The longer we’re involved with horses, the more often we realize that our horse’s natural, herd behavior doesn’t work when he’s living among people. Biting is a good example of that. It’s natural for horses to use their mouths for lots of things, from exploring their world and looking for attention, to scratching a buddy, all the way up through outright aggression. And they can get away with that (or not) when they are in the company of other horses. The other horses will either put up with it or tell the aggressive horse where to go – literally. If he can’t play nicely, the aggressive horse will quickly become an outcast.
As a result, horses in a group living arrangement rarely bite each other, once the pecking order is established and everybody has his space. Youngsters spar with each other in a playful biting way, but even then, they learn not to get carried away.
I’ve noticed that the exception is the horse (usually at the bottom of the pecking order) who is downright aggressive toward other horses. His mindset is often, “I’ll get you before you have a chance to be rude to me.” So he threatens often and carries through occasionally – but even he learns to be on his own or hang out with one buddy, rather than taking on his whole world.
But aggression isn’t the only reason that horses bite. In fact, many bites happen from horses who aren’t outright aggressive but who haven’t learned the ground rules.
So let’s look at the best ways to prevent a horse from even thinking about biting.
Picture a young horse who’s been cooped up in a stall and he finally gets taken out. He’s so excited, he can’t stand it. In fact, he literally can’t stand. He has to move around to see who’s in the barn, or maybe call to a friend. Nine times out of 10, the owner puts him on the crossties or tells him to stand in the barn aisle for grooming. Rats! More confinement. For the colt, that’s like being both revved up and stuck in traffic. He may or may not paw, or get away with pawing, so the logical expression of his energy is in his mouth.
He tries to bite at whatever’s within range, perhaps bobbing his head or snatching at the owner’s arm. Hopefully the owner won’t swat at him while he’s tied, or that would teach him to pull back. But more than likely, in frustration the owner will smack him, grab his nose, or yell “Quit,” which of course, won’t settle him down.
The fix for this situation involves preventing the problem in the first place. After taking the colt out of the stall, give him a job to do, or more accurately, one job after the other. Put his restless energy to work. Ask him to walk forward (he’s already eager to do that leaving the stall), but after a few steps, ask him to change direction, as if you were going to return him to the stall. He’ll feel the pressure of your lead line as you ask for the turn. He’ll step over with his hindquarter as he turns and the tension of the lead will automatically release. Pet him, and use lead-rope pressure to ask him to drop his head. If he knows the cue, he’ll drop it, but probably bob it back up again. That’s okay. Ask him to drop his head again, and immediately release the line when he does. Then ask for a few forward steps, then a change of direction, and so forth.
Keep him busy – too busy to holler for his friends – for two or three minutes, and you’ll have a much better chance of getting him to settle down. After a couple of minutes, offer him the chance to stand quietly. Ask him to drop his head to a relaxed height and pet him.
The very energetic horse may still not be able to stand still, and that’s okay. But you wouldn’t have put him in a situation in which his only expression would be biting at you or the lead rope. And you’d have given him something to do instead of biting. If you put him to work each time he gets mouthy, he’ll figure out that standing without trying to bite something is okay.
Nudge to Nibble
Young horses are often like little kids – everything ends up in their mouths. So if you leave something within range, they’ll chew it. The trick with young, mouthy horses is to keep chewables – which, of course, includes your shirt and arm – out of easy reach. Of course, that’s easier said than done. But it’s worth keeping in mind, because it’s a part of the overall prevention solution.
But it isn’t only young horses who have to have temptation removed for them. Sometimes adult horses are in the habit of munching on or playing with whatever’s nearby. Here’s what often happens. Picture a man in a recliner reading the paper with his Golden Retriever by his side. The dog nudges the guy’s elbow. Without pausing in his reading, the man drops his hand to pet the dog’s head. What has the dog taught the owner? The “pet me” cue.
