Licking and Chewing: The Process Illuminated

Say what you will about Facebook. Occasionally, a productive conversation on the social media platform can illuminate and educate.

That’s what happened when Cayuse Communications contributor Amy Skinner posted this video of a horse in training.

She asked several professionals, including Warwick Schiller and Dr. Steve Peters, for feedback. What followed was excellent insight on how, by paying more attention and doing more waiting, we can get positive results from challenging situations.


Check out the conversation here:

Amy Skinner: This anxious mare carries a tight jaw. I started focusing today on jaw release and thought this was an interesting video of the progression of a lick and chew. I shortened the video. The original is eight minutes. That’s how long it took for her nervous system to come down enough to lick and chew. After that they started rolling out much easier throughout the session.

It is a great example of the progression in facial expressions leading up to a lick and chew. They are important not to miss:

  • slow blinking
  • head bobbing
  • changes in breathing
  • lip twitching, etc.

Steve Peters: The tight jaw may be one of the last places that the horse releases before completely moving from the sympathetic to parasympathetic nervous system.

Usually, people don’t wait long enough for the horse to loosen up and begin to lick and chew. People often feel they need to be doing something with the horse before it has finally let loose, but the wait is well worth it and as you can see it really pays off.

Amy Skinner: Thanks, Steve!

Warwick Schiller: How did you trigger it Amy? I have spent most of the year working on getting their attention momentarily, like having them mentally present for a split second, and the twitching will start. Then its a matter of being present, and waiting for the magic to happen. I have had mustangs that have never laid down in the presence of a human lay down at clinics and go to sleep.

Amy Skinner: This mustang panics and bolts a lot, so I’d lunge her in a circle until it got a little better, then stop and wait for a while til she relaxed. At first, it helped if I led her forward one step or back one step and at one point I just sat down and waited. She just needed time I think

Warwick Schiller: I have found asking them to do something with JUST enough pressure to get them to flick their attention to you (so physical response is not really important) triggers the process, and doesn’t send them further up the sympathetic scale.

Amy Skinner: Yes, you can see in this video her attention leaves a few times. All I did was touch the rope and she came back to me and eventually chewed. Cool stuff!!

Amy Skinner

Warwick Schiller: I have found that once the twitching starts, it works better if you no longer keep their attention. It seems it interrupts the cycle of coming down. I have had many people at clinics this year whose horses have never really come down.

That jolt at around 1:30 is interesting. I saw one horse this year that looked like it had been hit with a cattle prod. It was an extremely shut-down Gyspy Vanner/Cob, and right before she let down, the jolt happened.

Amy Skinner: Yes, she does that when she is trying to let down! That’s why I had to video and show her progression

Elaine Hanscom: Is the “jolt” she does at 1:30, what you guys mean by “twitching”? Or can you explain “twitching”? This is really good stuff!

Amy Skinner: What I meant by twitching is her lower lip and ears before and after the jolt. It’s subtle.

Steve Peters I don’t want to get too complicated but Warwick is right in that the horse has what is called the Reticular Activating System in the brain stem where it processes all incoming stimuli and decides what it will pay attention to. Some horses can fool you, remain tight, and check out on you. You may need to just move back to the head of the line in what the horse is processing by getting their attention. This is very subtle and not enough to send them back up into the sympathetic range. As you both describe, they will start to let down and then not completely trust the feeling and temporarily jolt back out of the transition towards a more relaxed state. 

Amy Skinner This is so cool, thanks for chiming in, Warwick and Steve.

Tammy Hannah Lamphere What would be the next thing to do or not do after she releases? Take a walk or just sit even longer or call it a day?

Amy Skinner, Dr. Steve Peters, and a horse brain

Amy Skinner: What I did was lunge a circle or two, wait for lick and chew, lunge again, wait for lick and chew. Eventually she began licking and sneezing while lunging and that’s where I called It a day.

Amy Skinner: Steve and Warwick your thoughts here please: There is a danger, I think, in teaching the horse the release is after the thing has happened, not release and relaxation while the thing is happening.

I’ve been experimenting with this over the last year and starting to formulate better conclusions but I’m interested in your thoughts…In other words, I don’t want the horse to learn to relax becauseI quit doing something, but to find relaxation while doing something

Tammy Hannah Lamphere This whole thought of relaxing while engaged is something I’ve wondered about forever but didn’t know how to get there.

