Published in The Aiken Horse magazine in 2012.
Biting from a human point of view is either a frightening or annoying vice. From a horse’s perspective, biting is simply one way of communicating something important. Obviously, no one wants to be bitten! But understanding what the horse is trying to tell you through his biting is just as important as curbing the biting behavior.
Why doesn’t punishment work?
A common correction for biting is a sharp smack or a stern verbal “NO!” This seems to work, because it startles the horse and interrupts the behavior. But usually the horse will be back to his old habits, because the underlying cause of the biting is still there. Often, he will learn to get quick or sneaky about the biting to try to avoid the punishment. This can spiral into a pattern of frustration or fear in both horse and handler. Instead of reacting to the bad behavior, what if we addressed the cause of the biting and started a program to eliminate the horse’s desire to bite?
What type of biter do you have?
There are several types of mouthiness and biting. The most serious (and least common), is aggressive biting. This type of horse has learned from bad experiences that humans are bad news and will lunge and attack, biting and or striking seemly without much provocation. The suggestions in this article are not designed for this dangerous stage of biting. This behavior should be corrected by a very experienced handler.
Defensive biting is a horse trying to communicate discomfort. A “cinchy” horse that pins his ears and nips while having the girth tightened is a prime example. The first piece of the solution is to try to minimize his discomfort by tightening the girth slowly and in stages, and by walking the horse a little in between. This along with good saddle fit can generally prevent “cinchy” behavior from starting. But once a horse has learned cinchy behavior it generally becomes habitual biting. That means the horse has developed a habit of biting in a certain context, often remembering or anticipating discomfort, even if nothing is actually hurting him at the time. This can show up during tacking, blanketing, grooming, or whenever you are doing something to your horse. If he could talk your horse would be saying, “Stop doing that!” The strategy here is to protect yourself from nips while changing your horse’s mind about the process being unpleasant. This will take repetition over several sessions, especially if the behavior has been ingrained over many years, so don’t expect a one-time miracle cure!
It is tempting to restrain your horse by cross-tying or tying him so he can’t reach you, but to cure this behavior it is best to work in an open space with the lead rope draped over your arm. Using your elbow to block your horse when he tries to bite, begin the process that triggers the biting behavior (lifting the saddle pad, brushing, reaching for the girth, etc.). Sometimes the horse will move away instead of biting when he’s not restrained. Whether he bites or moves away, continue the minimum stimulus that bothers your horse until he relaxes, then stop the stimulus and walk away. Here you are showing the horse that the bothersome stimulus goes away not when he is cranky or evasive, but when he is calm and relaxed. Find something that is pleasant to your horse, an itchy spot that he likes scratched, a treat, etc. Intersperse the desensitizing work (unpleasant stimulus) with the pleasant thing. With time and repetition, your horse will come to see that the stimulus he found so uncomfortable really isn’t so bad, and the feeling that he needs to defend himself will go away, as will the biting. Then you can try tying or cross-tying again. If the behavior resurfaces, go back to working with the lead over your arm. Give this program a minimum of one week to see a softer, less defensive horse. Remember, he has probably been “practicing” this negative behavior for a long time, and it takes awhile to change a habit!
Food-Related biting is a dominance display. When your horse sees you bringing his dinner, what he sees is that you have something that he wants. If he perceives himself to be a higher-ranking member of the social order, he will treat you as he would a lower-ranking horse: he’ll pin his ears and try to move you away from “his” food. If he could talk he’d be saying, “Outta my way, that’s mine!” Clearly a different strategy is needed here than for defensive biting, because while the behavior is the same the motivation is very different. The solution here is to teach your horse to move away from the food and wait for an invitation from you to come eat. If you are intimidated or worried at all about your horse’s behavior, halter him and carry something in your hand like a stick and string to extend your reach. Start without food present and teach him to back up to the end of the lead rope and stand and wait. Then practice this with a treat or grain in a feed pan on the ground. Allow him to come forward and take a bite, and then back him up and make him wait. Then put the same program in place at mealtimes. Be consistent about not allowing the horse to eat until he has a pleasant expression and waits patiently. If your horse mauls you for hand-fed treats, the simplest solution is to not hand-feed. If you do hand-feed, back your horse a step or two out of your space before you offer the treat and only give it to him when he’s calm and polite.
Playful biting/mouthiness is just as often directed towards an object as towards a person. It is indicative of a busy mind and a high play drive! Many young male horses that bite are in this category. If the playful-mouthy horse could talk, he’d say, “Give me something to do! I’m bored!” If you punish the bite out of this type of horse, you are likely to see another undesirable “displaced behavior” crop up in its place: weaving, pawing, lip popping, head shaking, and tongue lolling can be symptoms of the mentally unengaged horse that has not learned to relax and be patient when we want him to.
There are some contributing factors to consider when addressing playful biting. Keeping a high-play drive young horse out in a pasture with other horses who will play with him can alleviate some of his need to play dominance games and burn off some of that playful energy. The mental-health and social learning benefits of herd life can be great, but this type of horse will usually earn some bite marks that may scar or require doctoring so you must weigh the pros and cons for yourself. A busy-brained horse like this does best in regular work that is varied in nature so he stays physically and mentally engaged. Consider his diet… is he overfed for the amount of work he’s doing? With young or extreme horses, it can help to work them a bit on the ground even before you groom or tack them so that they are mentally prepared for having to stand still and Be Good. Think of the kindergartner who needs to have recess before he’s able to sit down and concentrate on his math lesson. Patience is the most challenging thing for this horse, and his attention span for standing still must be developed and practiced. Just like with the defensive biter, restraints such as being stalled, tied, cross-tied, or made to stand by a handler will intensify displaced behaviors including biting.
The key with the playful biter is to minimize the temptation to bite, keep your own emotions in check, give the horse a “job” to do, and practice developing patience consistently over time. The most immediate simple way to reduce your horse’s temptation to bite you is to position him out of reach. Any time he is close to you and begins to be mouthy, back him out of your space without moving your own feet. Teach him that standing close to you is a privilege earned by good behavior, not his right. Keeping your temper and making corrections without anger or frustration is important. This kind of horse is very clever and thrives on getting his handler frustrated enough to quit. He will also become fearful or resentful of punishment delivered out of anger or fear. You will earn his respect by being consistent and fair in making corrections. The best correction when he gets mouthy is to move him around: give him a job to do. Yield his front end away from you or back him up (this is why it’s best in the beginning stages to lay the lead rope over your arm instead of tying or cross-tying). Then allow him to stand and go back to whatever you were doing. Any time he starts to fuss with you, stop what you’re doing and move him again. In this way, he learns that fussing around or biting earns him work. He will begin to appreciate his rest and begin to build a habit of standing quietly.
The Good News About Biting
As you can see, a true long-term fix that addresses the underlying causes of biting is not difficult, but it does require a real commitment in time, patience, and consistency from the handler. Defensive and playful biting take the longest to correct as they are the most emotionally based for the horse. You may see improvement over a few sessions, but a total cessation of biting can take weeks or months. The good news is that biting is totally fixable, and your commitment to addressing the problem really will strengthen your relationship with your horse. Playful biters are often also very confident, smart, and eager individuals. Learn to channel those positive characteristics instead of squashing them by punishing the biting.
One main take-away for handlers of biters is that biting is not personal. Biting is just a communication strategy to a horse. Keeping calm and unemotional is essential to teaching your horse not to bite. Don’t hesitate to seek the help of a professional if you feel uncomfortable correcting biting. But biting is very, very fixable. With a consistent program based on horse psychology you can have a more trusting and respectful relationship with your horse through the process of curbing biting behaviors.