Horse Licking and Chewing: Busy Buddy for Relaxation

Busy Buddy webAt first glance, the Busy Buddy appears to be a simple device with a big claim: equine relaxation. How could a piece of hospital grade Latex, comfortably resting in the horse’s mouth help them relax and be still? First conceived from the idea of a pacifier for horses, the Busy Buddy has helped 90% of horses stop grabbing the cross ties, stand still for the farrier or vet, and ease worry in stressful situations. I think the answer to how this simple device can help has to do with licking and chewing. 

As horse people, we commonly hear about and think of “horses licking and chewing” as a good thing. Previously thought to be an indication of relaxation, understanding, thoughtfulness, or even submission, we now know it is more specifically a sign of sympathetic attenuation, or relief. Sue McDonnell, PhD, Certified AAB describes this as “a change in autonomic nervous system tone that results in salivation that stimulates licking, chewing, and sometimes a big swallow, following a threat or disturbance of some sort.”

Autonomic nervous system tone references the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. To simplify, the parasympathetic nervous system is in charge when the horse is relaxed, prepping the body for rest and digestion, among other things. This response is meant to kick in when the horse is eating, increasing salivation and lowering heart rate. The switch to sympathetic nervous system function gets triggered in response to a stressful stimulus when the horse may need to fight, flight or freeze. While the sympathetic nervous system is in charge, salivation ceases. When the stress is released and anxiety has passed, the parasympathetic nervous system takes over, the horse starts to salivate and they experience sympathetic attenuation. 

From our understanding of how the nervous system works, this means that in order for horse licking and chewing to happen, the horse will likely be recovering from a previously stressed state. But what if there was something to assist with the transition from sympathetic to parasympathetic, or stop the horse from getting in a stressed state to begin with? Tips and tricks like feeding treats or hay, or even sticking a finger in the horse’s mouth, have been suggested to assist the horse with unlocking the jaw, salivating and relaxing through their body. The Busy Buddy does the same without the need for fingers in the mouth or constant food consumption, making for easier grooming, tacking, warm ups on the lunge or even while riding.  

By encouraging salivation, chewing/movement of the jaw, and sensory distraction prior to exposure to a stressor, the Busy Buddy can help an anxious horse remain in a parasympathetic state. I’ve found that putting the Busy Buddy on my own nervous horse while I groom and tack up before a ride keeps him more settled during our pre-ride rituals and therefore less likely to become agitated by external stressors. The Busy Buddy can also be put on during a stressful time, such as body clipping, to expedite the sympathetic attenuation. The sensory distraction and reminder to salivate and chew can encourage relaxation and improve coping behaviors.

The Busy Buddy is not a cure all device meant to silence your horse’s communication. It is a tool to assist with transitions in life and training, easing the load of corrections and high stress situations. Establishing new patterns and routines while using the Busy Buddy can help create positive experiences in a low pressure and non invasive way to help with training. Even though it may look simple, the Busy Buddy is an effective way to encourage relaxation by tapping in to your horse’s natural instincts for relaxation.

horse training licking and chewing

Horse Licking and Chewing: Busy Buddy for Relaxation.

Amanda Matsui, January 2021.

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