Horse learning: Licking and chewing-takin’ it with a grain of salt

Is it an AHA moment in a horse’s understanding? A sign of submission or a sigh of relief?

Always one to ask questions, I think a little differently about the licking and chewing thing  than I did in earlier years training horses. We recognize this mouth behaviour in a horse after stopping to take a break in an intense training interaction.   It’s like that moment of relief you get when that police car, approaching in your rear view mirror, with sirens blaring, zips by without pulling you over. You swallow and take a deep breath!

Dr. Sue McDonnell explains. When an animal or a person is threatened or acutely stressed, the nervous system switches into alert or fight or flight mode with the sympathetic nervous system. Pain, fear, or confusion can all turn on the sympathetic system. Whether scared or confused or excited from the running around or the trailer loading, the horse is in sympathetic mode. A break in the pressure often allows the horse to return to parasympathetic, as that occurs you see the licking and chewing response…. in horses I tend to think of this as simple neurochemically mediated responses that do not necessarily reflect any thought processes. Dr. Sue McDonnell is head of the equine behavior program at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine

So what do you do in moment of relief? “Thank you Lord!” is my default. Do I learn from the stress? Hopefully. But I’m not a prey animal. We know that horses can’t really learn when they’re in flight mode or stressed.

I’ve learned over the years that horse training actually goes faster when a horse’s mind and legs are thinking slower.

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