The many reasons for a smile (or licking)

Have you ever smiled to “be polite?” or smiled with your lips closed and your molars grinding? Smiled and laughed when your feelings were hurt by the joke? Smiles aren’t always about fun and joy and neither is a horse licking all about relaxation.


Dante_MM_releases from Horse Ideology on Vimeo.

Here’s a short video from my phone showing Dante as I’m working on his Bladder Meridian using the Masterson Method. At the point in this video, the finger pressure is about Egg Yolk or lighter, working the area of the withers (I had already worked down the neck crest under the mane).

As you can see, Dante starts to lick and smack his lips. When he starts to display this behavior, I stop touching and move away, giving him distance so he can fully process the release from tension.


This is one of those things that need to be discussed fully: the act of licking and chewing. What does it mean? Is it good or bad? Desired or not? When you observe your horse doing this behavior it’s time to take stock about what you are doing.

The NH (Natural Horsemanship) people see this as the Holy Grail – that the horse is submitting to you being dominant and has relaxed. Well, that could be true, but most likely it is not.

In the past, I’ve done round pen RP work and NH work is based upon the principle of dominance. When your horse licks and chews after you have chased him around a round pen putting pressure on him, this is clearly an act of submission. If submission is what you are wanting, you have succeeded. But this is not compliance through happiness (the notorious “join up” phrase – like your horse selects you willingly – not at all – it’s the smart human brain forcing behavior to happen through our knowledge of psychology).

Licking and Chewing like a person smiling can spring from a variety of emotional states. It’s a displacement behavior used by the horse when presented with a.) choices (conflict “what should I do?”); b.) pressure (“this is making me uncomfortable”); and c) no choice (appeasement – “make it stop!”). Just like when a cat purrs when it is about to receive a shot at the vet, the action can be self-comforting and not because the cat enjoys getting poked with a needle!


Now lets return to my video (the first one) where a very light pressure at the withers garners a long lick and chewing session by Dante. This now becomes a complex situation: is this pain, a sign of submission, a display of concern, or is this the physical manifestation of a release from an internal blockage?

Probably a combination of all of these. In this situation, I’m okay with the behavior. I know Dante is releasing tension held in the body and with it comes many displacement behaviors: squirming, pawing, yawning, blinking rapidly, nostril fluttering etc… This is a choice I’ve made for him to improve his physical health.

The point though is don’t make assumptions. When you see these behaviors ask yourself some key questions before proceeding:

  • Why is my horse showing me these behaviors?
  • What am I doing that is causing this reaction in my horse?
  • How often and how long is my horse doing this behavior?
  • Am I asking too much from my horse?
  • It doesn’t look like my horse is truly comfortable with what I’m doing. Is there a way I can make it easier for him?
  • Am I giving my horse more choices to say no (being in a halter tied is no choice, being without tack in a field is choice are some examples).?
  • Can I lighten the pressure (physical or psychological) on my horse?
  • Is this exercise necessary? (i.e. vet exam or treatment of an injury vs.  your training schedule) or is there another way I can get to my training goal?
  • What are the ramifications in our relationship when looking for “licking and chewing” becomes an important goal in itself during my training?

It’s impossible to live a life without stress, however, we need to constantly ask ourselves, how can I lighten the emotional stress of my horse and provide him an enjoyable existence where I am a part of it?

Being aware that there is a balance, a sliding scale of fulfilling our needs vs. our own horses’ need, is an important concept in horsekeeping, training and riding we need to be examining far more often then we do.

The understanding of displacement behavior allows us to become lighter – using less – and still getting the best when training our horse. I will go further into that in a later blog post.


This entry was posted in Masterson Method MM, Pyschology and Behavior, Snake Oil, videos. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The many reasons for a smile (or licking)

  1. I recently read a blog post by Anna Blake: In which she describes the licking and chewing and other behaviors like turning away from the handler as a “calming signal”, meaning that the handler is too aggressive or “loud” with their message. This interpretation made a lot of sense to me in the context of why it happens in “Join Up” – it makes more sense to me that the horse wants the person to ease up on the pressure.

    I really like what you have to say here on the subject of the horse’s body language. It makes so much sense to me! I always thought I was observant and kind, but then one of my mares had started to turn her head away from me when I came into the pen. It bothered me. I made a mental note of it and wondered what it meant. After reading about calming signals I realized she was probably doing that due to my attitude and haste to get to all my horses in a timely way, I was treating them like things and not like individuals. I was rushing and working them like items on a conveyor belt.

    As you say, also, it’s good to keep the behavior in context and not assign one single meaning to it. I would add that after making the observation and then changing what you’re doing, does the horse’s behavior change as a result? My mare stopped looking away when I changed my approach and spent more time connecting with her and that’s how I knew I did the right thing. I really enjoyed this post!

    • First, congrats to you that you examined your thinking when your horse was showing you that what was happening wasn’t congruent with your ideas. I completely agree that licking and chewing, while a physical behavior, can be truly complex emotionally and psychologically.

      I was working with Dante just the other day and he turned to look away and then licked and started walking towards me. All I was doing was standing in front him, facing him, with a completely relaxed lead rope – about 10 feet in front. This is how a horse can be effected by such a simple, quiet action. We must grow lighter and quieter – not so they will listen to us, but so we can listen better to them.

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