Warwick Schiller: What I have found with horses that have learned how to shut down is that first we have to teach then HOW to let down.

Initially they stop and we have to wait for a long time for them to come down, but that time gets shorter and shorter, and eventually they will let down WHILE they are moving. But, its a process and you can’t get the let down while they are moving, if they cant let down. One of the episodes of The Principles Of Training was called Create A Tool Before You Use A Tool, and this would be a case of that.

Amy Skinner: Warwick, I was hoping you’d say that. We’ve had some tough horses this year and I’d like to go back to the ones I had this time last year and do them over…but I think this stuff helps tremendously

Steve Peters

Warwick Schiller: I’d like to go back to every horse for the past 25 years….

Steve Peters: Once your horse knows it can get to the good neurochemical state, it will start to seek out ways to get back there. At that point it is just up to you to either stay out of its way or set it up/direct it or allow your horse to find it no matter what it is doing. Initially, you have to help them find the bar and get a good cocktail then you can serve up drinks wherever.

Maddy Butcher: A few minor comments that I humbly make amongst all these pros:

  1. Especially with my challenging mule, waiting is key. I’ve begun to recognize the cascade of signs (before licking and chewing) that show me the transition from sympathetic to parasympathetic (those signs you mentioned already, Amy).
  2. The higher the stress, the greater the relief, which, of course, is another GREAT argument for the benefits of discomfort (if you wait for the horse to have relief). Like how I love not flying in a plane, but only appreciate it after flying.
  3. Bryan Neubert once mentioned that Tom Dorrance would actually rub the gums of a stressed and challenged horse, kinda kickstarting the release to relief process. On rare occasion, I’ve done this with my mule and it’s helped her with letting go/letting down.

Amy Skinner: We have also helped along a lick and chew for horses that were just stuck. Freckles was one who needed a boost and then could find It for herself. It’s all about drugs, like my dear mother always told me.

Warwick Schiller I have found that a hyoid release is a great tool.

Amy Skinner: This has been fun, guys, thanks for your great comments

Elaine Hanscom: My friend also rubs the gum or under tongue area, to get the hyoid release and a reminder (is this considered a crutch? I’ve seen it work well to remind the horse and help it)

Amy Skinner: I don’t mind doing it to start out if they are very tight and don’t know how to find It, but after a bit they need to seek it out. If I have to keep doing it, it means I’ve missed something

Warwick Schiller: I’m with you Amy. I don’t mind helping them find it initially if they are very tight , but I think that all that does is get the let down . But if you can trigger the let down through their focus , then the waiting become a huge factor in getting a connection with them. That waiting is like a man sitting outside the dressing room in a dress shop while she is trying on dresses. He’s not doing anything, but he is building connection.

Amy Skinner

Maddy Butcher: Also, Warwick, here is an article you might like on attention

Warwick Schiller Thanks, Maddy

Elaine Hanscom That pyramid visual is BRILLIANT! Great article. Wish more folks understand how important this stuff is.

Julie Kenney: Great processing of information here Amy! Thanks for starting the conversation.

Donkeys: “We don’t need no stinkin’ blankets!”

Wallace, a member of the BHP herd

In winter, equines are generally best off if you provide them with plenty of hay and the option of shelter.

More specifically, Best Horse Practices views blanketing as not only unnecessary but potentially harmful in most horse-keeping situations. Read more about that here.

What, then, to think of donkeys needing added protection?

Recent research, published in the Equine Veterinary Journal led to one publication to write: “Donkeys Need Added Protection in Cold Climates.”

We could hear the blanket sellers hooting, hollering, and setting up their next ad campaigns!

Alas, we beg to differ.

Ann Firestone, president of SYALER

Ann Firestone has run Save Your Ass Long Ear Rescue for decades. She has taken in, rehabilitated, and rehomed hundreds of donkeys and mules during her tenure as president. Firestone writes:

“In my experience. I only blanket exceptionally thin or ill donkeys.  I do make sure on cold days that they have free-choice hay 24/7. “

Not taken into this study’s consideration were many donkey-v-mule-v-horse distinctions that we know to be important anecdotally. For instance:

  • What about their varying metabolic rate?
  • What about the volume-to-surface area ratio?
  • What about digestion differences?

