The horse that bites – nip it in the bud
It’s important to answer this question within the confines of the horse brain and what the horse brain can understand.
- With that in mind, a few words on the horse brain. Horses live in herds, they have a hierarchy to answer to. There are dominant horses, submissive horses, and those in between. The resulting pecking order is figured out by personalities, communicated by body language. Humans use words as primary communication, horses use ears, heads, necks, rumps, tails, and everything in between to communicate.
Horses exert dominance over their herd mates by moving them around, this often involves nipping and biting.
- 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 as well as with us as we grooming and ride.
With respect to nipping and biting in particular, this is the horse’s way of telling the handler (that would be you) that they are in charge.
- Do you really want to climb aboard a horse like that? I don’t. It’s an issue of your own personal space. A horse that is allowed to nip and bite knows that he can invade your space and boss you around.
- It starts with allowing him to move his head towards you, or when you move towards him. 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.
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.
- If he can’t come into your space, he can’t bite you. This will also teach him that you are the leader, not him.
Poke here as he swings around. Major coordination required, and let him run into you.
There’s much debate on what you should do if your horse manages to get a nip or a bite in.
- I’m not a fan of hitting or negative punishments, most horses don’t understand this.
- You can easily train your horse to stay out of your personal space with positive reinforcement – but not treats.
- If he turns to you, push him away and reward. The VERY FIRST thing I taught my horse was “look away”, using an amazing book and a clicker. He was instantly out of my space and unable to bite.
Teach your horse to stay out of your space. This is Comet, demonstrating “Look Away”.
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, poke your horse on the cheek as he’s swinging around.
- You can also hand walk him with your right elbow aimed at his lips. If he swings, he will pop himself on your elbow. The act of raising your elbow is often enough to teach your horse to stop biting and nipping.
- There are dozens of techniques out there, but remember that you have a nanosecond to correct the behavior so your horse can make the connection in his horse brain. Wear a brush on your arm, make him back up, pretend to bite him back with a twisting pinch on his neck, the list goes on. 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 cross ties?
- Maybe this is his way of saying “NO, that hurts.” Try and frame his biting and nipping behavior within the context of the situation.
- Remember that nipping and biting is a dominance issue – and one that can escalate! How have you dealt with a horse that nips and bites?
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