Licking and Chewing in Horses-Health Insights

In the world of equine behavior, the seemingly simple acts of licking and chewing play pivotal roles in the health and well-being of horses. Beyond mere habitual actions, these behaviors hold significant meaning, acting as indicators of a horse’s physical state, mental well-being, and even their social interactions.

Understanding the nuances of licking and chewing is crucial for horse owners, trainers, and enthusiasts alike, as it unveils essential insights into a horse’s overall health, emotions, and communication within their herd. This blog aims to delve deeper into the significance of these behaviors, shedding light on their physiological, behavioral, and emotional implications in the equine world.

What is Licking and Chewing in Horses?

Licking and chewing are fundamental behaviors exhibited by horses that serve various purposes, ranging from physiological functions to social and emotional expressions.

Licking and Chewing in Horses-Health Insights


This behavior involves the horse using its tongue to touch, stroke, or interact with objects, surfaces, or even other horses. Licking is a natural behavior observed in horses from birth and continues throughout their lives. It’s a versatile action that can manifest in different contexts:

    • Grooming: Horses often groom each other by licking, especially in herd settings, to establish and maintain social bonds. It’s a way of showing affection, trust, and reinforcing social connections.
    • Exploration and Curiosity: Licking also serves as a means for horses to explore their environment. They may lick different surfaces, objects, or even the ground as a way of investigating unfamiliar things.
    • Nutritional Intake: In certain cases, horses might lick or chew non-food items like salt blocks or minerals to supplement their nutritional needs, especially when they perceive deficiencies in their diet.


Chewing is a crucial part of a horse’s digestive process and dental health. It involves the grinding and breaking down of food particles within the mouth using the horse’s teeth and jaw movements. Chewing can be categorized into two primary forms:

    • Mastication: This refers to the grinding and breaking down of food in preparation for digestion. Proper chewing aids in better digestion by increasing the surface area of the food particles, facilitating enzymatic breakdown in the digestive tract.
    • Constant Chewing Movements: Horses exhibit a continuous chewing motion, even when not consuming food. This behavior, known as ‘chewing on the bit’ when ridden or ‘chewing in the stall,’ is a self-soothing action that helps to alleviate stress or anxiety.

Both licking and chewing are integral aspects of a horse’s daily life. They contribute to a horse’s overall health, aiding in digestion, maintaining dental hygiene, expressing social behaviors, and sometimes acting as stress-relieving actions in response to various environmental or emotional stimuli. Understanding the motivations and implications behind these behaviors is crucial for ensuring the well-being of horses under our care.

The Significance of Licking and Chewing in Equine Health

Licking and chewing behaviors in horses play a substantial role in maintaining equine health on various levels, encompassing both physical and psychological aspects.

Dental Health:

Chewing is pivotal for dental wear and maintenance in horses. The grinding motion involved in chewing helps wear down the horse’s teeth evenly, preventing sharp points or uneven wear that could lead to dental issues like malocclusions or discomfort while eating. Proper chewing also stimulates saliva production, which aids in maintaining oral health by buffering acids and reducing the risk of dental diseases.

Digestive Health:

Efficient chewing is a prerequisite for effective digestion in horses. Thorough mastication breaks down food into smaller particles, enhancing its surface area for enzymatic digestion in the stomach and intestines. Inadequate chewing can lead to digestive disturbances, colic, or nutrient malabsorption, affecting the horse’s overall health and well-being.

Saliva Production and Digestion:

Chewing stimulates the production of saliva, which is crucial in initiating the digestive process. Saliva contains enzymes that begin the breakdown of starches and carbohydrates in the food, aiding in the digestive process once the food reaches the stomach. Insufficient chewing may result in reduced saliva production, impacting the digestive efficiency of the horse.

Emotional and Behavioral Indicators:

Abnormal licking or chewing behaviors can sometimes signal emotional distress or physical discomfort in horses. Excessive licking, chewing on objects or surfaces, or compulsive behaviors like cribbing or wood-chewing can be indicators of stress, boredom, or underlying health issues.

Monitoring these behaviors helps in early identification of potential problems that require attention, whether they’re dental, nutritional, or behavioral.

