In the horse world, there are different motivations for biting. Aggressive bites tell another horse to back off. These bites are always accompanied by aggressive signals like flattened ears, flared nostrils, focused attention, and an outstretched neck and head. Because horses often give signals like these before delivering a bite, few horses actually get bitten due to aggression. They read an angry horse’s body language and move away from the threat. Horses sometimes bite people too, and the accompanying body language will indicate whether or not a bite is truly aggressive.
Horses also bite each other to signal that they’d like to play. Play bites are common among young horses, particularly colts and geldings. Horses sometimes try to initiate play with people by play biting. Young horses, when given an opportunity to get out after being stalled, are often inclined to bite in their excitement. Horses also groom each other with their teeth. They gently nibble on their herd mates, particularly at the withers and neck area, and they sometimes direct this grooming behavior toward their human guardians as well.
Biting directed at humans is dangerous behavior regardless of the motivation. The good news is that the majority of biting problems can be resolved through management and training.
Nipping and Treats
Horses explore their environment with their mouths. Particularly if they’re bored, horses are inclined to mouth and nuzzle things within their reach, including people. Sometimes people inadvertently contribute to this problem. For instance, if you often stroke your horse when she nudges you, but then you become distracted while talking to a friend and don’t pay attention to your horse, she might get frustrated and try nipping you. Some horses will do the same thing when they want treats.
Nipping in these situations isn’t aggression, but it is natural behavior that a horse can learn to use to her advantage. In fact, some stable managers won’t allow students to give their horses treats because they believe that treats cause horses to bite. There’s a bit of truth to this—some horses will get nippy if you give them treats from your hand. But the problem isn’t the treats. It’s how the treats are delivered and, more importantly, who is in control of their delivery. If your horse demands treats by nuzzling or nipping and then you oblige, your horse will continue to nip for treats because that’s what you’ve taught her to do!
However, if you never give your horse treats when she nuzzles or nibbles, she won’t bother nudging or nipping for goodies. This lesson will be particularly effective if you also teach her that she can get treats by performing a specific behavior, like nodding her head, giving a kiss or touching her muzzle to a target. (Please see our article, Teaching Your Horse to Target, for detailed information about how to teach your horse this fun and useful skill.) When you ask your horse to perform the new trick you’ve taught her, mark the instant she responds correctly by saying a word like “Yes!” or “Good!” Then reward her with a treat. With this technique, you’ll teach your horse that giving you the responses you ask for, not nipping, will earn treats—and you’ll nip nipping in the bud!
Simple Rules for Nip-Free Treating
- Don’t give your horse treats when she nuzzles you or your pockets.
- Don’t carry treats in your pockets and then let your horse try to retrieve them.
- Don’t give your horse the opportunity to nip at your hands while you offer her a treat. Whenever you give her treats, hold your palm flat and facing up, with your fingers held tightly together and tipped slightly downward.
- When you want to give your horse a treat, ask her to perform some simple behavior to earn it. The instant she does the behavior, mark it with “Yes!” and then give her the treat.
Teaching Your Horse Not to Bite
If your horse has bitten in the past, take time to evaluate the situation. When did the bite occur? What was going on around your horse? What had just happened or was about to happen to her? Answering these questions can help you figure out when your horse is most likely to bite. Then you can make an effort to avoid those situations or change them in some way to reduce your horse’s motivation to bite.
- Resource guarding Some horses bite during feedings. If your horse bites when you bring her food, teach her that she’ll lose the food she thinks she’s protecting with her biting behavior:
- The instant your horse directs any aggressive behavior toward you, simply turn away with the food and leave.
- When your horse stops behaving aggressively, return with her dinner. If she reacts aggressively again, simply turn away again. If you’re consistent, your horse will stop being pushy.
- Fear Does your horse bite when she’s afraid? If so, desensitize her to the things she fears. Please see our articles, Horses Who Are Afraid of Noises, Horses Who Are Sensitive to Handling and Horses Who Are Head Shy, for information on how to resolve these fear-related problems.
- Pain Is your horse biting because she’s in pain? Carefully evaluate her physical well-being and your tacking techniques. Does her saddle fit? Are you girthing too quickly or too tightly? Girth slowly and don’t jerk. Always be careful and gentle when tacking.
- High energy Does your horse bite you out of excitement, simply because she has too much energy to contain herself? If you have a high-energy horse, channel and reduce that energy:
- Take your horse out of her stall and lunge her under control for 10 minutes before bringing her back to tack her.
- If she doesn’t lunge well, work on her leading skills. Leading skills involve teaching your horse to give to pressure, to yield her hindquarters and to back up. These are all skills that will focus your horse’s attention and help her work off her energy. Please see our article, Teaching Your Horse to Lead, to learn how to teach these useful skills.
Dealing with Aggression
When your horse bites, is the bite aggressive? Are her ears pinned and her muzzle thrust forward? Aggression must be dealt with through more than just management and simple training, so you may need to seek help. It’s best to work under the guidance of a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB or ACAAB), a board-certified veterinary behaviorist (Dip ACVB) or a trainer experienced with aggression in horses. Please see our article, Finding Professional Help, to locate one of these qualified behavior experts. If you decide to hire a trainer because you can’t find a behaviorist in your area, make sure that the trainer you choose is qualified to help you. Find out whether she or he has education and experience in successfully treating horse aggression.