Why horses bite and what to do about it – How to earn respect

Q: I am having biting issues with my gelding.  He is not respecting me as his leader.  

How do I begin to change this?  I believe this behavior has grown worse since winter and I am not able to work him right now.  Do you have any suggestions?

A: Thanks for the question! Horses bite because they are afraid.

Bullies don’t act mean because they have such high esteem – quite the opposite. Teenagers challenge parental authority to test boundaries and see how much they can really trust their parents to enforce them.

The last place I go to address a horse’s problem is the problem itself. Horses that bite, are 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 you don’t “get it.”

Horses, like people, give respect where it is due. Respect is not conferred – it is earned. The answer to your question is that you must begin to deserve respect. Demanding respect only proves that it is not deserved. Using correction is an act of regard, intended to improve or make perfect. Correction is a teaching tool, not punitive or based on domination.

“Furthermore, we have had human fathers who corrected us, and we paid them respect. Shall we not much more readily be in subjection to the Father of spirits and live?” – Hebrews 12:9

Simple Steps to Earn Respect and Build Faith

Begin by making simple requests you know your horse will say “yes” to. Ask. Get a yes. Quit asking.  Ask again or ask something a bit bigger. Get a yes. Quit asking. Repeat.

  1. ASK
  2. GET A YES

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.

Journey – Introducing a Horse to the Round Pen

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.

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. If your horse will always back away or yield space to you with a mere gesture you will never have to be concerned about getting bit. Again, biting isn’t the problem, it’s only a symptom.

How to deal with a horse that bites when led

If your horse is a sneaky little imp who likes to take a gratuitous nip when you’re leading him and your back is turned, what do you do? 

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. In order for the horse to bite you when being led he has to get too close to you with his head. I prefer to have 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.

“In the New Testament, love is more a verb than a noun. If has more to do with acting than with feeling. The call to love is not so much a call to a certain state of feeling as it is to a quality of action.” – Dr. R.C. Sproul

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 have straightened 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:

What to do when your horse says “NO!”

Cluttered Cues produce frustration

Does your horse have Multiple Personality Disorder?

Q: What about a horse that is food aggressive?

A: Biting is a fear response. If you think about bullies, they don’t act out because they have such great self-esteem, but because they do not. Your gelding needs to build a stronger relationship with you individually so you have a foundation to stand on when he and the mare are together. 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.

Over time you can walk in whether he’s eating or not and move him around without any negative reaction. You’re actually helping reduce his fear.

“I will lead on slowly at a pace which the livestock that go before me, and the children, are able to endure” – Genesis 33:14

A note about working with stallions:

I specialized in stallions for many years. I loved stallions. The rules I used with stallions were the same as mares and gelding but enforcement didn’t have any leeway. Stallions behaved well or were corrected every time, for every infraction.

Stallions are willing to 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

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