Now imagine an owner standing with her horse, perhaps talking with a friend. While she’s talking, the owner strokes the horse. As she gets more involved in conversation, she stops petting, and the horse nudges her, like a Golden Retriever might. The owner unconsciously responds by stroking the horse’s face. Before long, the horse has trained the owner to the “pet me” cue.
Once horses learn to nudge, the next step is often to nibble. Owners sometimes think it’s cute when their horses grab their sleeves. They often remark at how careful the horse is to just get the fabric. Then one day, it isn’t just the fabric – it’s a child’s arm. Nibble has become nip, and it isn’t long until nip becomes bite.
Sometimes the owner has to train herself to stand two feet from the horse, so she doesn’t continually pet the horse. That way they both learn that they don’t have to hang on each other. Regardless of who needs the training, position the horse, then step away. If the horse moves toward you, back him up to the original position and step away from him again. After a few times, he’ll get the message.
The Best Defense
We all know, though, you can’t always keep your horse at arm’s length. The mouthy horse has to learn that putting his mouth where it doesn’t belong isn’t rewarding. However, swatting at him isn’t the answer. He’d love to have you swat at his nose. In fact, the game would be to see how many times you can swat the air, because he’d have moved his nose away as soon as he knows you’re in the game.
Worse yet, if he were playing with a buddy in the pasture, he’d pull his nose away, then lunge forward in a biting action. Like two boxers, they’d be swinging, ducking and bobbing, each one trying to make his move count. He’s not going to automatically know he shouldn’t do that with you. And there’s no way that you can win at his game. In fact, biting is the most dangerous thing that a horse can do. He is not only fast, his jaws are incredibly powerful.
Instead, pretend that his nosing around your arm was the best thing that ever happened. You’re going to pet his nose vigorously. Hold his nose in both of your hands and rub it, making a big fuss, the way a TV sitcom grandmother might greet a 10-year-old boy who didn’t want to be hugged. Hold his nose just a little longer than he wants you to, so that he takes his nose away on his own. Each time he comes nosing and nudging around, give his nose more loving than is comfortable for him. Don’t be harsh or hurt him, just set up a condition that he’ll quickly tire of. He’ll learn what level of interaction is polite and what gets a too-enthusiastic response from you.
So far, we’ve looked at giving the horse an alternate activity, of moving temptation farther from his mouth and of rubbing his nose enthusiastically. Over the years of training and doing symposiums, I’ve looked at nearly every solution that people have devised to deal with horses who bite, and this preventative method works the best: Love on the horse’s head.
The more you stroke a horse’s head, hugging and handling it, the less inclined the horse will be to bite. I know firsthand that is especially true of stallions. When a horse has his head handled frequently, you satisfy his need for attention. He learns to bring his head into reach to be hugged, but without the intention of biting.
But what about the horse who isn’t mouthy or playful? What about the one who is showing aggressive tendencies? Dealing with a horse who is actually threatening to come after you with his teeth is beyond what we can cover in this article, but I can tell you how a bite occurs and give you advice about heading it off, or dealing with it if it happens.
Horses don’t play poker, so they don’t need poker faces. In fact, the moment an aggressive thought crosses a horse’s mind, it shows on his face or in his posture. Other horses don’t have to wait until they see his teeth to know what he’s thinking. They know that an ugly look is followed by an ugly action. The horse who is receiving the ugly look either moves out of the way or tells the grumpy horse to move. Ignoring the ugly look, though, is inviting trouble.
Let’s look at how a bite develops. First there’s a passing thought. The horse thinks, “I don’t like you doing this or that.” It could be a minor thing; perhaps you haltered his friend first, or you made him move, or maybe your aftershave reminds him of someone else’s. You’ll never really know why, and that’s okay, because the reason isn’t important.
The next time you come into the pasture, he may pin back both ears momentarily, perhaps mentally muttering under his breath. If you don’t interact with him to change his thought, he’ll hold onto it. If you turn to leave the pasture, perhaps having finished checking the water or whatever else you had come to do, he may assume that you deferred to his aggressive look, the way another horse might.
