You’re so sweet. I love you. You love me. I brought you an apple. We are best friends. Kiss. Kiss.
And then there was black.
And then there was pain.
There are no words to express it other than, CRUNCH and the metallic taste of blood. It was a true Marcia Brady moment.
She gave no f**ks, because she had zero idea or inclination that her head bob would result in human facial trauma. And why would she? She’s a horse.
When a child snuggles a harmless-looking pony at the petting zoo, we think it’s cute and broadcast it over Instagram in a hot second. Tiny little pony, tiny little kisses…until your child ends up with a tiny little broken nose because a fly irritated Mr. Squiggles, causing his head to flail in response.
Best Friends Forev…OUCH
Embarrassingly I made this exact horsemanship mistake as an adult. And it did, indeed, end with a broken nose from not doing much at all. For whatever emotional void I needed to fill, I was snuggling with a horse at the barn – stroking her nose, caressing her cheeks, and resting my face on her face. Because if stock photography is any representation of equestrian life, we would only live with herds of bays, horse-eye close-ups, and the warm-and-fuzzy photos that make it easy to forget that nuzzling a horse’s face with your face is actually about the dumbest thing you could do with your life.
From the Trainer
Travis Robson is a trainer who works with horses across all disciplines and stages, tackling behavioral issues such as fear and aggression with an unparalleled success record. Based in Calgary, Alberta, he is a staple on the Western circuit and a sought-after trainer in Canada and the US. You could call him a horse whisperer, but he’ll just roll his eyes. I asked Travis about my unscheduled nose job and if it was because of something that I did to piss off Buffy.
“A horse doesn’t have forethought, they’re a reactive animal,” explains Travis. “They’re not sitting there thinking ‘When she comes up here I’m going to throw my head and I’m going to hit her in the face.’ No. Something is going to happen behind them, and they’re going to react.”
So when people think that their horse “would never do that to me,” is that misguided?
“What a ridiculous statement,” he exclaims. He tells me a story about a lady he knows having broken every bone in her face from kissing a horse on the face and I cringe, mortified. I felt the consequences of this mistake once, and it was enough to teach me never to do it again.
Further investigation quickly led me to discover that others around me had stories about what I’ll call “face vs. horse.” And none of these stories ended well. Coaches, farriers, and vets all shared anecdotes of people getting their faces too close to horses, with severity levels ranging from broken noses to serious medical emergencies. In one case, my vet told me of a woman who had her cheek flesh chomped off by a panicked and distressed horse. Unfortunately, injuries are not the exception.
From the Doctor
My nose healed without visible evidence, leaving me with just a little whistle when I inhale. But I was lucky. Facial trauma can be extremely serious with consequences that can include pain, disfigurement, loss of function, and airway interference.
“Nasal bone fractures are the most common facial fracture due to their small size and their projection from the face,” says Toronto Otolaryngologist Dr. Thileeban Kandasamy. “The thickness of the nasal bone is around a few millimeters.”
So, basically, I had put bones that are the thickness of a dime near a creature that has ~1,000lbs of heft to its step? I silently start to freak out.
“Typically with injuries to the nose, the nasal bone fractures in more than one place,” says Kandasamy. “One bone is pushed into the nose and the other is pushed out. This creates a bent appearance to the nose.”
Nasal-bone fractures typically take four to six weeks to heal, but Kandasamy remarks that the injuries often require a “fracture reduction” (a.k.a. re-breaking the nose) in order to set the bones in the correct location.
Not a chance. I’m sticking with the whistle.
Different Kind of Love
Perhaps the key thing to consider is that horses display affection quite differently than humans, and that it is our desire for closeness that leads to face vs. horse situations. Observing a herd shows this clearly – they scratch, lean, and breathe on each other; they don’t rub up on each others’ faces.
Left naturally, a horse may approach and nuzzle your chest, but if you watch carefully, chances are that it will give negative, avoidant body language as soon as you reach out to its face.
This isn’t to say that your horse isn’t affectionate or doesn’t love you; we are different species with different instinctive behaviours. Our expectation of human-like facial contact can make a horse anxious because we’ve entered its “space” – like an obnoxious close talker or personal-space invader at a dinner party. I mean, how would you like it if someone started patting your nostrils?
As Travis explains, a horse is essentially single focus; its attention is on one thing – until it’s not because it’s reacted to something else. So trying to force our version of affection on a horse and expecting it to be like a human is bound to get us into trouble.
I have learned to allow my horse to express affection towards me in its own way while maintaining safety boundaries. An injury such as face vs. horse is rarely intentional on the horse’s part, so it’s up to us as humans to know better and safeguard.
“People should never put themselves where a hind leg can reach you, where a swinging head right to left can reach you,” advises Robson. “Just be aware of your surroundings all the time when you’re with a horse because their reactive nature is the demise of many, many people. It can get you.”
Marcia F**king Brady.