KBR Horse Training Information

Exercising Body AND Mind

Understanding the Lick / Chew
Reflex in Horses

Presenting a stressful object
There are a great many misconceptions regarding the lick / chew reflex in horses during training or stressful encounters. There is an old axiom that the horse is "digesting a thought" however that concept really doesn't tell the true story.

The lick / chew reflex is actually an indicator of a release of stress or tension. In most instances it occurs when the horse has "survived" a stressful encounter and "lets down." In some cases the horse may have been concentrating on a problem, thinks it has found a solution and the lick / chew reflex indicates the release of concentration tension. Most often it merely indicates that some stressful pressure has ceased.

The reason we present this issue is that all too often people schooling horses operate under the misconception that every time the horse licks and chews the handler has managed to teach the horse something. Yet many times the horse could be merely thinking, "Thank God that idiot has quit pressuring me!" (Please see the KBR Mythbusters feature, "Lick, chew, swallow = digesting a thought?")

Misconceptions and mistakes aside, the lick / chew reflex can be used as a reliable indicator that can be valuable for training. Licking and chewing consistently indicates that the horse has just changed from a state of higher anxiety to a state of lower anxiety. By recognizing this emotional change during quiet encounters with the horse (as opposed to running the horse to distress) we can determine if the horse is accepting of the stimulus, activities or objects being presented.

The following examples involve Fish Creek Suzi, a former Dann Sisters mare that was rescued from the Fish Creek disaster. Suzi was the "supreme alpha" of the horses in the Fish Creek rescue. She would seldom get scared but she could easily get mad. During this sequence Suzi is just becoming comfortable being touched, can be haltered if approached quietly and will lead. The object of this experiment is to place a saddle on the horse for the first time and use stress management techniques to maintain a calm, collected attitude in the horse. While in "real life" we would want to monitor all of Suzi's "body language", in this experiment we're going to focus on the relationship that licking and chewing has as an indicator that the horse is accepting what is being presented.

In this sequence we are simply haltering Suzi, leading her to a safe enclosure and undertaking the activities shown below with no other preparation other than to make "hand contact," establish some social interaction and check Suzi for any stress inducing forbidden "touch me not" spots.

Touch me not spots.

Before we attempt to place objects on this mare we want to desensitize any "touch me not" spots of which we are aware. We don't need the horse to be guarding these spots while we engage in other potentially stressful activities. If the mare doesn't feel compelled to "guard" various spots on her body, she will be packing less overall stress and will comply with the training activities more easily.

One particularly reactive spot involved bringing our hands up her neck and rubbing her poll. We simply quietly repeated this exercise a half dozen times until Suzi no longer threw her head when touched there. At that point we kept our hands on the scary spot until she released tension and presented the lick / chew reflex. It took two repetitions before Suzi was no longer upset about being touched there.

Presenting the saddle pad.

Our next objective was to place the saddle pad on the horse and have her readily accept it. Although Suzi had ropes tossed over her back several times, she never had a bulky object placed on her back.

We started by presenting the pad while backing away and having Suzi follow it. This approach with new and potentially scary objects is less threatening to the horse and horses are naturally curious about things that move away from them. We wanted to make sure that Suzi wouldn't overreact to the pad when presented in close proximity.

Similar to our approach with Suzi's "touch me not" spot we touched her with the pad and placed it on her back from either side for short periods. After a few "tosses" we left the pad on Suzi's back and stood quietly until she released tension and licked and chewed. We then tossed the pad on a few more times, gave her a few seconds to relax and release, then quietly longed the horse with the pad on her back whereupon she had no issue with it whatsoever.

Presenting the saddle.

The real test would come when we placed the saddle on Suzi.

We presented the saddle much the same as we had with the saddle pad. The bulk and stiffness of the saddle was a bit more intimidating. Since we had not ever created situations where we "pursued" Suzi with unfamiliar objects, she maintained emotional control and accepted the touch of the saddle.

After the saddle was quietly placed on her back and removed a few times, we then left the saddle on her back until she licked and chewed. At that point we moved over to her off side in order to lower a stirrup that had been left draped over the seat in order to make "tossing" the saddle easier. Just when the stirrup was touched, Suzi took a half step backwards and the stirrup tumbled down and slapped her ribs. Since Suzi wasn't in an emotionally charged state she merely flinched, took a small step back and glanced back at the offending stirrup. This response was followed by the familiar lick and chew.

We let Suzi wander about with the saddle on for a few minutes, then quit while she was in a positive state of mind. This whole business from haltering to being quietly saddled for the first time took less than 45 minutes.

Please don't misinterpret what the lick / chew response really means!
Please check out "Lick, chew, swallow = digesting a thought?"
(This feature will open in a new window.)

Other notes:

While this account describes Suzi's first encounter with saddle and pad, this was an experiment to illustrate how a horse responds to various stimuli with a lick / chew reflex. No handler or trainer should ever rely on any single indicator that a horse is ready for any new and unfamiliar activity. In reality we "read" the entire horse's body language to determine when and if it was safe to proceed to the next step. For teaching purposes we have focused this feature on the lick / chew reflex to show its relationship to the horse's emotional state and to also illustrate how often and how quickly horses can go from intervals of higher levels of emotional anxiety or stress to lower levels.

Common signs that a horse building anxiety include raising of the head, a general bracing of muscles, increased respiration, widening of the eye, fixation on an object and uneven twisting of facial muscles (drawing of the nose and/or lips slightly to one side.)

Common signs that a horse is releasing anxiety include lowering the head, blinking the eyes, blowing off held breath or giving an audible sigh, licking and chewing, relaxation about the eyes and ears and muzzle, and cocking a hind leg (in a relaxed rather than threatening posture.)

Please always use common sense and consider the "whole horse" when attempting new and potentially stressful activities with your horses.


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