Understanding and observing the licking and chewing habits of horses can offer valuable insights into their overall health and well-being. It emphasizes the importance of proper dental care, appropriate feeding practices, and attentive management to ensure horses maintain healthy behaviors associated with these natural actions.

Regular veterinary check-ups, a balanced diet, access to clean water, suitable grazing or forage, and environmental enrichment are all integral components in supporting equine health through promoting natural licking and chewing behaviors.

Behavioral Aspects of Licking and Chewing

The behavioral aspects of licking and chewing in horses extend beyond their physiological functions, offering valuable insights into a horse’s emotional state, social interactions, and well-being.

Stress and Anxiety Indicators:

Changes in licking and chewing behaviors can serve as indicators of stress or anxiety in horses. Excessive or abnormal licking, such as incessantly licking objects or surfaces, can be a sign of stress or discomfort. Similarly, increased chewing on objects or the stall may suggest anxiety or boredom, especially when the horse is confined for extended periods without adequate mental stimulation or social interaction.

Communication and Social Cues:

Licking and chewing behaviors are also part of a horse’s social communication repertoire. In herd settings, mutual grooming involving licking is a bonding behavior that reinforces social connections among horses. Observing these interactions can offer insights into the dynamics within a group, indicating alliances, hierarchies, or affiliations among herd members.

Self-Soothing and Comforting Behaviors:

Horses often resort to licking and chewing as self-soothing mechanisms. Chewing on the bit while ridden or gnawing at objects in the stall might serve as coping mechanisms to alleviate stress or anxiety. These actions can provide horses with a sense of comfort, much like a person biting their nails or fidgeting in response to nervousness.

Expression of Pain or Discomfort:

Changes in licking and chewing behaviors can sometimes signal underlying pain or discomfort. Horses experiencing dental issues, oral discomfort, or gastrointestinal problems might exhibit alterations in their licking or chewing patterns. Observing any deviations from their usual behaviors can prompt further investigation into potential health issues requiring veterinary attention.

Understanding the context and patterns of licking and chewing behaviors in horses is crucial for attentive horse care. Recognizing the nuances of these behaviors enables horse owners, trainers, and caretakers to identify stressors, address potential discomfort or health issues promptly, and create environments conducive to promoting natural, healthy behaviors in their equine companions. Regular observation and thoughtful management can contribute significantly to a horse’s overall well-being and behavioral health.

Management Practices to Encourage Healthy Licking and Chewing

Encouraging healthy licking and chewing behaviors in horses involves thoughtful management practices that support their natural tendencies while ensuring optimal health and well-being. Here are some strategies:

Nutrition and Diet:

    • Provide a balanced diet: Ensure horses receive adequate nutrition through a well-balanced diet. High-quality forage, appropriate concentrates, and access to clean water are essential.
    • Encourage natural foraging: Mimic natural grazing behavior by using slow-feeders or providing frequent access to pasture. This stimulates natural chewing habits and helps prevent boredom.

Environmental Enrichment:

    • Turnout time: Allow horses ample turnout time in a natural environment with access to pasture. This promotes movement, social interaction, and grazing, which encourages natural behaviors.
    • Use of toys and objects: Introduce safe toys, balls, or hanging objects in the pasture or stall to engage horses mentally and physically, reducing the likelihood of abnormal chewing behaviors due to boredom.

Proper Dental Care:

    • Regular dental check-ups: Schedule routine dental examinations by a qualified equine dentist to address any dental issues promptly.
    • Floating and corrective procedures: Ensure that necessary dental procedures, such as floating to remove sharp edges or correcting malocclusions, are performed to maintain proper dental health, facilitating comfortable chewing.

Stress Reduction:

    • Minimize stressors: Identify and mitigate potential stress factors in the horse’s environment. Provide a consistent routine, minimize changes, and ensure social interaction with compatible herd mates to reduce stress levels.
    • Enrichment and mental stimulation: Offer mental stimulation through varied activities, such as ground training, trail rides, or obstacle courses, to engage the horse’s mind and prevent anxiety-induced licking or chewing.

