourage it, but just moving a bit. Again, for me it’s about them having autonomy. Bet I’d like that mare, though.

  6. Anna, calming signals shown by rubbing nose/head…are these signs of pain related to the nerves in that area..? Or could it also be a sign of pain of any kind? For example joint pain or even maybe an injury..?
    This obviously if the horse is using rubbing nose as a calming signal at that moment.

    I am asking because my Icelandic horse does it a lot lately. I am pretty sure it is itch. It became unexpectedly warm the past weeks and I took his eczema blanket off a bit too early. So unfortunately he got somewhat itchy on his head and manes. His wintercoat is already so thick; the blanket on again would be murder (today the temp dropped luckily).
    However, we are also struggling with some vague issues (stumbling, not really enjoying riding, slow) which are sometimes very present but also sometimes not at all.

    I just did a full lab assessment including ppid testing and waiting for the results. He does not seem to be in pain, but my Icelandic horse shuts down easily and it is very difficult to know for sure he is not in pain…so that is why I am asking..

    • Well, yes, it can be any kind of pain, and without seeing him, I can’t guess. It does sound like you are doing the right things to check it out and it’s a weird season. I have horses who struggle with barometric changes and fall is especially hard. Good luck, Janneke.

  7. Hi Anna. My first query, but this blog has resonated so close to me. My horse has a story and was very shut down when i got him. I have had him 4 years and have healed his body, his spirit, his mind and his soul. We have reached a stage where he is now showing me who he is. After bridling, he always turns his head to me and leans on my chest. I always rub his face as he does it. I always thought he was looking for reassurance that he was in a safe place. He also rubs his face on his knee quite often. So basically, even tho i think he has healed. Perhaps he is not at the place i thought he was. The knee thing, i have always stopped it thinking he was avoiding working, now i will give him his moment. Im not a subtle person so this is a huge learning curve for me too. My horse and i found each other for a reason. Thankyou for your insight Anna.

    • Debby, I have a question, was there ever a bully that gave you a hard time when you were little or did you experience some kind of trauma? You have moved past it and healed, but the memory never leaves. I do believe you have made huge progress with this horse, but in my experience, the healing you talk about ( I have had him 4 years and have healed his body, his spirit, his mind and his soul. )… well, I don’t think we can take those memories away. You are right to keep listening. Good luck, Debby. You’re on the right path, I think.

      • Thanks Anna.  Yes i grew up in an abusive home and have had my share of issues that i carry today.  I can see he will have too. Ive been reading about Learned Helplessness now as well.  A lot of people have mistaken his quiet nature and missed the shut down.  We are a work in progress. And ive learnt to not let the step backwards day affect tomorrow.  I believe im heading in the right direction and the more i learn the more i can help him.  Thankyou.

        Sent from my Samsung Mobile on the Telstra Mobile Network

  8. I am blessed to have a mustang whose reactions have been only somewhat modified by humans (two previous trainers) in the 1.5 years he’s been off the range,and he still speaks honestly and eloquently which is something I want to ensure is never lost. We are starting from the beginning and your point of view, Anna, is priceless to me. I’ve had him for almost 4 months and he’s only had the halter on twice for the farrier. Other than that he’s been at liberty, no halter, no ropes. I need to know who he truly is before I ride him as I’m a grey mare (66) with a replaced hip and shoulder and cannot afford to hit the ground. But more, I want to know who he truly is because I believe it’s his right to express his thoughts. He’s an amazing gift to me and today he consented to wear a saddle again. Baby steps and oh so slow.

  9. excellent post. Why oh why are noses so darned cute, especially burro noses! love the photo too. Thank you for sharing the scientific data too . Helpful!

  10. I learned so much today reading this and I Love the science behind these beautiful animals. I had no idea how sensitive their noses truly are and of course they’re head which makes perfect sense but never really thought about before! You give us horse owner’s so much to think about, I love it and will be looking at my two horses with a new understanding and new responses from me as well. I so appreciate your words of wisdom!! As always, so happy I found you and your photos are awesome too! -Diana ❤️

  11. I don’t know if there is anything to this, it’s just something I ran across one day and wondered about. Supposedly horses when they first meet sniff each other’s breath as a means of identification. Mine has on occasion placed her nose right next to mine—no pushing or rubbing, just a horse’s normal long, quiet breaths—but you’d think she’d know who I am after our 4 years together. It’s not like I wear a different perfume every day. Although I do occasionally have oatmeal for breakfast instead yogurt LOL!

