Many horse owners and handlers have been taught that a horse making licking and chewing motions is showing submission to his handler or to an alpha horse. However, a new study suggests that a horse that makes these motions while not eating is actually showing signs of stress.
Scientists Margrete Lie and Professor Ruth Newberry, from the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, studied wild horses in their natural habitat for 80 hours. They collected data on 202 instances of licking and chewing behavior and presented their findings at the International Society of Equitation Science annual conference in Rome.
The horses that were observed live in a national park; stallions were members of the herds. To test the theory that chewing and licking is a sign of submission, researchers watched as one horse (the aggressor) approached another horse in a threatening manner; it was thought the recipient horse would make the licking and chewing motions.
Interestingly, the research team found that both the aggressive and the recipient horse made the chewing motions—and that the aggressive horse made more chewing motions that the submissive horse.
The team also studied if the chewing motions occurred in both stressful and relaxed situations; it was discovered that the chewing motions occurred as the horse transitioned from tense to relaxed. The study team concluded that the chewing motion could be associated with the horse swapping from dry mouth (caused by stress) to salivation associated with a relaxed state.
The research suggests that the chewing motion horse's display is not a submissive behavior, but one that occurs after a tense situation. More research is needed to see if chewing helps the horses relax or if it is a response to relaxation.
Read more at HorseTalk.
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