Incessant Licking

Q: I have a very athletic 10-year-old, 17-hand Warmblood gelding who is very well-behaved. He doesn't bite, doesn't kick, and is the most passive horse in the field. He is ridden five or six times a week for training (jumpers). That said, he likes/needs to lick everything or have food in his mouth all of the time. He goes through his salt lick every few weeks; he has a Nibblenet slow feeder for hay, but he consumes it faster than other horses do even without the net. He drinks tons of water and pees a lot, too. While I'm within reach (grooming, tacking, washing, etc) he is licking any and every part of me--clothes, skin, hair ... nothing is off limits.

I have a hard time keeping his weight down, as his heart rate is very slow and he is always munching in the field/stall and the grazing muzzle really irritates his skin (even with sheepskin covering the edges).

Bottom line, what causes this quirk? If he were a person, I'd say there was a lot of anxiety and insecurity. If that is a possibility, what can be done?

Leslie Page, via e-mail

A: One big question is how long has your horse been doing this? Especially if the licking behavior is not new, and because he drinks so much and eats more salt than most horses, I would recommend first having an internal medicine specialist and possibly a nutrition specialist evaluate this horse. Even though your horse does not exhibit all the classic signs of gastric ulcers, I would also want to rule those out. Gastric ulcers may or may not be the root cause of the horse's anxiety, but they can lead to licking and mouth activity in an attempt to produce saliva, the body’s natural antacid. If you and your veterinarian find nothing medical to explain the licking, I would then return to exploring behavioral causes.

About the Author

Sue McDonnell, PhD, Certified AAB

Sue M. McDonnell, PhD, is a certified applied animal behaviorist and the founding head of the equine behavior program at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine. She is also the author of numerous books and articles about horse behavior and management.

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