This is McCoy on his pedestal. Not licking a human, just the air in this instance. However, People Licking seems to be becoming a thing. What is with that?
I’ve had a few people mention this happening after they have waited for a ‘release of tension’ response from their horse. Often it’s a horse that has been living in tension a very long time, and has been in a state of ‘shut down’.
We at the frothy edge of horsemanship are familiar with the idea of ‘licking and chewing’. Obviously horses do this a lot, and for many different reasons, but as a direct response to feeling safe after an experience of stress, it seems that this is definitely one of those times too.
Whether we are aware of it via our own first hand sense of what is going on, or via the senses of teachers we trust who observe and share, or via studying the science that backs up what is going on when a horse ‘licks and chews’; it’s generally agreed that this is often one sign, however you put it, of a horse emotionally rebalancing itself.
There are a few famous sayings, which are possibly misinterpreted sometimes.
‘Eating humble pie’.
‘Digesting a thought’.
The science says that when a horse has experienced a stressor of some description, he reflexes into the Sympathetic aspect of the Central Nervous System (that which activates flight/flight), and saliva production stops as a part of this.
Makes sense to me. I know that ‘dry mouth’ feeling myself.
When the ‘all clear’ is given, the Parasympathetic System kicks back in and the horse can relax again, the saliva comes back and the horse ‘licks and chews’.
There are a few theories and interpretations around this; including newer knowledge of the Reticular Activating System and it’s role; and which system ‘owns’ the freeze response, but finer tweaking aside, for the lay person like me, ‘it’s a thing’.
This process can be seen to begin with a few involuntary twitches of facial and body nerves, lip quivering, sighing, mouthing, and even full on yawning, eye rolling, and sometimes even laying down.
However, I have seen and heard of an interesting extra development. The horse starts licking the human. Sometimes obsessively! The longer he licks, the wetter the human gets. Then you’re in a sort of timeless no man’s land, which can stretch and stretch the moment, trapped standing there while an apparently blissed out horse licks your sleeve.
What’s going on? Is this helpful? Or not?
Is it a part of the let down, or does it interrupt it?
I recently spent some clinic time with Elsa Sinclair of Taming Wild. Her Freedom Based Training compliments everything we do with horses; and dovetails nicely with the Anna Blake calming signals that I also learned more about on Anna’s recent ‘Relaxed and Forward’ tour in NZ.
Calming signal from Katie-Kai. Time to wait, and breathe.
Both Elsa and Anna are amazing, and I highly recommend.
Anyhow, one of the many things Elsa said was that we usually ‘stay too long’.
Elsa will take up one position, match and mirror the horse, breathe, wait to see if it’s getting better or getting worse, and when a change either way occurs, change it to suit.
Eg with a wild horse. He will either get better (show some sort of positive change via the recognisable twitches/licking/yawning; in which case time to try another spot or distance) or worse (show aspects of flight, freeze or fight- in which case it’s over threshold and need to reset at a distance/spot so that he feels safe).
One key factor at this clinic was that when the release happens we need to get out of that spot.
I think the idea behind this is that if the let down response is an indication of feeling better, then the horse will associate you with that feeling. If we hang around, the tension might build again. So leaving that space when the horse releases, as in ‘my work here is done’, leaves the horse with a pleasant association of your being present when the stress dissipates.
It doesn’t necessarily mean leave altogether. It might mean just changing the subject, picking a different place to stand, or a different distance from the horse.
This of course ties in with many aspects of good horsemanship; but mainly zeroes in on ‘Feel & Timing’.
This ‘licking the human’ thing that is occasionally occurring though, does put the human concerned in a bit of a quandary.
He’s still ‘licking’ so is he still ‘processing’? It’s gone on a while now. Is this helpful, or is it a displaced behaviour or some aspect of dysfunction?
I’ve been mulling this a while, and just based upon my own experiences and what I have learned I have a bit of a theory. Or maybe it’s a hypothesis! I could be wrong, I could have entirely misinterpreted my teachers (please remember that- all this is merely my interpretation and opinion) and I’m still open to changing my interpretation, but I think it’s worth discussing.
You see, after the Anna Blake clinic, I was able to solve a long standing problem with my ‘overly licky’ puppy. While maybe not directly related to the same problem in a horse, someone might see a correlation and join some dots with their own ‘licky’ horse.
The dog, Poppy, still a puppy really, is 12 months old and has a slightly nervous feel around strangers. She was a rescue, and weaned very early too. I got her at 12 weeks of age after she had been passed around a few fosters. She’s a gentle dog, orally fixated (carries toys everywhere) and quite confident now in herself generally and in the pack.
However she has not yet gotten over her slight wariness of strangers, and with people she knows and accepts, she is a chronic licker.