    • I do know that horses greet that way, and also that horses can tell we aren’t horses… since my breathing has improved over the years, more horses breathe with me, kind of conversationally all most, but I am always standing out of their space. But Alli, no doubt it isn’t about identification. She’s much smarter than that. Thanks for commenting.

  12. Oh my. I love this follow up to your post last week, but I must admit I feel so guilty reading all the things I should not have done, even though I am trying to move forward and remember to keep my hands off my horse. This is so much harder. Thank you again!

    • Guilt is such a distraction, it doesn’t help horses at all. I keep mine in a cupboard in the house. That way it’s easier to be with the horses. (Kind of teasing you, kind of not.) It doesn’t matter, It’s a lifetime journey. Take care, Celeste.

  13. Hi Anna, my boy Jake is getting more and more mouthy.
    He is quite nibbly and will sometimes try to pull your fingers in with his lips and tongue and I don’t trust that he won’t start using his teeth. He doesn’t have his ears back or even seem agitated or upset, in fact he has a soft eye and even when I haven’t been doing anything but standing in the paddock with them and he comes over for a scratch.
    He has some spots that really get him going and his lip gets all long and wobbly, if I stop he turns his head and looks at me as if to say what did you stop for?
    I have found out that where he came from they wean early, could this be related?
    He also has this hilarious way of licking things which I don’t know if I should be concerned about or not. Instead of licking things with the top of his tongue he uses the underside of his tongue and instead of from the back of the tongue to tip he goes the opposite way. I’m not sure if this is what he does all the time but if he licks my hand or the salt block he always does it that way.
    Thanks for any advice Anna

    • Vanessa, I can’t say for sure, I never substitute another’s eyes for mine, I usually see different things. So I’m just guessing. First of all, what are your hands doing anywhere near his lips. Please don’t let him lick your hand. It’s anxiety, not affection. When he shows anxiety, don’t encourage it. Give his head lots of room. Usually signals like this point to gastric issues. Pain is very possible. Poor weaning is possible, but current behaviors are contributing. again the answer is to stay out of his space more. Watch and see how close you are when his anxiety goes up. Go slower. No hand treats, no head patting. Touch him on his shoulder and stay by his girth area. Breathe more and talk less. Give him room, and at first he won’t have the confidence to want to be away, but encourage it. It’s important to turn this behavior around, not with punishment, but with space and peace. Good luck.

      • Wow ok I would never have thought of it as anxiety! Thankyou! He would always seek out our hands so I thought it was something that he enjoyed doing. It’s normally when we have given him something to eat so thought he was fairly relaxed at the time. Sometimes it’s even done through the fencing when I go to do something in the yard and he comes over to see what we are doing so I reach through to give him a scratch. (we have deer fencing so can’t lean over it.)
        We have recently moved and he had a really stressful truck ride up here. He was with his paddock mate but when the truck came up the drive and he saw me he did a very high pitched whinny which I have never heard before.
        He got off the truck and was drenched in sweat to poor boy. He’s been left to settle in with his mate since then with very little being asked of him except having a trim a week ago.
        I will go and just sit in the paddock then and give him the time and confidence to leave me.
        Thanks again 🙂

    • These last two posts have both been about calming signals that we mistake for affection, it’s a common mistake. As a rule of thumb, when a horse does an unusual behavior and continues it larger, it’s usually pain. And I’m more sure he’s in pain now, that kind of sweating in a float is extreme anxiety. Moving a horse can be very hard on them. The same with anxiety at feeding time; that’s gastric discomfort his mouth is telling you, not relaxed at all. RELAXED IS A QUIET MOUTH. Ulcer meds please and you are right to give him time, ulcers are slow healing. He’s stoic and they are quieter but their pain is no less. (PS. Sitting in the pen won’t do the same. Be on your feet so you can move out of his space (defined as about 4 feet from his head at any time. And for a while, certainly not every day. He needs time.) Good luck Vanessa… and the reason that first post was sub-titled “Listening to what you don’t want to hear” makes more sense now, doesn’t it?

