How do I stop my Miniature Horse from biting?

I am surprised how often I see some variation of the above question posted in Miniature Horse groups on Facebook, and discouraged by how often the advice given immediately recommends hitting, shanking or even biting back (which sounds like a good way to lose a tooth to me, but hey, your teeth, your choice).

It isn’t that I would never hit a horse for biting – in fact, if they really do chomp on me, chances are there are going to be consequences. But I would never, ever, recommend discipline of any kind based on no more information than is included in that simple question: “How do I stop my Miniature Horse from biting?”

As always with horses, the first question isn’t to ask “how to change the behaviour” but instead “why is he doing this?”

Is he a mouthy weanling or yearling, who just wants to put everything in his mouth? (Just push his nose away – don’t encourage and he’ll outgrow it.)

Is he a busy minded horse who bites to get more attention? (Give him more attention – ie rub his nose overly enthusiastically until he says, “Um, that’s enough.” – he’ll find that less rewarding than discipline.)

Is he actually being aggressive, using biting to try and tell you what to do? (In this rare case, you have 3 seconds to make him think you’re going to kill him and eat him. Then pet him like nothing happened.)

Is he treating you the way he would his buddies, playing rough? (A firm “no” is probably enough to discourage this – it will fade away as he realizes you play different games. Keep him busy learning new skills!)

Is he just trying to get cookies? (Stop feeding him cookies from your hand, or at least stop feeding “free” cookies – make sure they’re earned, and not by pulling on your pockets or looking cute.)**

And what exactly does the person asking the question mean by “biting”? I think most people who read that assume the worst, a truly aggressive biter, which is extremely rare. Maybe they mean, “He gets irresponsible with his teeth when I feed him handfuls of treats.” or “He lips at my clothes to get my attention.” or “He nips my bum when I’m cleaning his stall because it makes me jump and make a funny noise.” (That last one may or may not be my 3 month old colt, Vodka, who knows better but can’t resist.)

Horses are not all the same, and therefore a universal recommendation isn’t going to work when you don’t know the situation. And recommending hitting, biting or “showing him who’s boss” when you don’t know the situation, may result in a very unfair situation for both the horse and a new owner.

 

**And speaking of cookies – I use food rewards a lot in my training. I also routinely have children working with my horses. I never have to worry about biting – they learn very quickly that treats are earned through behaviour, not nipping or mugging their handler.

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