Zen and the Art of Licking and Chewing


A month into our burgeoning relationship, Mystic and I took part in the Cooler Horsemanship clinic on May 28-29. If you’ll pardon my presumption in speaking for Mystic, I think it was a therapeutic experience for him. As for me, I understand my new partner a whole lot better now.

On Saturday James worked with us in the round pen. The agenda of walk-trot transitions on a 22-foot line shifted about ten minutes into the session, when Mystic stopped and fixed his liquid brown eyes on mine. He seemed to be asking, What should I do next?

I was about to give him his marching orders when James said, “Let’s pause here. I’m seeing a horse who’s anxious and locked up in his thoughts. I’d like him to let go of some stress and process this new experience before he moves on. Let’s wait until he gives a lick and chew.”

His words took me by surprise—I thought Mystic looked fairly relaxed. Then James started naming the signs:

“He’s got what I call radar ears—they point sideways—which means he’s unsure. His eyes are glassy and there’s no movement in his tail. These are really subtle signs, but it means he’s sliding toward what Pat Parelli calls ‘catatonic right brain mode.’ A catatonic horse has gone so far inside himself that he’s shut down his senses. Once he comes back into them, he may explode.”

James told about the time he put a saddle on a horse who seemed sleepy and relaxed. The horse, who’d been repressing his fear until that moment, promptly reared and fainted. That’s right, fainted.

Mystic had every right to feel woozy. Pushed mercilessly to perform in dressage and jumping, he’d become increasingly fearful and anxious, until his emotions were too big to internalize anymore. He’d started bucking and rearing to vent them. Nobody listened to what he was really saying—I can’t handle this stress anymore; please pay attention to my needs. Instead he’d been sidelined and declared unusable.

Mystic and I faced each other for a long time in that round pen. He lowered his head a couple of times and cocked his back leg—both signs of increasing relaxation. But he didn’t lick and chew.

“All right, how about you take him on a little vacation,” James said, meaning I should let Mystic explore his environment. He and I ambled around the ring, stopping at points of interest. He sniffed a western saddle balanced on a rail, got a close look at the spectators, and peered through the slats of the round pen doors. As I stood with the lead line in my hand, listening to James and half-watching Mystic, I heard it.

An unmistakable soft, smacking, moist sound.

Lick, chew.

And then again.

Lick. Chew.

Mystic’s head was low and easy, and he was working his mouth like a baseball player savoring a wad of chaw. The horse beside me looked essentially the same as he had a minute ago, yet he had shifted inside: his view of the world had begun to change. In the past, when he’d asked, What should I do next? the answer had been Work harder. Be perfect. Do exactly what I say.

This time he’d gotten an entirely new answer: Relax. Explore. Be a horse.

Those licks and chews meant he was mulling over the experience, letting go of tension, letting in trust and positive feelings.

There you go,” James said to Mystic, his tone so warm and approving that I wanted to lick and chew to get some of that affirmation. Inside I was licking and chewing, digesting all this remarkable information that was so nuanced yet so powerful.

James smiled apologetically. “Sorry, I know you were expecting to do ground work—but I just saw this look in Mystic’s face and had to take it in a different direction.”

Sorry? Are you kidding?

Mystic had traveled further in one session than any amount of circles on a lunge line could ever take him.

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4 thoughts on “Zen and the Art of Licking and Chewing

  1. Thank you for helping me to better understand and appreciate natural horsemanship. Your description of this transformative experience with Mystic confirms that you BOTH are learning and changing. I can hardly wait to read more!

  2. I do think that the session with Mystic was the most intriguing and satisfying.

    It reminds me that it is always good to try and see what might really be needed, outside of the usual plan and routine we hope to accomplish with our horses.

    We get so intent upon accomplishing goals, that it can be hard to step back. That’s why I think the time spent seeing Mystic have his chance to be himself, will always be a good keystone for remembering to offer that chance to our horse friend, when they need it more than anything else.

  3. This is so awesome! I grew up with horses and am just getting back “into them” with my girls. I am reading a number of books: “The Soul of a Horse”, by Joe Camp and “The Man Who Listens to Horses” and am SO excited to find that Coolor Horsemanship and Fiore Farms is so close to where I live! I hope to get to check it out soon.

    As far as your clinic, I am sure you will have a better horse for your experience!

    • Definitely come by, and bring your girls. I’ll have to check out those books; one of my all-time favorites is called “Chosen by a Horse.” Mystic has come a long way even since that clinic; James plans to put him under saddle soon. I’ll be blogging about it!

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