One of Austin’s most appealing personality traits first became apparent when I’d go into the barn to see him. When he saw me, he’d make licking and chewing motions with his mouth, as if he were eating. When a horse licks its lips and makes a chewing motion with its mouth, it’s communicating feelings of relaxation, understanding, acceptance, and trust.
This symbolic gesture is derived from a hardwired natural need of baby horses. In order to protect its little two-hundred-pound body from getting bitten or kicked by a twelve-hundred-pound stallion or mare, both male and female foals, in their first year of life, signal their youthful vulnerability by licking, chewing, and moving their mouths in a manner that replicates the behavior of nursing on their mother.
When a horse grows up, it no longer needs to communicate youthful vulnerability. An adult horse that licks and chews is making a purposeful choice to communicate feelings of relaxation, understanding, acceptance, and trust toward whoever—horse or human—has entered its personal space.
Having Austin repeatedly do this when I came to visit not only felt good, it felt significant. There is a moment in a human love relationship when you can look into the eyes of your partner and communicate a thought or feeling without having to speak. I have never felt a more unmistakable expression of loving connectedness from a horse than I have with Austin.
In March 2014, Austin turned twenty-five and I turned sixty- nine. In the horse-to-human age equation, we’re in about the same place. We’ve been friends for more than seventeen years and partners for thirteen. We’ve traveled many miles teaching, learning, making new friends, and having fun. But no matter how much I talk and share with people what I’ve learned from horses, the truth is that at the end of the day . . . everyone wants to meet Austin. He’s got that special something. And just as I had done years ago, people instantly fall in love with him.