The horse that bites – nip it in the bud
Horses that nip or bite can be dangerous to be around. Even the lightest nip can cause bruising, pain, and may draw blood. A biting horse also steps into your space, and tries to boss you around using horse-talk. You may notice horses in a herd communicate with their teeth – and a horse that bites is talking to you.
How horses “talk” to each other
- Horses communicate with their herd mates by moving them around, this often involves nipping and biting. You may also see a horse back up to another horse, sometimes with a striking leg or a buck.
- Horses lower their heads and necks and move their mates. Kicking, chasing, nipping, biting. Our job is to read and decipher this as they communicate with their herd members and with us as we groom and ride.
- These horse behaviors are more physical than the horse talk of mutually grooming, sniffing noses, walking together, and grazing peacefully next to each other.
- Horses will also vocalize with neighs, whinnies, snorts, huffing, squealing, and grunting at each other.
These two clowns are mutually grooming, but will also kick and buck at each other.
When the horse nips the handler
- Concerning nipping and biting in particular, this may be the horse’s way of telling the handler (that would be you) that they are in charge. Or they have something to say, like they are scared, uncomfortable, or stressed. Or they could be playful. While it’s helpful to know what your horse is trying to communicate, the nipping behavior should be re-directed and your horse should be trained to communicate differently.
- Do you want to climb aboard a horse that nips or bites; I don’t. It’s an issue of your personal space and nobody wants an errant bite to land mid-mounting on a thigh or butt cheek.
- Biting and nipping can start with many things – but it boils down to a horse invading your space, and not keeping their head in front of their body. We do this when we dote on their soft noses, give them cookies, let them rub us, and even when we allow them to look at us when we are leading them. Not every horse that is hand-fed or is allowed to run their faces on your back will become a biter.
Train your horse’s head position away from you
- As a general rule, when you are working around your horse his head needs to be front and center. This will start to train your horse to stop biting.
- If he moves towards you, use your hand high on his neck or cheek to move him over. PERIOD. He is not allowed to come into your space. REWARD your horse like it’s a birthday party when their faces are out of your space. Praise, pet, scratch, talk sweetly, and do whatever your horse responds to.
- They can’t bite you without moving toward you. Sometime a horse will swing around, and you may be able to let your elbow or fingers block the motion and put their head back to the center.
Press here as he swings around. Major coordination is required.
Steps to consider when training a behavior
- Hitting or negative punishments do not work. Period. Horses do not understand this, and will hinder future training efforts. You break trust and demolish the relationship you have with them and replace it with fear.
- I often hear horse people say “but that’s how they communicate in the herd.” You are a horse, not a human. And if you accept that a horse can bite you and you respond with abuse, yes ABUSE, you are telling your horse that it’s ok to bite, buck, kick, and otherwise treat you like a horse.
- You can easily train your horse to stay out of your personal space with positive reinforcement. This training method, based on kindness, guidance, and patience will yield amazing results and can be applied to any training situation.
How I trained my horse to stop biting me
- I had a biter, and let me tell you he was fast and sneaky. I set out to teach him to keep his head away from me, and I used a book, a clicker, and a few minutes a day.
- The VERY FIRST thing I taught my horse was “look away.” He can’t nip if he learns that the reward comes when he’s out of my space.
How I taught “look away”
- I would hang out with my biting horse in his paddock, on the other side of the fence at first. When he would look away from me to see a bird, another horse, a car, whatever, I would say “look away” while clicking and then reward him like crazy.
- I did this for a few minutes a day, just letting him accidentally look away. A few days later, he understood and would look away with a voice command. The behavior still needs a click and a reward.
- You can also teach your horse to “target” something, usually a ball at the end of a stick with the clicker and positive reinforcement. Then use the target to move his head away from you.
Teach your horse to stay out of your space. This is Comet, demonstrating “Look Away.”
How to avoid being bitten by your horse
- If your horse is relentless in the nipping, you can do a few things to avoid being nipped.
- If your reflexes are super sharp, as they need to be, press your horse on the cheek as he’s swinging around.
- You can also hand walk him with your right elbow aimed at his lips. This puts a physical barrier between your horse’s mouth and your space.
- You can also lead your horse in a bridle instead of a halter. Hold both reins under his neck, with the outside rein taut so he can’t swing into you. Reinforce his movements when his neck is relaxed and centered.
I don’t suggest trying any of these things without getting the help of a professional that has credible experience with behavioral issues.
Some thoughts about the horse that bites.
- Your horse will always be trying to tell you something with his behavior. Perhaps you know the horse that reacts to grooming or a girth with attacking the crossties?
- Maybe this is his way of saying “NO, that hurts.” Try and frame his biting and nipping behavior within the context of the situation.
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