Dr. Sheryl King, Best Horse Practices Summit trustee and professor emeritus of Southern Illinois University, offers this critique:

Dr. Sheryl King

The study reports what should be considered preliminary results comparing measures of hair coat between equine species. The experimental number of animals in each test group is low, and the unspecified breeds limit the data’s usefulness utility for drawing management recommendations.

The authors’ credentials are from the field of psychology, which makes the conduct of this study a bit out of their field of expertise. No psychological function was monitored in this study.

The research was funded by the Donkey Sanctuary, a humane group dedicated to rescue and protection of donkeys. Donkeys used in the study were a part of this group’s rescue herd. Whether these factors affected the study results is unclear.

The study was based on suppositions:

  1. Domestic donkeys descended from Equus africanus africanus (Nubian Wild Ass) or Equus Africanus somalinesis (Somali Wild Ass). These ancestors evolved in a hot, desert climate as opposed to many domestic horse breeds common to the UK that presumably evolved in a more temperate climate.
  2. Contemporary donkeys have changed little during the lengthy process of domestication.

The researchers compared weight, length, and width of the hair coat of donkeys with those of horses/ponies and mules to determine if there exists divergent winter hair coat adaptation between the species/sub-species.

However, the comparison groups used were either ill-defined or haphazardly selected. For example, the description of the donkeys used in the study was restricted to gender and age. Horses/ponies used were described as cold-blooded breeds. Cold-blooded connotes heavier-bodied animals specifically adapted to a cooler climate and possessing coarser hair coats. Consider the shaggy winter coat possessed by the Shetland, New Forest or Exmoor ponies.

One could argue that in order to make the best comparison between horses and donkeys, bloodlines originating from similar climates should be compared. For example, compare the donkey (African origin) to the Arabian or Turkmene horse or even breeds originating in a Mediterranean climate.

Some additional questions which the researchers might have done well to consider:

  • What was the latitude at which the study was conducted and what were the average and high/low temperatures during the summer and winter? Were the study animals housed close enough to each other that environmental conditions would be essentially the same?
  • Was the hair sampling performed during the same timeframe (only months were mentioned, giving a possibility of up to a 31-day variance in hair sample collection.)

There was a very substantial variation in hair coat measures, particularly within the horse/pony group and less so within the donkey group. This suggests a great diversity in seasonal responses within and not just between groups.

The mule group consistently fell between the donkey and the horse/pony groups. We are led to assume (never a good thing) that these mules were crosses between the donkey types and the horse/pony types used in the study.

I would take issue with their conclusions that “donkeys do not grow a winter coat.” I think a more appropriate way of expressing the data is that donkeys do not grow a winter coat like cold-blooded horses, or that donkeys don’t grow the same kind of winter coat.

Considering the temperatures and conditions for wild burro populations in the American West, and the fact that they are thriving, I suspect that the humane issue of hair coat growth in winter is probably not as critical as other factors such as adequate fat covering going into winter, food and water availability, and windbreaks.

Save the Date! Early Details for the Summit

On October 7-9, 2018, the Summit returns to Durango’s Strater Hotel for another exciting series of academic and arena presentations.

Dr. Temple Grandin, known worldwide for her expertise in livestock handling as well as autism issues, will deliver the Summit keynote address.

Dr. Rebecca Gimenez, president of Technical Large Animal Emergency Rescue and an internationally renowned presenter, will also be part of the Summit.

Dr. Temple Grandin

Grandin teaches courses on livestock behavior and other topics at Colorado State University. She also consults on facility design, livestock handling, and animal welfare.

She has appeared on television shows such as 20/20, 48 Hours, CNN Larry King Live, PrimeTime Live, 60 Minutes, the Today Show, and many others. Grandin has authored over 400 articles in both scientific journals and livestock periodicals on animal handling, welfare, and facility design.

Grandin had this to say about the Summit:

“The Best Horse Practices Summit, with its ingenuous blend of academic and arena presentations, will help people understand the horse’s world. It offers the horse’s perspective.

“For decades, I’ve traveled the world helping humans understand animals and giving people tools and mandates for improving animals’ lives. We raised them. They deserve our respect. The Best Horse Practices Summit has the same goal and mission.”

Dr. Rebecca Gimenez

Gimenez gives training in Technical Large Animal Emergency Rescue (TLAER ) techniques across the U.S. and internationally. Her current scientific research interests include a national survey of trailer accident causality; a study of animal physiological responses to technical rescue procedures and equipment; and improving fire prevention standards for animal facilities. Her expertise in research and development of numerous techniques has been honed by using privately owned animals that she personally trains to participate.

