Sunday, November 18, 2007

What's Up with Licking and Chewing and Arabian Horses

In the post, Trying to Get my Breeding Business Back on Track - Training Young Horses - After the Fall Beth asked in the comments about the significance of licking and chewing for me. She has read a study that says the "reflex is a release after being forced into stressful situations" so she was curious about my take.

The best way I can think to answer this question is to go back over how I learned about the importance of this reflex in the first place. Over the years I have gone to many clinics with some well known and not so well known horsemen. (Monty Roberts, John Lyons, Richard Shrake, Clinton Anderson, Brad Gallun, Tommy Garland, Harvey Jacobs and Cody Herford to name a few) All have referenced licking and chewing as an important part of teaching a horse something new.

While there's no way I can remember who said exactly what, I can tell you that I have heard several different explanations for what this represents. Some of it made no sense to me, some I thought was downright stupid (something you don't hear me say often) and some I thought was reasonable. But the one commonality in all of these explanations was that it was a sign that the horse had learned something.

I may not have been getting explanations of the response that always made sense to me, but it was clear to me by observing the horse that the horse was indeed at a point that it had accomplished something. Whether or not the horse had learned exactly what that cowboy wanted wasn't clear but the horse had figured something out that was important to the horse. About that, I have no doubt.

I have heard it explained that the licking and chewing releases endorphins that reward the horse. I've heard that those endorphins allow the horse to digest a thought. I've heard that the endorphins cause the horse to relax and all kinds of stuff in between. I even worked with a clinician who put his finger in the horse's mouth to cause it to lick and chew to help it with learning.

The one thing I can say about all of these men, they were good horsemen. Even if they had different explanations, and maybe none of them is right, they were all correct in the fact that a lick and a chew is a reliable indicator that the horse has learned something.

I have found by looking for licks and chews as a place in the training to give an even bigger release, or using it as a place to take a break or cease for the day, that I have a horse that learns faster and retains better. I'm not going to even try to explain why it works, because I haven't a clue. I just know that it does.

In regards to the study saying that it is a release after being forced to do something stressful, that would make sense to me. Actually it goes right along with all of the different things those cowboys said (except the stupid one). Because the lick and chew will come after a release from pressure. However, it doesn't come after ALL releases of pressure. It only comes after some.

Certainly what I have learned from these cowboys (or horse whisperers, if you prefer) along the way is that to teach the horse, you must apply pressure. You release the pressure when the horse does or thinks about doing what you want. The horse learns from the release of pressure.

For a horse, pressure is stress. It's plain and simple. Any form of pressure to a horse is stressful. The more intense the pressure, the bigger the stress. So applying pressure to the horse to train it, is applying stress. Giving the horse a release removes the stress and teaches the horse that it has done what you asked. But remember not all releases get licks and chews. And bigger licks and chews seem to indicate a greater understanding by the horse.

I haven't seen this study, but sure would like to, but from the statement above, if it was an automatic reflex by the horse from being forced into something, the horse should lick and chew after each release. And the other question for me would be what about the trainer that put his finger in the horse's mouth and caused it to lick and chew. I can tell you that worked for him and all of the horses he worked that day.

So for me, I watch for it. I utilize it and my success has improved tremendously because I employ it. I doubt that I will ever know exactly what is going on inside the horse's head, but I do know for sure that working with the licking and chewing as a gauge to how the horse is learning has been a huge help.

Also here I should probably mention that chiropractors look for licking and chewing too. They see it as a measure of the correction they are seeking. The bigger the licks and chews the more successful the adjustment. I have learned that this is a reliable gauge as well.

The horse in this picture is Scandalous Reflection. He is licking after a release of pressure.

Part 2

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  1. Great post! Licking and chewing is something I've looked for since I first started working with Mystery and Diago. I don't know who, what, or where I figured that out from but I did and I'm glad I did. It really does help in knowing how well we're working and whether or not Diago is learning or at the very least trying to think it all over.

  2. I think of licking and chewing as a horse's smile. Like a cat squinting his eyes at you. It's a wonderful thing to see a horse relax with their mouth and then their body. A deep sigh at the end of a "try."

  3. I've also found that some horses are more free with the lick and chew than others. Some are very reluctant to give it up, while others lick and chew after each little release. And it's hard to predict who will act which way. You would think that the more insecure horse would lick and chew more often in an effort to calm itself or clear it's head, but that's not always the case.

  4. In my limited experience with my own horses, I've noticed that the the more insecure the horse is, the more reluctant he is to give in to the lick and chew response. He doesn't want to learn or relax or give in to stress because he's petrified. I've had two such horses over the past 20 years. One was a very high-strung and suspicious gelding that was as close to dangerous as he could get without being homicidal. He was more suicidal. As long as I owned him (I sold him at age 5) I never saw the lick and chew response from him. The other horse is a 2006colt who has become more relaxed now that he's been gelded, though I still have not seen a non-drug-enduced lick and chew from him. I got a tiny display after he'd been worked on by the farrier a couple of days ago, but he was quite under the influence of some powerful drugs at the time. He's one that spooks to the back of his stall when I drop hay through his feeder door. Don't ask me why he is so touchy. I can't explain it. He's actually getting better now that he doesn't have to protect himself any longer (now that he's gelded). I expect that he'll be a good showhorse some day. At least I hope he will.

  5. I have only just discovered this licking and chewing thing but I always thought it was a sign that the horse was content and beginning to relax, felt good about what was happening so I suppose that is pretty much the same thing ???

    Hope you are feeling better.


  6. I noticed after yesterday's trailer incident that the horse (his name's Grafton apparently) was happy to lick my hand. I did wonder at the time about it because there was no way he could have been happy or relaxed so I'm assume this fits in with the 'stress release' mechanism and hopefully not the 'lesson learned' or he'll never go into a trailer again!

  7. I REALLY enjoyed this post!

    John Lyons is my all time favorite.
    I have been to 2 of his clinics. I have also been to 1 Parelli clinic but Lyons is by far the best, or at least he is for me.

    I have heard about the 'licking and chewing' theory.

    When I go out to the barn or to the pasture and whistle for Scooter, he comes to me immediately licking his lips, he always has-weird. hes not a chewer though and I am thankful!

    I read your post before this, sorry you missed the convention. Dang, next year right?

  8. They lick and chew at their moms for comfort so this theory makes sense to me!

  9. In the book "The Revolution in Horsemandship and what it means to mankind" they say that licking and chewing is a signal of submission. It simulates eating or drinking, something no other animal does. A horse is most vulnerable when eating or drinking and it assumes a vulnerable position. How far they lower their head depends on how certain they are the individual challenging them is a leader. Submissiveness also is displayed when they drop their head to the ground. Remember that in flight mode, horses lips are clenched firmly. If a horse is overwhelmed with submissiveness the horse will lick and chew obviously and maybe even "clack" which says "I am just a helpless baby--you are the boss." The book is written by Robert Miller and Rick Lamb--it is an amazing book and I can't recommend it enough.

  10. Great post! Your blog posts and the comments you leave on others' are always so thoughtful, experienced, intelligent, and USEFUL. I really love this blog.