So the next time you come into the pasture, he’s feeling a bit more powerful. As you walk past him, he gives you a distinctly less-than-friendly look. If you ignore him, he’ll keep that “I told her” thought in his head.
Here’s where most people get into trouble. Instead of changing the horse’s thought by asking him to move back when they first notice it, they reward the horse for his aggressive stance. They don’t realize they’re encouraging him. Here’s a typical scenario:
The horse gives the owner a dirty look. The owner feels uncomfortable and wants to win Duke’s affection, so she pets him, feeds him a treat, and says, “Duke, don’t make such an ugly face. Don’t you know that we love you and bought you a new horse blanket?” Duke has in his mind, “I’m going to bite your head off,” and since he doesn’t understand English, he continues to glower as he eats the treat.
If nothing happens to interrupt the cycle, three times later, Duke will “suddenly” lunge at the owner or perhaps the owner’s child. The attack wasn’t sudden at all. It’s just that the owner didn’t correctly interpret the signs and didn’t do anything to change Duke’s hostile greeting.
Though people aren’t naturally as good as horses at reading horse body language, they can improve their “reading” skills. The first thing is to trust your instincts. If you think that your horse is being aggressive, he probably is. It may be the position of his head or the stomp of his foot. It may be a dirty look, with one ear flicked back hard that tips you off. Or it may be just a hunch, a creepy feeling that you get.
We want our horses to love us, and we don’t want to consider the possibility that a horse might mean us harm. So our natural tendency is to shrug off a bad feeling, to tell ourselves that Duke was just stamping at a fly or he was warning another horse to stay away from us. And that might be the case. But it might not.
Assuming you’re dealing with a horse at the aggressive-thought stage and not a horse in full-charge mode, remember what would happen if Duke gave another horse an ugly look. The other horse would either move away, deferring to Duke, or he’d tell Duke to move. If you can safely do so, tell your horse to move a few steps away from you. You’re not going to chase him or punish him – just give him an alternate activity. And then go on about your business, not holding his ugly thought against him.
If you can address it at this stage by merely telling the horse to move – changing his thought – it’s usually pretty easy to fix, especially in conjunction with some of the other training. The important thing is to answer the horse’s action, not defer to it, so his aggressive thought doesn’t escalate into action.
When He Bites
Because I know how dangerous a biting horse is, I do everything I can to prevent the horse from biting in the first place. I tell him where to stand, where to put his nose. I love on his head and never put him in a situation where he feels he has to protect himself from me. But now and then I run into a situation in which a horse actually bites. When that happens, I change from Mr. Nice Guy, setting the rules, to Mr. Out of Control – but just for three seconds.
I assume the horse has declared war on me, and for three seconds immediately after the bite, I try to convince him that he’s going to die. I don’t hit the horse with anything that could cut him, injure his head, or potentially blind him. (For instance, I might smack his body with a lead rope, but I wouldn’t smack his head with a lead rope, since the end of it could hit an eye.) I allow myself to lose my temper – yelling or jumping at the horse – but for only three seconds.
At the end of three seconds, I have to go back to normal as if nothing happened, loving on the horse, as before.
Beyond my rule about not hurting the horse, there are situations in which you can’t react. Obviously, if three seconds go by, your window of opportunity is closed. So that means if the horse bites and then runs to the other side of the corral, you can’t react. The correction has to come immediately behind the action in order for the horse to learn something by it. There’s no room for punishment or retaliation.
And, of course, you have to take into account that if there’s anyone nearby that the horse might back into, or anything he could get hurt on, you can’t scare the horse into doing something unsafe. Also, you should never frighten a horse if he’s tied.
My goal in that three seconds is to make him realize he made a bad mistake, not to actually injure him. Hurting the horse won’t make him change his behavior. But startling him into the middle of next week will. We’re talking about a one-time situation, not losing your temper every day. If you have an ongoing biting situation, you have to work lots harder at prevention – especially loving on the horse’s head – to eliminate the undesirable behavior. PH*