She has published numerous critiques, techniques and journal articles on a variety of technical subjects in large animal disaster and emergency rescue. She has authored chapters in several veterinary textbooks, contributed to numerous popular and professional publications.

BHPS Director Maddy Butcher had this to say about the developments:

“We’re thrilled to have Temple and Rebecca as early, confirmed presenters for this year’s Summit. I’ve been privileged to hear their presentations and have interviewed both of these amazing women a few times. I’m confident they will offer attendees some incredible take-home information and ah-ha moments. Can’t wait!”

Stay tuned for details on presenters, registration, and much more.

Patagonia WorkWear, which outfitted Summit presenters with ranch jackets and barn coats, returns as a generous sponsor. Read more here. 

Watch the Best Horse Practices Summit trailer here. 

When it comes to “problem” horses, take the challenge

Katrin Silva grew up riding dressage in Germany before moving to the United States at age 19 to learn to ride Western. She’s been riding both disciplines for the last twenty years. Read her article on Contact here.


Silva has competed successfully through fourth level dressage on quarter horses, Morgans, Arabians, Hanoverians, and many other breeds. Based in New Mexico, she enjoys improving horse-rider partnerships and firmly believes that good riding is always good riding, no matter which type of tack a horse is wearing. Check out her blog here.

Katrin Silva writes:

I am a professional horsewoman. My job description, as I understand it, is simple:

  • To help every horse to become a more balanced, more confident, more willing athlete.
  • To help these horses and owners get along better.
  • To improve these horses’ lives.

A few of my current projects:

  • The little Fjord

    Lily, the little fjord who could.

  • A 13 year-old Arabian with no right lead and a very tense back.
  • A five year-old Quarter Horse born and bred for reining, pushed too hard too early, and then sent home.
  • An opinionated three-year old mare with overactive hormones.
  • An off-the-track Thoroughbred who has trouble negotiating steering a 30-meter circle, never mind a 20-meter one.
  • A 17 year-old “difficult” mare mostly out to pasture for the last decade.


When I meet a horse, I ask myself:

How can I help this horse become a better partner for its human?

How can I help this rider better understand her horse?

How can I help them communicate?

Horses can be incredible teachers

I reach into my toolbox for the skills I have developed over the years – as a dressage rider, as a cowgirl, as a colt breaker, as a trainer of problem horses. Most of the time, I can offer something useful.

Over the years, I have noticed that many riders – professionals and amateurs – use a different approach. Consciously or not, they evaluate a horse along the lines of:

  • What can this horse do for me?
  • How can this horse improve my career?
  • How great can this horse make me look in the show ring, or on the trail in front of my friends?

If the horse comes with challenges that hamper its ability to boost the humans’ ego, riders won’t spend the months or years of patient, dedicated training that may well transform a horse into a willing, athletic riding partner.

This unfortunate attitude is common across most equestrian disciplines. Show jumpers, dressage riders, endurance aficionados, competitors in ranch horse or cow horse classes all tend to put more time and effort into horses who will make them look good.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to compete on a horse who has a chance of doing well. It would be professional suicide to think otherwise.

But riders also need to work with horses who might never be great.


Spending time and energy on horses with issues is the right thing to do for the horse. Without a solid education, a horse’s prospects in life become dire. Many horses without much obvious talent, or horses with conformational problems, or horses with a complicated personality will have a hard time finding happy, long-term homes with owners who understand and appreciate them.

A well-trained, rideable horse, even if it’s never going to win any ribbons, has a much better outlook. If good riders won’t work with disadvantaged horses, what chance do they have?

Helping “problem” horses evolve into the best version of themselves is rewarding, sometimes more so than working with the horses everyone expects to be the next champion. Often they surprise us. That 17 year-old problem mare, pronounced untalented and not worth training, recently earned her first blue ribbon.

Even the horses who don’t turn into superstars are worth every minute I invest in them. Why? Ultimately, they make me a better horsewoman, a better trainer, a better human. They make me rethink and reevaluate what I know. They keep me looking for answers.

A rescue pony, looking good!

The horses I work with, especially the complicated ones, are my zen masters. They keep me from becoming smug and self-satisfied. They make me question everything I thought I knew. They push me beyond my comfort zone. They keep me honest. They’re the reason I love what I do.

