Nope. It doesn’t mean he’s thinking…
Or that he’s accepted you as the alpha/leader/dominant one…
Licking and chewing when the horse is not eating or drinking is often explained in training circles to mean one or both of these things, but it’s just not true.
I mean horses are always thinking about something, so the first one is going to be true regardless of the horses’ body language.
As to the second explanation, the idea that we need to dominate the horse has been debunked. In a nutshell:
1. Horses don’t live in a society with a consistent alpha/leader/dominant horse
2. Horses don’t need to be dominated to cooperate willingly with humans
3. Domination in this context is typically a euphemism for punishment during training, which is used to suppress unwanted behaviour in the horse.
4. Training that includes punishment damages your relationship with your horse and runs the risk of fallout which might include the horse avoiding being caught or ridden, aggression or depression. ☹
So what the heck does licking and chewing mean then?
Essentially, outside of an eating or drinking context, licking and chewing is indicative of mild stress or tension. It is a calming signal - a request from the horse to please lower the intensity of a situation or interaction and may be directed toward a human, a horse or an inanimate object.
It typically occurs as the horse calms down a bit after something a bit stressful happens. For example:
An otherwise calm horse gets a fright - let’s say the bridle flicked up over their ears a bit quickly, or
A stressed horse has started to calm back down and is now a bit less stressed. Let's say the horse is chased around a round pen or on the end of a line, which causes them to get quite stressed and then after a while they start to calm down a bit and lick and chew as a result of that.
Essentially, if your horse is licking and chewing outside of an eating or drinking context, then it is likely your horse is finding the situation a bit stressful. If our goal is to build our relationship with our horse, then our job when we notice these moments is to do what we can to make the situation easier for the horse to cope. Doing this helps the horse to trust us and to learn that being with us is a safe place to be.
It’s also our job to recognise when the thing that has caused our horse to feel uncomfortable, is something that we have done - and then either stop doing that thing, or do it differently so the horse doesn’t find it stressful. Perhaps we stood too close to them, or moved too quickly, or asked too challenging a training question. By taking a step back, moving more slowly or asking an easier question of the horse, we show them we are listening to them and it builds our relationship.
It's important to remember that licking and chewing is a signal horses use frequently, as part of a running body language dialogue on how they are feeling. So we can expect it to happen at some point when interacting with our horse. It's a good thing to have them communicate with us in this really subtle way. What's important for our relationship with our horse, is how we respond when it happens.
Be kind to yourself here. Most of us have been taught to see licking and chewing as indicating that the training is working, not that the horse is a bit stressed – myself included. It is not easy to figure out how to change what you are doing given this new information, but it is definitely possible and most certainly worth it.
© Sara Jackson 2022