It’s one of the most common questions you’ll see in advice groups on Facebook.
And sadly, the advice given usually centers around punishment: “Hit him” “Don’t let hit get away with that!” “You have to show him who’s boss” and those are usually the kinder suggestions as some might vary into things like using a nail to poke them in the nose or biting them back.
You don’t need to hit your horse.
When we’re talking about “biting” there’s a wide definition of what people call “biting”. When someone says, “my horse is biting me” they probably mean “my horse isn’t very careful with his teeth when taking a treat” or “my horse nips at my clothing”, while those who are recommending punishment are picturing pinned ears open mouthed lunging.
Behaviour is communication – instead of just thinking about how bad the behaviour is, think about what your horse is trying to tell you, and how you can use that information to change your approach and avoid the biting in the future.
Most horses are just being mouthy and irresponsible with their teeth because they haven’t been taught otherwise. Using punishment with these horses will probably stop the behaviour, but it can also make them cautious about interacting with you at all. Instead, we can teach them how we DO want them to act around humans (see below).
Some horses – especially youngsters, and especially male youngsters – are trying to play with you the same way they would with another horse. Using punishment with these horses is most likely to make the behaviour worse – the baby horse thinks “yay, they’re playing my game!” and just escalates what they were doing. Instead, we can teach them fun games that ARE fun for humans too (see below).
And some horses are afraid. If you have one of the rare horses who is an aggressive biter, know that aggression is rooted in fear. Either they’re afraid now, and think they need to defend themselves, or they were afraid in the past, and learned that biting was an effective way to get away from the scary human. Using punishment with these horses is just proving them right – you ARE scary – and they’ll likely first escalate, and then if you’re able to escalate the punishment enough, enter a state of learned helplessness. Instead, we can find a way to interact with the horse without triggering the fear response of biting, and start over building the relationship by teaching behaviour that are incompatible with biting (see below).
What to do
Keep yourself safe.
Even with a Miniature Horse, you can get hurt, especially if you have one who is defensively biting. If needed, start interacting with your horse through a fence – not only will you be safe, but your horse will feel more confident. You can teach a lot of things and build a lot of trust through a fence without any fear from either horse and human.
Teach an incompatible behaviour
When does your horse usually bite you? Common answers would be “when I feed them a treat or they think I have a treat” or “when we’re walking he nips at my leg” but regardless of the answer, you want to think of something you could teach them to do instead, that would make it impossible for them to bite you at those times.
For a horse that gets mouthy around food, that might mean teaching them to turn their nose away and not touch you to earn a treat. For one who reaches over and bites your leg while walking together, you could teach them to touch a handheld target to earn a reward, or add obstacles to your walk to keep their focus elsewhere.
There is a saying I heard on an animal training podcast: “what you resist, persists” – the more you focus on the biting, the more you’ll see of the biting. Waiting for them to do the bad thing so you can punish it is going to be much less effective – and less enjoyable for you both! – than focusing on a behavior that you can reward.
No matter when or how they’re biting, you can use this technique to find something positive to replace it.
Horses are individuals
And since they’re individuals, saying, “do this one thing and your horse won’t bite anymore” wouldn’t be true. Your horse, your skills, your training philosophy, all will affect the correct way to approach it. Listen to your horse, make a plan based on what you know, give it a try, and if it doesn’t work instead of getting frustrated just think that you’ve got more information now to work towards a new plan. Learn from every where and everyone you can, but you know your horse best. Put them first, trust your intuition, and be kind. You’ll get there!
It takes time to change a behaviour pattern, and if biting or nipping has become a habit you’ll need to be patiently consistent in your training for some time to get rid of it. It might not be a quick fix, but if you continue to focus on rewarding other behaviours, keep yourself safe and discourage or ignore the biting (remember, punishing can be reinforcing to biting in some situations), it will fade away.
Teach them other things
The more skills your horse has, the less they’re going to fall back on old habits of mouthiness. Don’t get stuck on the biting thing – continue to train new skills (safely, through a fence if needed) so that you can start to build a strong relationship, effective communication, and give them better options than biting. The more things you teach them, the less likely you are to see those “bad” behaviours resurface.
Want to learn more about how horse’s communicate? You can get access to my Understanding Your Miniature Horse course (along with many other resources!) inside the Miniature Horsemanship Study Group for just $39/month!