Supervision and Monitoring:

    • Regular observation: Pay attention to the horse’s licking and chewing behaviors during daily interactions. Monitor changes or abnormalities that might indicate underlying health issues or stress.
    • Seek veterinary advice: Consult a veterinarian if there are sudden changes in licking or chewing patterns, as they could be indicative of dental problems, health issues, or behavioral concerns needing attention.

By implementing these management practices, horse owners and caretakers can foster an environment that supports natural licking and chewing behaviors while ensuring the overall health and well-being of their equine companions. Creating a balanced lifestyle that addresses physical, mental, and social needs helps horses exhibit natural behaviors, promoting their optimal health and contentment.

Addressing Abnormal Licking and Chewing Behaviors

Addressing abnormal licking and chewing behaviors in horses is crucial to ensure their health, well-being, and behavioral balance. Recognizing and managing these behaviors involves a systematic approach aimed at identifying underlying causes and implementing appropriate interventions. Here’s how to address abnormal licking and chewing behaviors in horses:

Identify Potential Causes:

    • Physical Discomfort or Health Issues: Conduct a thorough veterinary examination to rule out any underlying health problems, dental issues, or pain that might be triggering abnormal behaviors.
    • Stress or Anxiety: Evaluate the horse’s environment, routine, and interactions to identify potential stressors causing anxiety or boredom.
    • Behavioral Habits: Determine if the behavior has become habitual or compulsive, such as cribbing or wood-chewing, which may require behavioral intervention.

Environmental Modifications:

    • Stall and Turnout Management: Ensure a well-designed, safe, and comfortable living environment with adequate turnout time. Enrich the surroundings with toys, companionship, and mental stimulation to alleviate boredom.
    • Reduce Stressors: Minimize potential stress factors, such as abrupt changes in routine, social isolation, or inadequate foraging opportunities, which might trigger abnormal behaviors.

Behavioral Modification Techniques:

    • Positive Reinforcement Training: Implement positive reinforcement techniques to redirect behavior. Reward desirable behaviors with treats, praise, or attention to encourage alternate, more acceptable actions.
    • Deterrents for Unwanted Behaviors: Employ deterrents (e.g., bitter sprays or deterrent covers) on surfaces to discourage chewing on specific objects or areas.
    • Behavioral Therapy: Seek guidance from equine behaviorists or trainers experienced in addressing compulsive behaviors for specialized intervention strategies.

Dental and Health Care:

    • Regular Dental Checks: Schedule routine dental examinations to ensure there are no dental issues causing discomfort or abnormal chewing behaviors.
    • Veterinary Examination: Seek veterinary advice if there are signs of physical discomfort or underlying health issues contributing to the abnormal behaviors.

Consistency and Monitoring:

    • Consistent Management: Maintain a consistent routine, environment, and management practices to provide stability and minimize stress.
    • Regular Observation: Monitor the horse’s behaviors regularly to track improvements or setbacks. Keep a record of changes in behavior to assist in evaluating the effectiveness of interventions.

Collaboration with Professionals:

    • Consult Experts: Collaborate with veterinarians, equine behaviorists, or trainers experienced in behavioral issues for comprehensive evaluation and tailored management plans.

Addressing abnormal licking and chewing behaviors requires a holistic approach, considering both physical and psychological factors. By identifying triggers, providing appropriate interventions, and seeking professional guidance, horse owners can effectively manage and minimize abnormal behaviors, promoting their horse’s overall well-being and contentment.

Also Read: Olive Oil for Horses-Equine Health Booster Guide

Final Words

Understanding the nuances of licking and chewing behaviors in horses is pivotal for their holistic care. These natural actions encompass physical, emotional, and social aspects, reflecting a horse’s health, well-being, and communication.

By promoting healthy behaviors through proper nutrition, dental care, enriched environments, and attentive monitoring, horse owners can support their equine companions. Addressing abnormal behaviors requires a comprehensive approach, encompassing veterinary assessments, behavioral modifications, and environmental adjustments.

By fostering an environment conducive to natural behaviors while addressing underlying issues, we can ensure the happiness, comfort, and optimal health of horses under our care.

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