      • As always Anna you are right on target. It’s one of those moments when someone gives you the answer you have that bat in the side of the head moment and say to yourself “of course!!!” I was feeling so bad about him being so stressed out about the move. I didn’t want to float him as I thought that would have been harder and the truck a lot easier on him. I just didn’t realise how much of a toll it was going to take. I nearly cried when I saw him. I will get onto meds today!!! Certainly does make sense. You are such a help Anna and Jake will definitely benefit from your words of advice.
        I’m struggling to get enough on board with a clinic up this way 🙁 so disappointing as I was hoping to swing it. Maybe next time around I will know more people and be able to show others the benefit of a clinic up here. Was looking forward to seeing you again but will have to wait until next time. Take care and enjoy your next trip down under 🙂

  14. I’ve recently acquired a wild mustang. She has never been handled. I started my relationship with her by doing nothing but sharing space, watching for calming signals, etc. She will now eat from a hay pile right at my feet. Every once in a while she will “check in” with me. She sniffs my leg or lightly brushes it with her lips, then back to eating. She doesn’t seem stressed or anxious at all when she does it. It’s really like a little check in. I’m dying to know what it means. Thoughts?

    • Like I say, I can’t substitute another’s eyes for mine. Without seeing her I can’t say. Mustangs are stoic and her emotions are complicated; some just like us but many are very different. I just don’t know enough about what you are doing to venture a guess. Sorry. Not sure what your goal is but using food to get close to her can send a mixed message. Not much help, sorry, Jennifer.

  15. Wonderful information and advice. I certainly agree that it is very tough not to pet a horse’s muzzle and harder still to believe that it means something other than affection. I wondered if this phenomenon is the same as when they want their foreheads rubbed or rub them against us?

    • Again, without seeing the horse with my own eyes, I can’t define the situation… but I would think so, yes. Sorry. Anxiety isn’t a crime, just a reason to listen. Thanks, Elizabeth.

  16. I really enjoyed this and will put it to use. Thank you and wishing you and yours a very happy, peaceful, and relaxing Thanksgiving.

  17. My horse used to “Lip” us to death. After attending one of your clinics I started halter by waiting in the back of his stall for him to invite me to halter him. In less than a week all the lipping stopped! Now if he starts again I know he is anxious so I can take a breath and figure out what is bothering him. So simple! So AMAZING! I love this stuff. Thanks Anna

    • Yay! Toby, thank you so much for telling me. Most of all, thanks for giving it a try. It’s huge for horses, as your boy says. I’m wild about calming signals because it gives us just this opportunity. Thanks, Toby, Love hearing this.

  18. Pingback: Calming Signals and “Happy” Horses – Relaxed & Forward: AnnaBlakeBlog
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  20. Since I found your blog a few weeks ago, I’ve had many interesting moments with my two horses. I’m breathing more. I wait for them more. I keep my hands off of their faces unless touching is necessary. I have not noticed them giving me any obvious calming signals, but I’m watching still – I probably have more to learn. As always.

    Neither of them is mouthy, but the other day while my seven-year-old and I were standing around in the field doing nothing in particular, he sniffed my hand. Nothing unusual about that, but then he walked forwards, butting my hand upwards and letting it drag over his muzzle, up the bridge of his nose to his forehead. He seems to like having his mane and, to a lesser extent, his forelock brushed so I instinctively started dragging my fingers lightly through his (very long, past-muzzle length) forelock. He gave a little sigh and licked and chewed. It was hard to tell from my angle but his lower lip looked relaxed.

    I wish I had your eyes. I felt like I did what he asked of me, but I’m so unsure. Maybe that was something else – or maybe I got it right. We stayed like that for maybe a minute or two, until there was a noise from somewhere and he raised his head.

    Now, it’s time to stop prattling and read your newly arrived books. Again, thank you for your blog. I’m so grateful.

    • I’ll add my usual reminder: You are looking for signs of anxiety. What does natural look like, more so than a good or bad judgment? Thanks, M, for the kind words and the best in the new year.

      • That is the question, isn’t it? What does natural look like… I thought I knew my horses, but now I’m questioning everything! Don’t worry; I like this feeling. It means I’m learning. We’ll figure it out, together, eventually. 🙂

        • Me, too. Pro tip: My version of natural changed when I let go of what I thought I meant to horses. Natural is peaceful grazing, galloping in the wind, feeling safe in the herd. (Ends up it isn’t about me at all.)

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