The next time you get the chance to work with a challenging horse who may never excel in your chosen discipline, consider saying “Yes!”

Don’t ask what she can do for you. Ask what you can do for her. If you can help the horse, chances are she’ll return the favor. And then some.

When it comes to fitness, are you an equal partner for your horse?

Amy Skinner

Editor’s Note: Amy Skinner is a regular guest columnist and has been a horse gal since age six. She works with owner/operator Jim Thomas as a trainer at Bar T Horsemanship where she rides and teaches English and Western. She also maintains Essence Horsemanship. Skinner has studied at the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art in Spain, with Buck Brannaman, Leslie Desmond, Brent Graef, and many others.

Skinner attended the Rider Strength & Balance elective conducted by trainer David Stickler at the Best Horse Practices Summit. Stay tuned for the video next month!

Skinner writes:

People tend to get hung up on the horses’ fitness and forget about their own, so it’s a topic I

David Stickler emphasizes core strength and balance

feel like I’m constantly emphasizing to riders as I teach. At the Best Horse Practices Summit in Durango, Colorado, there were many presenters passing along pertinent and interesting information.  Everything from the horse’s feet to his brain was covered. But what stuck with me the most was David Stickler’s Rider Fitness Class.

This class was music to my ears.

Stickler majored in Exercise Science at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado, and has taught strength and yoga classes for years. The 33-year old began his early morning class in the Strater Hotel surrounded by exercise balls and a group of twenty eager women in yoga pants.

“Your horse responds and adjusts to every imbalance that you carry,” he said, as he stressed the importance of a balanced and fit rider.  “You as a rider become an extension of your horse’s nervous system.  His proprioception now includes you.”

He encouraged riders to begin an exercise program that promotes functional strength and flexibility.  That means not just doing exercises that tone or lengthen muscles, but working muscles in a functional and healthy way.

“Just being strong or flexible isn’t gonna help if it doesn’t relate to your riding,” said Stickler. Don’t wait until you’re already experiencing stiffness or pain in the saddle, but be proactive by establishing a preventative wellness program to develop longevity in the saddle, he said.

Stickler stressed the importance of maintaining flexibility in the hamstrings, hip flexors, and groin.  These the muscles are the most shortened from riding and keeping them limber will help keep the rider’s seat deep and connected to the horse.  Any tightening raises the rider’s center or gravity and inhibits good communication with the horse.

He walked the class through a series of stretches for the lower back, hip flexors, groin, and hamstrings, including a simple Sun Salutation. He stressed the importance of working and stretching muscles in groups that work together as a more holistic approach to flexibility and strength.

“Muscles that fire together wire together,” said Stickler.

Maintaining a strong core is paramount for a balanced seat.  It helps the rider follow the horse’s movement without getting left behind, and also helps prevent injury. Stickler showed participants how to work their cores and practice finding their balance with exercise balls (which simulated their horses).  Students learned to adjust their center of balance and work their muscle groups to stay balanced without tensing.

“Understand where your center is and your horse can make adjustments without you interfering,” David said.

Horseback, your center of balance is constantly changing. Being able to adjust is paramount.  Squats on the Bosu Ball instead of the ground emphasized functional strength and balance. He also demonstrated jump squats – (squat down, jump up, and land in a squat position) which teach your body to land in precarious spots, lets your hips work to support you, and keeps your joints soft.

When riders are stiff and lacking strength, they may mount in a way that makes the horse uncomfortable, Stickler explained. Rider fitness is essential, he said, to the horse’s health.

“You owe it to your horse to develop strength and stability so you can mount without having to sacrifice his balance and stability and his overall long term health.”

The exercise prescribed for better mounting involved a simple step-up onto a chair, alternating sides. If you want to take it further, David showed students how to step up and add a twist through the core for a more advanced strengthening and balancing challenge.

From strengthening to stretching

After a ride, stretching increases your recovery time.  Tight riders create tight horses.  “Horses respond pressure to pressure.  Where you’re tight, he has to compensate and it creates imbalance in his body,” he said, adding that equine chiropractors sometimes treating animals for issues caused by rider imbalance.

By the end of David’s class, riders walked away with a clear picture of how their fitness and flexibility affects their horse.  They left with specific exercises to develop this functional strength and inspiration to become their best selves for their horses.

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