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Medical Index
First Posted July 6, 2010
Jul 21, 2010

Horses that Nip and Bite

by Debora Johnson

Although biting is part of a horse's natural behavior, it should never be directed to humans! If you watch the young fillies and colts at play in the pasture you will notice that they kick up heels and nip and bite. Horses also groom each other by nibbling, mouthing or biting. This is a natural horse behavior. This takes place mostly at the withers and neck area. Horses also show their teeth and bite as a sign of aggressive behavior. They are warning another horse to back off. A horse who is going to bite usually will give advance warning using body language. It is important to be able to read a horse's body language! They will show their teeth, put their ears flat back, flare their nostrils, stretch out their head and neck in an aggressive posture or gesture, move their heads up and down in a vertical direction as though nodding. Much of this behavior is a display of dominance. When it comes to a horse you always want to be the dominant one in the relationship.

What Are Some Causes Nipping and Biting?

  • Hand feeding treats - Careful! I reward my horse with a treat after I have asked him to do something. Come, stand, walk on, give me a kiss, move over, back-up, etc. I have even taught my horse to take a "pee pee" on command! Why have I done this? I do not want him urinating in the trailer so I always ask him to "pee" before getting on the trailer and reward him with a treat. Before I deliver a treat I say "Cookie, cookie."
  • Environmental Exploration - Horses use their mouths.
  • Attention Getting - Horses will often nip or nuzzle with gusto to get your attention. Do not reward that behavior.
  • Fear - Try to figure out what is scaring your horse and causing his biting reaction. Then desensitize him to it. Eventually he will realize that there is no need to be afraid. My husband and I always desensitize our horses to as much as we can. We trail ride so there is much going on from all sides to scare a horse. We desensitize them to bikes, baby strollers, balloons, gun shots, deer, geese and other birds, joggers and runners, canoes, dogs, crossing water and believe it or not, white rocks. We sack them out with by touching them all over their bodies from the beginning. We also familiarize them with their saddle pads, bridles, bits, saddles, etc. We teach them not to spook when we take off rain coats, etc. while in the saddle. In this area I could go on and on. Use your imagination.
  • Pain - Often you will see a horse try to bite or nip when being girthed. Usually there is a pain issue involved somehow. The saddle may not fit, the girth may be pinching, or slamming the saddle down on their backs may hurt and the horse may anticipate more pain is coming. Your horse might have a physical problem that gets exacerbated when you tack him up to ride him. Be mindful and gentle when tacking up your horse. Take your time, give reassurance and kind praise. Try to be proactive and defray a negative response. Usually they are trying to tell you something--it hurts!
  • Food - Many horses get impatient and want their food NOW! They will invade your space, be very pushy, try to nip at the bales of hay while you are carrying them, kick at their stable mates and may get you in the cross-fire, etc. if you are feeding outside a stall. I would suggest putting the horses in a stall, if possible, while you deliver the food to their outside feeding area. Perhaps a small amount of sweet feed could be given in the stall food buckets to keep them happy while you are delivering the hay in an open area. Even one cup will do. It is also a good opportunity to check the horses all over for any physical problems while they are stalled. After the hay is in place then let each horse out, one at a time. Choose the feeding order (who is taken out of the stall in what order) and be consistent. That way, the horses will learn what to expect and know that you are the boss! When you are safe and out of their way the horses will sort out their eating order outside.
  • Elevated Fight or Flight Response (Genetic Temperament) and High Energy - Just like humans, horses have built in genetics. Some have quicker triggers than others. That is, they are quicker to react or over-react to stimulus. Some are more rambunctious that others.
  • Aggression - If a horse is aggressive toward humans I would not keep it. However, there is professional help that can guide with this problem. Get a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB or ACAAB) to help with the problem. Being around horses is dangerous under the best of circumstances.

If You Must Hand Feed Treats!

  • Do not carry treats in pockets. Horses will get pushy and often nip to get the treats. They smell them.
  • Put the treat in the palm of your hand, keep your fingers together with your thumb held flat (a separated thumb may be mistaken for a carrot; now you see your thumb, now you don't!), your palm is up and your fingers are tilting downward. Do not pull your hand away when the horse takes the treat. Stay still.
  • Never deliver a treat for any pushy behavior. The horse sees that as a reward and will continue to exhibit that behavior.
  • Ask the horse to perform some task or give verbal praise for good behavior "Good" or a stroke then deliver the treat. I try to use all senses when training our horses. I use my verbal commands with intonation, tactile (like pets and strokes), gentle physical maneuvering such as "Move over." I will have the horse in cross ties and gently push from one side until the horse steps away from my push. It is their natural response to push toward your push, and treats (bribes)!

We had a nipper at one time. I am embarrassed to put this on my site but will anyway. The only way I could stop the nipping was to put a tack between my fingers, held my hand in the same posture as giving a treat, had the horse in the stall, put my hand out (that is when he nipped) and he would go for my hand and get the prick of the tack on the sensitive parts of his lips. It did not take long to break that behavior. This was a last resort after all else had failed. Other than the nipping (he came to us with this vice) we really liked this horse.

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