Horses That Bite
We have all met a horse that bites. And it is not funny. And neither are a lot of the different solutions people offer up when they try to give well-meaning advice.
"When your horse bites you have to bite it back! It is what horses do to each other."
"Say NO loud and hit him hard! You have to show that you're the boss."
"Your horse is trying to dominate you and you have to start join-up!"
I feel speechless. How my heart feels heavy when I hear these sorts of replies. Are we actually considering setting our teeth in the horse because that is what horses do? What - are we then also going to eat hay, and chase each other away with angry stares and kick them if they don't move? I wouldn't like to end up in a physical fight with a horse! Do we have to dominate our horses, perceiving ourselves as the "boss"?
No, I believe there is quite a different solution. A solution where we can use one of the best things that there is about being human - our brains. And with the level of thinking and empathy we have as humans we have the potential to help the horse in a much better and more understanding way.
The horse is completely aware that we are not horses. And the horse doesn’t learn through dominance but through the mechanisms of learning theory described in the equitation science. So, if you want to teach your horse to stop biting you should use your brain and create a training plan, that will help your horse stop biting.
But before you do that it is important to know, that biting is a conflict behaviour. So, it is a sign, the horse gives you, that he is in a conflict of some sort. He might be hurting somewhere, he might be stressed or he might be confused and frustrated. And I believe that it is our duty to listen to the horse, when he tells us something is wrong. They have so few means of communicating with us - dogs at least, can whimper. So, before you start changing the actual behaviour of biting, you should look at the reason for why your horse is biting.
I have a lovely mare and she is very good at biting. And mostly I don't act on it, I just register that she is in a conflict, and I try to help her out in the best way possible. So, some of the reasons she has had for biting have been:
1) Physical pain from a blocked shoulder - shows as "all-around" biting in different handling situations
2) Physical pain from a tight body - shows as one bite in groundwork, before she lets go and comes into the stretch I was asking her
3) Frustrations for not being able to attain the treats she wants - comes up especially if the handler is unclear or she gets treats at random
4) Frustration/confusion that the handler is being unclear
5) Frustrations about too little exercise - seen especially during winter
6) Stressful situations - ex the first half hour of being in a new place
Other horses can have other reasons and they all have different strategies for showing their stress/pains/frustrations. And for some horses it is primarily through biting. The best thing we can do as a trainer is to decipher why the horse does what he does.
If it is because the horse wants treats you can help the horse understand when and how a treat will come. If it is because the horse is frustrated because of lack of exercise during winter you can let it loose in the arena for a little while or help him exercise in some other way. If it is because your horse is stressed over a situation - maybe another horse has left your horse or your horse is in a new place - then you have to work with your horse's stress level. That is the long-term solution for helping your horse to be more harmonious.
So, think well about how you could help your horse. Because many horses will show even more conflict behaviour if they are punished in a situation in which they are already confused, stressed or frustrated. And punishment only tells the horse what not to do, so the next time he might try another solution to show his feelings - he might be kicking, moving into you or some third thing. Until one day he has tried all solutions and shuts himself off from the rest of the world.
Please help your horse to remove the cause, and he will most likely stop biting by himself. A calm and happy horse, who understands what is required of him does not bite.