Horse have powerful jaws designed to rip and tear. Horses that bite are dangerous. Owners know that, but don’t know what to do about it. Biting is a symptom of a different problem. Respect plays a part, but so is helping your horse build confidence and security.
A reader asked this question:
Q: I am having biting issues with my gelding. He doesn’t respect me as his leader.
How do I begin to change this? I believe this behavior has grown worse since winter and I can’t work him right now. Do you have any suggestions?
A: Thanks for the question! Horses bite because they are afraid.
Bullies behave badly because they have poor self esteem and are fearful. It sounds counter-intuitive, but balanced happy individual don’t act out. Teenagers challenge parental authority to test boundaries and limits of parental enforcement. Without sufficient push back, teenagers escalate bad behavior until they meet a brick wall. It’s sad if that wall is in a police precinct.
Horses behave poorly for similar reasons. Too many horses lose their homes because no one set boundaries and enforced them.
Horses That Bite Have Relationship Issues
The last place I go to address a horse’s problem is the problem itself. Horses that bite, cinchy, or refuse to be quietly bridled seldom have teeth, girth, or head problems. They have leadership problems. Going right to the spot of battle is like poking the bear – disrespectful of the horse and proves that you don’t understand the horse or his problem.
Resolve the relationship issue and biting, cinchiness, and bridling issues often disappear.
Horses, like people, give respect where it is due. Respect isn’t demanded or conferred – it’s earned. The answer to your question is that you must deserve respect. Demanding respect just proves that it’s not deserved.
Using proper correction is an act of regard, intended to improve or make perfect. It’s a teaching tool, never punitive or intended to dominate. You correct because you care.
Simple Steps to Earn Respect and Build Faith
Begin by making simple a request your horse is guaranteed to say “yes” to. The instant you get the yes, stop asking. Make another easy simple request, get a yes. Quit asking. Repeat.
- Ask something simple
- Get a yes
- Quit asking
That’s horse training in a nutshell. This video demonstrates how undramatic horse training can be and how to ask, get a yes, and QUIT.
If your horse says NO it is because he is either unable or unwilling to say YES. Figuring out the difference is your responsibility. Every NO means you have to make him ABLE to say yes or motivate him so he is WILLING to say yes.
Two Essential Foundational Cues or Behaviors
I teach every horse two foundational cues, (1) Back away, and (2) Yield the hindquarters. If done well the horse will say YES with little more than a tiny gesture in the space of 5 or 10 minutes. Even horses I’ve never worked with before make the change easily.
There’s no concern about getting bit if your horse will always back away or yield space to you with a mere gesture.
Handling Horses That Bite When Led
What’s your normal response if your horse is a sneaky little imp who takes a gratuitous nip when your back is turned? This happens when leading or cleaning feet. Sometimes when grooming. You take your eyes off your horse’s head and he runs his teeth across whatever’s handy.
This is another instance where claiming your space and having a horse who backs up easily with just a LOOK will totally solve the problem. If your horse bites you when being led he’s too close. I prefer horses walk with their muzzle about a foot behind my elbow.
Some folks don’t like that position because a horse that spooks might run them over or it places the horse too far behind the action for showmanship-type maneuvers. I trust my horses to keep their cool because they trust me to keep mine.
Invite Horses Into Your Space
If I want a horse closer I ask it to come closer. However, if the horse tends to step on my feet, tap me in the back, or try to take a bite – it isn’t going to get anywhere close to me until we straighten out the underlying issue of inability or unwillingness.
Teach the nasty-nipper to keep his head at least a foot behind you and to AUTOMATICALLY back up one or two steps every time you stop. If a horse really wants to crowd me I teach it to stay back several feet from me and back up when I stop. Once the lesson is learned I allow the horse to follow more closely.
If your horse is WILLING to follow you exactly where you expect it to the chance of getting bit are slim to none. You have its respect and attention. The biting takes care of itself.
How do I begin teaching my horse to back away from me?
Backing away begins with a simple question: “Will you please move one hoof just a tiny bit backward?” Ask without touching the horse. Create energy out in front of the horse with your hand, quiet arm gesture, or easy shake of the lead. Start small and focused. Build only as necessary – until one hoof lifts a bit to the rear. QUIT. Take a step or two forward or to the side, turn and ask again. Don’t use cluttered cues.
Some horses need a more direct initial cue. Whatever it takes, make it tiny. If you have to move YOUR feet the cue is too big. If you haven’t already, watch Journey’s video linked above. At the end I ask Journey to back up one step. It is the first time I asked and you can see the cue I used. I didn’t plan to ask him, but habit took over as it usually does.
Step by step instructions for both maneuvers are found in Discipleship with Horses . If you have a covered area anywhere you can teach a horse these skills even when it’s wet or cold. Tiring horses out in order to train them is really a silly concept. It either makes a horse dread your appearance, gets it fitter so you have to work it harder the next time, or proves that you dominate rather than lead.
Failure in anything is always the result of someone’s inability or unwillingness. Many times it’s the leader’s inability or unwillingness.
Read these relevant articles:
Food Aggressive Horses
Q: What do I do when my gelding runs over me at feeding time?
A: Biting is a fear response. So is food aggression. Other horses seem as competition escalate bad behavior. Build a stronger relationship with your gelding individually so you have a foundation to stand on when he’s in with other horses. Whether he bites from jealousy or a power-play, he needs the same lesson.
Never feed a horse who isn’t pleasant. It rewards the fear and the choice to bite. Teach your gelding to back out of your space consistently – every time. (See previous answer.) Eventually you can hang the feed bucket or stand between him and the feeder and ask him to back up and be patient. When he is, tell him he’s a good boy and leave him alone to eat.
Stay consistent and persistent. Soon you can walk in whether he’s eating or not and move him around with no negative reaction. Why? Because he isn’t as afraid. Consistency is powerful.
A note about working with stallions:
I specialized in stallions for many years. Rules were simple, clear, consistent, and unlike geldings and mares, enforcement came without a gimmee clause. Any infraction was corrected every time.
Stallions respect people who deserve it and demand respect in return. Stallions resent being picked on or disciplined when they don’t believe they did anything wrong. No horse likes to be treated that way, but stallions generally give their leaders less leeway for error before losing respect or retaliating.
“Horses, like most animals and people, are naturally attracted to calm, confident personalities. One must be worthy to be a good herd leader.”
“Confident horses and secure Christians seldom react in fear; they are trained by relationship to use the thinking side of their personality.” – Amazing Grays, Amazing Grace