Why Horses Lick: What You Need to Know

Why Horses Lick People

Why Do Horses Lick? 

Horses, like humans, all have unique personalities, characteristics, and habits. They display responses to stimulants and experiences that can cause us to question the meaning behind them. Some of these tendencies like nudging or following you around are relatively easy to decipher. Licking, however, leaves many equestrians and horse lovers confused.

So, why do horses lick you? While there are horses who seem to lick as a sign of affection, this is not the primary reason a horse will lick you. Your horse could be licking you because their sodium levels are low, indicating a potential health problem. It could also be a sign of boredom or a lack of mental stimulation.

As you can see, the reasoning behind your horses’ licking can be quite complex. You are the best judge in determining the reason why your horse is licking you or others. However, with the information provided in this post, you will hopefully be able to gain some insight into this interesting behavior.

Understanding Why a Horse Licks Their Owner or Caretaker

When you are trying to understand why a horse licks you or their surroundings, it is important to pay attention to the outside variables that occur when they typically lick. What part of their daily routine do you find yourself in? Have you just finished a ride or training session? Are they looking for a treat? Have you noticed any other changes in their demeanor?

Keeping a mental or physical note of these facts will help you narrow down the reasoning behind your horses’ licking. Additionally, it will provide you with the information you need to address the licking habit if it becomes necessary. 

Do Horses Lick to Show Affection? 

Many individuals believe that horses lick to show affection to their owner, rider, or caretaker. Although this can seem endearing, it can actually become a bad habit for some horses! Horses, just like humans, have unique personalities. Because of this, it is impossible to say that horses do not like to show affection, as some horses do display this quality.

However, before making the assumption that your horse is just showing your affection, consider these other reasons why your horse could be licking you. 

If you’re interested in learning about all of the ways your horse shows affection, here’s my article on Recognizing Horse Affection!

Horses May Lick to Find Treats

Do you find your horse licking you often as soon as you greet them? Maybe they tend to lick you as you are leaving the barn for the night. This could be your horses’ sly way of looking for treats hidden in your hands! If you view this licking as a sign of affection, you may reward them with a treat. Either way, they get the prize they had their eye on. Be careful to not mistake a disrespect of your personal boundaries for affection! 

This reminds me of a situation I once had with my horse. I found that he would start nuzzling me every day as I began to open the gate. My first thought was that he was simply showing me his affection. However, I quickly realized he was simply being impatient, ready to get back into the field! It is crucial to recognize the difference between affectionate behaviors and behaviors that are just disguised as such. 

A horse licking concrete

Horses Lick to Correct Diet Deficiencies 

One of the primary reasons why horses lick is to correct deficiencies in their diet. Licking the skin of their owner or rider provides them with salt and other minerals that they may not be getting enough of in their daily meals. If you find your horse licking more than normal, make sure that their diet is healthy and well-balanced. A horse may also lick wood, dirt, or other surfaces if they notice a deficiency in their diet. We will cover the dangers of this habit further on in this post.

Horses May Lick Out of Boredom

If your horse is not getting enough exercise, mental stimulation, or they are stuck in a predictable routine, they may develop a new habit of licking. If you find your horse is licking everything within its reach, including you, boredom might be the cause!

Try switching up your horses’ daily routine and add more variety to your horses’ exercise. Providing your horse with a larger enclosure, activity balls, and other toys are great things to consider as well. If you find your horse is becoming bored frequently, try adding some excitement to their day by giving them a makeover, practicing a new training technique, or taking them on a long walk. 

If you think your horse might be struggling with boredom, here’s my article on How to Tell If Your Horse is Bored.

Licking With No Explanation

Sometimes there is no explanation as to why your horse licks. In my time as a horse lover, rider, and owner, I have found that some horses lick… and some horses don’t! You may not be able to easily determine the reasoning behind your horses’ licking. Continue to observe their habits and maybe one day, you will discover their reasoning! Horses are complicated creatures, after all.

Reasons Your Horse is Licking More Than Normal

The personality of your horse changes as they mature. However, drastic changes to their habits or demeanor could be a sign of a larger issue. If your horse has started to lick more than normal, here are a few things to consider.

Licking Due to Health Problems

As discussed previously, licking can be your horses’ attempt at correcting their diet deficiencies. However, it could also be a sign that they are trying to produce more saliva. This is commonly related to the presence of gastric ulcers.

When a horse licks, more saliva is naturally produced. Saliva is a natural antacid, which would provide relief if gastric ulcers were the root of the problem. If you have not been able to discover a cause for the excessive licking of your horse, it may be wise to contact your local vet. 

Your horse may also be licking excessively as a response to anxiety. This could be due to separation or other behavioral issues. Understanding the root of your horses’ anxiety can help you treat it in a way that is beneficial, whether by diet supplements or otherwise.

Encouragement of the Behavior

Having your horse lick you can seem like an endearing sign of affection. In fact, you may reward that display of love with a treat! If your horse starts to lick you more than normal, it may be because you have been encouraging their behavior. 

The Risks of Horses Licking Other Surfaces

Having a horse that licks you may not be an issue. However, having a horse that licks their stall, other wood, or the dirt could present serious problems. The root of these odd tendencies typically lies in a diet deficiency. Discovering the underlying cause and providing them with the proper nutrients and minerals can correct the licking issue before it escalates.

When your horse licks dirt, for example, their risk of developing sand colic is greatly increased. If your horse commonly licks the wood of their stall, they are at risk of getting a splinter! Once you have determined that diet is not the cause of your horses’ licking, observe the other elements that could be impacting this new habit such as environment, activity, and mental stimulation. 

At the end of the day, only you will really be able to determine why your horse licks you. They could be looking for a treat, or searching for important minerals that are lacking from their diet. Maybe they are lacking mental stimulation and simply looking for something to do! 

There is, of course, the possibility that your horse is licking you simply to show their affection with no additional motives. Learning and growing with your horses’ personalities and habits is just one of the joys of owning and riding such a beautiful creature.  

Related Questions

How does a horse show you affection?

In the many years I have been riding, I have learned of several ways to recognize a horse showing affection! One of the easiest ways to spot affection in your horse is when it begins to approach you on its own, without prompting. Another clear sign of affection from your horse is when they follow you around and consistently follow your orders. These are signs that they feel a bond to you, trusting you to lead them. To read more on this subject, here’s my horse affection article.

Why do horses touch noses?

Have you ever wondered why horses touch noses upon greeting? This is essentially the same as a handshake! It is their friendly way of introducing themselves to each other and greeting the other with fondness. It also serves a practical function. When horses touch noses, they are able to determine if the horse they are greeting has a scent that is familiar or unfamiliar.

How can you play with your horse without riding?

Whether due to time restraints, weather conditions, or other situations, it can be beneficial to spend free time with your horse that doesn’t include riding. A few of my favorite things to do with my horse include groundwork exercises, brushing and grooming their mane and tail, introducing them to new toys, working on behavior issues, and teaching them to stretch. Working these activities into your routine provides unique growth opportunities for both you and your horse. You can find my full list of rainy day horse activities here!

Thanks for reading! You can find all of my most recent horse articles here.

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Carmella Abel, Pro Horse Trainer

Hi! I’m Carmella

My husband and I started Equine Helper to share what we’ve learned about owning and caring for horses. I’ve spent my whole life around horses, and I currently own a POA named Tucker. You can learn more here.

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