Suzy Maloney B.Eq.Sc.
Horses That Bite
A horse spends 17 to 18 hours per day eating. Can you imagine how strong their jaws are? Plus, they have nice big teeth at the front of their mouth, perfect for nipping other horses…or people. A biting horse can do serious damage, so this is not a behaviour to be taken lightly. If you are a beginner with horses or are nervous and feel in danger, I recommend highly that you call in an equine professional to help you deal with this behaviour. If you feel you are up for it, read on.
First, it is a good idea to try and work out why the horse is biting. This is where we wish horses could talk with words, because it is not always easy to discover. See if there is a particular situation where your horse bites, any predictability to the behaviour. If you know the trigger, things are a bit clearer. For example, if your horse bites when you touch their belly, the job is desensitization of that area. If your horse bites when you are mounting, check saddle fit, style of girth, back pain/issues, how you are mounting. Try and find a pattern.
If possible, contact previous owners and ask them about it. If a horse is a confirmed biter and has been doing it for years, it can take time to shift. Sometimes we never discover the root cause, and just have to deal with the behaviour. At times being a horse person is like being a detective! For this reason and the safety issue, get help if you need it. If you feel you have eliminated all possible causes and the biting persists, it is time to train.
I do not use food rewards with a biting horse until the biting has ceased. We do not want that mouth coming to us for any reason, and sometimes giving treats by hand is where it all started. Once the behaviour is under control, food rewards can be re-introduced after the horse has learnt to turn their head away to receive them.
When I work with this issue, I start by doing connection work first, some yields, walking or circles help the horse and I tune into each other. Then I stand beside the head in a normal position and wait for them to bite. When they do I have the point of my elbow ready to lift and they bump into it. I do not move; it is the horse’s choice to bring the head around for a nip or not. I sometimes do this alone, and sometimes add a verbal reprimand. Horses hate a deep, guttural growl. I do not hit horses, and I find their dislike of the growl is enough anyway. If you hit the horse, you are reinforcing to the horse that humans are not good to be around, plus it is ineffective anyway. We want to deal with the behaviour AND develop a trusting, respectful relationship at the same time.
Then the important part, when they stop trying to bite, I praise and lavish on the love. It is so important not to just reprimand, there must also be a reward for the correct behaviour. Sometimes people are so busy correcting a negative behaviour, especially a dangerous one like this, that they forget to give the good stuff when the horse is NOT biting. Ideally you want more of this than the correction. It also ensures that we soften and relax between the reprimands, otherwise it can be an incredibly stressful procedure for both human and horse.
At the end of the day, biting and kicking humans is an absolute no go, we humans are much too soft and squishy for that. Being in a good relationship with a horse does not mean being a whimp. No horse will respect you if they think you are weak. I have zero tolerance for biting and kicking and make this clear to the horse at the start of our relationship. Horses respect me for setting my boundaries, just as another human would.
Suzy Maloney B.Eq.Sc.
Happy Horses Bitless
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