Last updated: December 6, 2022
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We have a horse that acts like a dog; every time I get close to him, he licks me. I decided to ask other horse owners and research why horses lick people to learn about his behavior.
Horses primarily lick people because they like the salt they get from the surface of our skin. But some horses also lick people out of habit, to explore, to play, or because they are bored.
When a horse licks its owner, most don’t give the reason for the lick a second thought. But there may be a fundamental reason why horses lick people.
Why horses lick us.
If you’ve had dogs before you get your first horse, you may take being licked as a natural thing. For a horse, it is… under certain circumstances. The first answer out of any experienced horse owner will be simple… salt.
Horses lick us because they like our salty taste.
Salt flavor is one of many reasons a horse might want to lick something. Hay and horse feed don’t have much in the way of salt in it, nor does it have some of the other minerals a horse might need. Lack of nutrients can lead to a lot of different types of licking behavior.
Horses need salt, so they lick us.
We, humans, are used to adding salt to our food. Most of us consume too much of it, but for some, it’s necessary. It is even more critical after exercise when perspiration has depleted what’s in the body. Horses, like humans, need salt replenished.
One of the best ways to deal with a lack of minerals is to buy the horse a salt lick and/or a mineral lick. Instead of licking you, the horse may prefer one or the other of those. However, there can be different reasons for this problem.
Aha!: This is something that may be noticed during a training session or other exercise. It’s the moment when the horse has figured out what is wanted and/or how to accomplish a goal. It is a normal means of having the comic book lightbulb turn on over the horse’s head.
Horses lick to be playful and social.
The reason horses are run in herds in the wild is because they are social animals. They want to be with each other and will interact regularly. They will groom each other and keep watch side by side. They are prey animals, and there is safety in numbers.
Horses consider us as a member of their herd and will show dominance, submission, and friendship. If they think of us as part of the herd, they may decide you need grooming and reach out to lick you; this is especially true for lonely horses.
When you first start working with a new horse, you need to establish that you or dominate and it is submissive. Horses test their owners to clarify the positions of each of you, this is the way of the herd.
If you don’t take control, your horse will. When your horse is in a leadership role, a lot of problems are coming your way. The horse will likely run away when you approach, not stand still to be saddled, bite you, or may even kick at you.
Horses lick when they lack saliva.
Stress responses can cause a dry mouth. You’ve likely experienced this… and have had a similar reaction. Something startles you, and you take a deep breath. Your mouth will start to dry out as saliva isn’t being formed. Then you find out that it was just a shadow playing a trick on you.
Your mouth dries because of how the nervous system works, and it’s the same for horses. However, horses tend to be startled a lot more than you or I. This could happen ten times a day or maybe not at all, depending on how easily the horse is spooked.
Once the saliva starts to form again, the horse does the same thing we do… except the horse has a lot more mouth to get the saliva around, and it is far more noticeable, and sometimes they will lick us when this occurs. It is actually a kind of licking/chewing but not necessarily of someone or something.
Horses lick to taste.
Eating is another thing common to all life forms. We eat, and because horses have teeth and tongues, they tend to lick and chew. How else will we get the food into a manageable format for our stomachs?
Tasting is more than just a means of enjoyment; a horse needs to make sure that the food is safe. So they explore by licking things, including us.
Horses lick out of instinct.
Horses have a chewing instinct; while humans have this to a certain extent, horses have a tremendous chewing instinct. In the wild, they spend most of the time awake foraging. It takes a lot of food to fuel a horse’s body, and it requires constant eating.
Domesticated horses still have that instinct. If forage isn’t immediately available, anything else chewable will be chewed on or licked. That includes wooden fences, walls, and anything else it can get its mouth on. Naturally, that isn’t good for horse teeth.
The best solution to this problem is to make sure that the horse either eats a low-calorie forage most of the time, straw rather than oats, or put the horse in a grazing muzzle.
That is something you should discuss with the horse’s veterinarian. If the horse works a lot, it may not need that. Another option is to use a hay net. The horse can still get some at the hay, but it can’t take humongous bites at a time.
The net keeps a horse from eating hay too fast. A flake of hay will last a lot longer in a net than it would on the stall floor or other locations.
Horses lick when bored.
Horses with a stable vice are different from the characteristics displayed as a chewing instinct. The horse may or may not be biting wood, and it isn’t doing it because of instinct. It is mostly doing it because it is boring or it doesn’t have enough social interaction.
When a horse is put into a stable or even a pasture without another horse or two nearby, it will become lonely. If it isn’t sufficient to occupy its mind, it will become bored.
When a stable vice crops up, one of the best things to do is talk to the vet. Some behaviors are easier to fix than others. For example, if the horse needs a companion, you can look into an animal that does well with horses. There are several, and they range in both size and expense.
Some owners have tried putting nasty-tasting stuff on the areas the horse is crib-biting. That may or may not work. Horses do have a sense of taste; back when breath-freshening flash strips were popular, someone at our stable gave one to our horse. She was not amused.
Horses lick when not feeling well.
While it is rare for an illness to cause licking and chewing, it can happen. TMJ in horses causes an abnormal bite, which may result in this sort of behavior. While it is more common for neurological illnesses to be seen in the gait, it could manifest in the mouth.
If you think your horse has a problem, it is always best to have it checked out. It may be something as simple as using a hay net or buying a salt block, or it could be the beginnings of a bigger problem that needs to be checked before it becomes dangerous.
What does it mean when a horse licks you?
After reading all the above theories, I’ll give you my answer in a nutshell. Horses are social animals that communicate through a variety of methods, including vocalizations, body language, and scent. One way horses often show affection is by licking.
When a horse licks you, it usually means that it likes or trusts you. Horses also lick people as a sign of submission. If a horse licks you while you are grooming or riding it, it is probably trying to show you that it trusts and respects you.
Horses are unique creatures that have their own ways of showing affection. If you are lucky enough to have a horse lick you, consider it a sign of friendship and trust.
Below is a YouTube video about why horses lick and chew.
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Meet Miles Henry
An avid equestrian and seasoned racehorse owner, Miles Henry brings his extensive experience to the equine world, proudly associating with the AQHA, The Jockey Club, and various other equine organizations. Beyond the racetrack, Miles is an accomplished author, having published various books about horses, and is a recognized authority in the field, with his work cited in multiple publications.
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