It can be fascinating to read about equine behavior, especially things like the organization in feral bands. However, when it comes to interpreting an individual’s more subtle responses there is a good chance we could get it wrong.
How many times have you heard it said that when a horse exhibits licking and chewing, e.g. during a body work session, it indicates enjoyment? Another common interpretation is that it shows either submission or the horse is “thinking about things” during a training session. Although not quite as positive as the first scenario, these are still interpretations of the behavior in a positive way.
However, a recent study reporting on behavior of feral horses found that licking and chewing occurred during aggressive encounters between horses – by both the aggressor and the target. In fact, it was more likely to be the aggressor doing it. This argues against licking and chewing indicating submission and suggests it is related to stressful situations rather than pleasant ones.
The researchers also noted it was triggered by tense situations and likely to be followed by a more relaxed scenario. It was suggested this may mean it is a transitional behavior or even a way for horses to calm themselves down but admitted more research that actually simultaneously measures stress hormones is needed. In any case, it is clear licking and chewing is connected to stress, not enjoyment. It’s a lesson not to interpret equine behavior based on what we think or wish it to mean.
Anthropomorphizing equine behavior can be dangerous. I remember a couple that took riding lessons with me when they were in their 50s or 60s. It was their first exposure to horses. The husband was convinced his horse wouldn’t step on him if he fell off, “because he likes me ” because he gave him treats. He refused to consider the real reason the horse would avoid stepping on him was to protect himself.
The wife didn’t have any appreciation of her own or the horse’s personal space, was often intruding in a way the horses found startling and as a result got a severe bite to her breast. When this couple decided they were experienced enough to go cross-country by themselves (they weren’t), they went to a stable hiring out horses. The wife insisted her horse not wear a martingale because they were “mean” and the horse looked “nice”. She was killed when the horse reared and went over backwards.
Even people who should know more often get it wrong. High-spirited horses for example will get labeled as crazy, dangerous or aggressive when that’s not true in many cases. I admit to being prejudiced because I enjoy this type of horse but I prefer to describe them as enthusiastic. Firey might be more fair since they shouldn’t be handled by people who are afraid of them but the point is they are not out to harm you. They’re bursting with energy like a toddler.
The way to get to know horses is to spend time with them, work with and around them. Apply your knowledge of how to safely work with horses then pay attention to the more subtle individual variations you will see in each individual. There is no one size fits all training or handling method. It takes time and patience to build that experience. This is called horsemanship and there’s not enough of it to go around.
Eleanor Kellon, VMD