The Importance of Science in Horse Training

Horse ‘licking and chewing’: is it a sign of learning, submission or stress?

Guest post by Georgina (Gina) Bishopp (Hartpury College, UK).

A horse is being trained in the pen
Photo: Garnet Photo/Shutterstock

A little while ago I was having a lesson on my horse when my instructor beamed up at me and exclaimed, “There you go, she is licking and chewing – she’s really listening to you now, keep going!” and with excitement I continued on eagerly with the exercise we were practising. It wasn’t until the exhilaration of the moment had waned did I think to myself, is licking and chewing really a sign of learning?

In the equine industry, or for a more realistic term, the equine world (to encompass both professionals, private owners and recreational riders) there is no set way of interpreting a horse’s behaviour. Truly there are no black and whites in horse ownership or training or even riding. Unfortunately, negative reinforcement and positive punishment are the traditional methods utilised for training horses, alongside habituation, desensitisation and, sadly, flooding, however modern trainers are starting to use a combination of positive reinforcement alongside negative.

And there are those that are trying to change the face of horse training from this traditional reliance on aversive stimuli to create a system similar to modern dog training with the use of reward-based methods.

There are equestrians who utilise all traditional equipment that has been designed to mould the horse to positions we deem beautiful, such as Pessoa lunging equipment, or to increase the sharpness of their animals, such as with spurs, whips and a wide variety of bits. There are also equestrians that aim to lower tension in their horses through equipment designed to decrease pressure, such as bitless bridles (such as the Dr Cook cross under), new design bridles (such as the Micklem bridle) and treeless (or no contact) saddles.

There are different kinds of horsemanship – traditional, sympathetic or natural, all with their own set of beliefs that are either based in an understanding of learning theory quadrants (primarily those with aversive stimuli) or a perceived understanding of natural horse behaviour when in herd dynamics. Similar to the dominance debate in the dog world, there are those that try to become the horse’s leader through adopting ‘leader’ postures and behaviours, and those that try to become the horse’s friend – as well as the whole plethora of individuals in between that take bits and pieces from all fields and understandings.

Science unfortunately does not really come into horse ownership, riding and training. Not true science anyway. ‘Licking and chewing’ is a common misnomer in the equine industry. If you have ever ridden or trained a horse before, regardless of discipline, it is likely that you have been told that when the horse is ‘licking and chewing’ they are learning and that these behaviours are a good sign! 

A beautiful white horse in a field, looking at the camera
Photo: Grigorita Ko/Shutterstock

These behaviours are important to both traditional and natural horsemanship trainers. With natural horsemanship the ‘licking and chewing’ are used to signal when a horse is accepting you as their leader, (Roberts, 1996; Parelli, 1993) – again a good sign. As Goodwin expressed in 1999 however there has been no scientific evidence to support the idea that a horse licking and chewing is a sign of submission.

In reality these behaviours are likely to be a signal that the horse is feeling stressed or uncomfortable, where they act as a displacement or comforting behaviour (Goodwin, 1999) or more simply may be a physiological response to increased adrenaline in reaction to stress, which has been found to increase saliva production, (McGreevy, 2004). With traditional riding it may be exercise induced adrenaline causing this behaviour, however it may also be that the horses are experiencing aversive stress whilst being trained.

With natural horsemanship this behaviour is primarily seen during the round-pen technique. This training requires the human to chase the horse around the pen until these ‘submissive’ behaviours are seen, at which point the trainer will stop and adopt a ‘passive’ stance. The horse then walks over to the trainer and it is declared that the horse has ‘joined up’ with the human.

Warren-Smith and McGreevy, (2008) preliminarily explored this training method through evaluating the behaviours seen when placing a mare and a colt in the round pen. The process they used was simple. They walked a broodmare into a round pen, facing away from the gate, and then brought in an unrelated colt, before leaving them alone and loose in the pen. Their behaviour was recorded for 8 minutes and they found no evidence that the mare would chase the colt around so as to discipline the younger individual until submission is observed. In fact both mare and colt stood resting at opposite sides of the pen.

The explanation given for licking and chewing in response to being chased by a human was that this behaviour is likely to be a physiological stress response and the ‘submission’ seen afterwards is due to the negative reinforcement principle. The trainer chases the horse until they display this behaviour (an aversive stimuli) and when they do the trainer stop and becomes passive (removes the aversive), therefore negatively reinforcing this behavioural response when chased around.

There is a lot of room for science in horse management, riding and ownership, especially in the private sector. Thankfully research is growing in this field and with the advent of equitation science, see the International society for Equitation Science (ISES), as well as publications such as Horses in Our Hands (2016) (accessible through the World Horse Welfare organisation website) the dissemination of this research to the public is also growing. Although we are still somewhat living in the equine dark ages, we are also on the cusp of great discovery and welfare improvements for these beautiful and wonderfully intelligent animals.

So what do you think, have you ever been told your horse is learning when they start to ‘lick and chew’?

About the author:

Georgina Bishopp with a puppy
My name is Georgina (Gina) Bishopp and I am a 23-year-old MRes Animal Behaviour and Welfare student at the University of West England, Hartpury College campus. Since graduating from my first degree (BSc Animal Science with Care and Management) I have worked for the Blue Cross and am now at the RSPCA, primarily working with dogs and cats. I own a horse and have ridden since a child, experiencing every different kind of horse training and management as I have tried to understand which method is best for the horse. Now I use a blend of tradition and new age techniques, and only those that are supported by current scientific understanding of horses themselves or other mammals (including the dog). My academic focus has primarily been with companion animals, primarily dogs, and equines, however my interests are very broad and extend to wildlife and zoo animals welfare as well.

Goodwin, D. (2010). The importance of ethology in understanding the behaviour of the horse Equine Veterinary Journal, 31 (S28), 15-19 DOI: 10.1111/j.2042-3306.1999.tb05150.x
McGreevy, P. D. (2004). Equine behavior: A guide for veterinarians and equine scientists. London: W. B. Saunders.

Parelli, P. (1993). Natural horsemanship. Colorado Springs: Western Horseman Books.

Roberts, M. (1996). The man who listens to horses. London: Arrow Books.

Warren-Smith AK, & McGreevy PD (2008). Preliminary investigations into the ethological relevance of round-pen (round-yard) training of horses. Journal of applied animal welfare science : JAAWS, 11 (3), 285-98 PMID: 18569224
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