Signs Of Stress In Your Horse: Mouthing

How many horses in your barn are constantly “busy” when they stand tied? They chew on anything nearby – ropes, blankets, handlers… constantly fooling around. When they cannot reach anything with their mouth, they may paw or walk back and forth to the limits of their tie.

This is very common, but should it be ignored? And, what can you do about it?

Many people have been instructed to correct any of these behaviors by shanking on the halter, or smacking the horse in the neck with a loud “no”. It has not been my experience that this works to stop the behavior, instead becoming more of a cyclical action/reaction that repeats daily while the horse is handled.

These behaviors are usually chalked up to the horse being bored, impatient, or spoiled. If you are certain this is true, you are likely to punish these bad behaviors. But what if your horse is not doing these things to drive you crazy, but instead is acting out of stress?

There are many ways you can help your horse feel less stressed. Many of them are just good horse keeping practices like maximizing turnout, providing hay at all times, and regular exercise.  There are also a number of wellness techniques you can add into your routine to help, creating moments of calm and connection with your horse on a regular basis. I find that problem behaviors such as mouthing and fussing can be reduced or eliminated using stress relieving techniques like TTouch, Acupressure and Flower Essences.

TTouch Mouthwork to relieve your horse’s stress

I do Mouthwork with nearly every horse I work with. This technique is one of the most powerful ways I have found to relax tension and reduce mouthing behavior. Anytime a horse shows mouthing, chewing, licking, or biting I consider it a call for help and a sign of stress, and step right in to help him.

There is not a fixed way to do Mouthwork, simply start moving around the skin on the horse’s muzzle, nostrils, lips, and chin. You are likely to find quite a bit of tension and holding in the area. Just keep working away at all the areas of the muzzle, being careful with your hands to avoid being bitten. Always keep a hand on the halter when you are doing this work so you can manage the horse’s head.

Once your horse has relaxed a bit, and you have worked around the exterior surfaces, you may want to work the lips and gums. This is not necessary – skip it if you do not feel safe doing so. You may wish to have an experienced horseperson show you the inside of a horse’s mouth, and teach you where you can put your fingers in on the sides of the mouth to avoid the teeth.

I usually introduce myself to the horse and get them used to the idea of my hands in their mouth by starting with tiny TTouches on the lip surfaces, then put my thumb under the lip while keeping my fingers on the exterior of the mouth. This helps prevent my hand from being pulled in and bitten. 

Once I have worked the lips, I may slide my hand under the surface of the upper lip and rub the gums. Most horses, once they get over the initial reaction of “what is she doing?” relax and enjoy having their gums rubbed. I do this firmly, holding the halter with my other hand for safety.

TTouch Mouthwork is very different from letting a horse mouth you, or play with your hands. A horse can lick or play with hands endlessly. It is more of a distraction behavior, and helps him tune out whatever else is happening to him. Mouthwork actually helps release tension. Doing a few minutes of Mouthwork will help him stand calmly afterwards, and he will be much less inclined to fuss with his mouth.

Acupressure on Pericardium 6 to relieve your horse’s stress

Pericardium 6 (PC6) is a powerful calming point for horses. This acupressure point has many other uses, for instance, it is an important point to relieve digestive problems. But nearly every horse can benefit from the calming effect of acupressure on PC6.

One of the easiest points to find, PC6 is located in front of the chestnut on each front leg. Simply stand at the shoulder and run your hand down the back of the leg on the inside surface. Locate the chestnut and rest your fingers on the skin in front of the chestnut. The point is located just in front of the chestnut, 1/3 to 1/2 way down the length of the chestnut. Gently rest your fingertips, breathe, and watch for signs of relaxation in your horse. Your horse may sigh, blink, chew and drop his head.

Flower Essences to relieve your horse’s stress

I’d love to see a bottle of Rescue Remedy in every first aid box. This combination flower essence formula is a first line remedy for shock and fear. It helps calm the body and mind, so you and your horse can come back to center after a fright. I prefer the Healing Herbs brand, labeled as Five-Flower, with the misting top so I can easily dose myself and my horse. 

You can give flower essences to your horse by misting a cookie and offering, or mist your hand and pet your horse’s muzzle. It is also great to use on your hands as you do Earwork.

Another important flower essence for stressed horses is Cherry Plum (Bach). I use this essence for horses that mouth, bite or fuss while tied. It is specific for mental stress, the fear that you will “lose it” and react in an extreme fashion. With horses, I see this type of fear manifesting in the above behaviors while tied or when otherwise confined, such as while trailering. This flower essence can help dial down the anxiety and help the horse cope with stress better.