I put up with it but I didn’t like it, so eventually found I was constantly telling her ‘no’ and even pushing her off me…not fun for either of us.
Something Anna Blake had said about ‘some calming signals actually demonstrate how the horse would like us to behave’ gave me deep pause.
The mirroring that Elsa models is something horses crave from each other. Elsa explained that doing anything alone when you’re a herd animal is dysfunctional. To best make it functional (as in a useful behaviour to dissipate stress) you really need company.
So relating this to the Tom Dorrence quote:
‘Feel of the horse’
(Read the horse accurately and gauge how he feels)
‘Feel for the horse’
(Act with empathy- ‘match and mirror’? That’s how another horse does it)
‘The horse feels back to you’
(he notices he’s no longer alone in how he feels)
‘You feel Together’
(it’s no longer dysfunctional, because you joined him, so the horse can start with you from a base of calmness)
Thinking along these lines also started me considering it from another point of view- the human side of the deal. I’ve spent a lot of time matching and mirroring. I’ve seen how the horses respond positively when you join them in their behaviours.
What about using the signals they understand to encourage them to join us in our behaviours?
I have seen my super calm Senior Dog, Fred, use calming signals to diffuse not only attacks upon himself, but also to break up spats between other dogs. Once, he stood up and calmly inserted himself, side on, soft bodied, between my then 11 year old nephew and a fully grown Great Dane who was getting a bit possessive over a toy.
Dogs ‘get’ that universal ‘turn side on’ gesture for calming others.
‘See,’ says Fred, ‘behave like this.’
All these thoughts led me try the universal calming signal of deliberately and silently just turning my head to the side when that long puppy tongue headed my way.
Well! It was a miraculous and instant game changer.
The puppy veered off, and she sat looking at me a short distance away. By using this signal in subtle ways to encourage approach but discourage tongue, I can now pat and play and cuddle with Poppy without being ‘washed’!
My theory is that the pup ‘washing’ is actually anxiety.
I feel that her original fear of strangers seemed to mitigate for her when she was licking them (probably initially simply because patient and kind people tolorated it?) and so, in her mind the licking was responsible for giving her some control over the situation (‘while I lick, time stands still, the human doesn’t hurt me, and all is well…I can be safe but only while licking). In other words, anxiety held in check. Could it be that the licking itself was an extreme calming signal that morphed from a displaced behaviour into a soothing mechanism for both the situation, and the self, for the pup?
In other words, she created a self soothing pattern that LOOKS like ‘licking and chewing’ (or the dog equivalent of a quick lip-lick) but actually is serving a different purpose- a preventative of anxiety building behaviour rather than the actual physical response to a real flip to the parasympathetic mode?
Mammals are pattern animals. We all do it and we tend to fall into patterns to self soothe in times of stress. Like many of the ‘stable vices’ we hear about- not so common here in NZ as most horses are kept outside in groups, but a very real displaced behaviour that helps a horse self soothe, such as weaving, cribbing, and wind sucking.
It’s also a bit like how, when reinforcing desired behaviour in a horse (positively or negatively- it applies to both) the horse can often associate a totally random behaviour with the release/reward.
Eg click/treat for getting on pedestal; horse happens to lift foreleg as the click sounds, therefore ‘go on pedestal’ cue becomes ‘go on pedestal with a leg waving’ cue in the mind of the horse. (No accident I mention this!)
I think it’s quite possible we accidentally train a lot of behaviours.
So back to the licking horse; I don’t have the answer, but I have a list of ‘perhapses’.
if I’m onto something here, then perhaps the best way to avoid it is ‘do less sooner’ and get out of range before it becomes an established pattern.
If the pattern is established, and the timing doesn’t work out for you to beat the lick outta there, perhaps try the turning aside of your head and waiting.
Or in some cases remove yourself from reach and wait may be necessary. Stand behind a fence. Use protected contact.
Perhaps the answer is to try the same position at greater distance, then thinly slice the distance until you can get the real let down in close quarters without the obsessive lick?
Perhaps a combination of all. Or perhaps something else entirely.
What I would not do, because I have tried this with horses (and my pup) and it does not help, is push the horse away, or use an elbow to ‘block’.
Blocking is something horses do themselves, granted, and it’s good and sometimes necessary in the case of aggressive behaviours, but licking is not aggressive, and it’s easy to just end up with a wet elbow if all the horse is craving is to lick what he can reach! Also blocking is itself often too aggressive- a passive aggressive ‘see what happens in my space’ which could undermine all your work if what you are dealing with is really anxiety, as I believe is the case with my pup and possibly some horses.
Food for thought!
Apache and McCoy, mid lick.