Many horses are inclined to bite. It's an unpleasant habit that can result in injured fingers and bruises. The habit of biting people is quite different from windsucking, cribbing or fence chewing, and horses can bite hard, resulting in serious injuries.
Even though horses are grass eaters, they still have considerable strength in their jaws, and their teeth are surprisingly sharp. A horse that bites isn't just annoying; it can be dangerous. Biting may also be a sign of an underlying health problem in your horse or an indication that it has been socialized to be a little too familiar with humans.
Why Do Horses Bite?
In the pasture, horses bite in play; to defend themselves, their food or offspring; to discipline a young horse or one that's lower in the pecking order; or to show that they're annoyed or antsy. Reasons for biting may also include:
A horse that's aggressive or has a lot of pent-up energy may act out by biting. Stallions, in particular, can become dangerous biters. This is one of the many reasons that beginning horse owners should not own stallions as they require tactful, knowledgeable handling.
Allogrooming—when horses groom each other— is another time when one horse may bite another horse, especially along the top of the neck and withers. Imitating this behavior by scratching in these areas can be a form of praise.
However, your horse shouldn't be given the opportunity to initiate allogrooming between itself and its handler. In other words, don't let your horse groom you. If it tries to groom you as you're brushing it, push its head away firmly.
Uncomfortable Saddle or Tight Girth
Many horses nip if the girth or cinch of the saddle is tightened too quickly or too much. If a saddle doesn't fit well, the horse may lash out in anticipation of the impending discomfort.
Your horse needs to be confident that it won't be hurt as you're saddling up and riding. This may mean changing or restuffing your saddle, honing your riding skills, and going slowly as you cinch up and not tightening the girth excessively.
Illness, Discomfort, or Infection
Sometimes horses bite because they're ill or uncomfortable. Before administering punishment for biting, make sure your horse is healthy. Check to make sure its shoes are not causing discomfort and watch for any walking or standing difficulties.
If your horse has swelling or excessive tearing around its eyes, this may be a sign of an infection or other eye problem. The pain from such a condition could motivate an irritable horse to bite.
How to Stop Biting
Teach your horse to be obedient and accepting of having its mouth touched. With a halter on so you can hold its head securely, rub the inside of the horse's gums and lips with your fingers. Your horse will probably dislike this but work slowly, doing what it can tolerate and then retreating when the horse objects, then slowly moving your fingers further and further into the horse's mouth.
Once the horse accepts your touching its inner lips and gums, you can reach into the toothless bars of the mouth to rub its tongue and palate. Your horse may try to reciprocate by trying to grab at your fingers. If so, be more assertive in making the horse stand quietly and accept your fingers. As you do this, of course, be very careful not to put your fingers between the horse's teeth.
Additional steps you can take to head off biting behavior are:
- Clicker training: Another method to curb biting is to teach the horse to focus on an object. Horses that habitually nip have very active minds and need to keep busy. Clicker training is a good way to keep a busy mind occupied.
- Starting young: The biting habit can start when the horse is quite young. Youngsters, especially colts, tend to explore the world with their mouths. If you have a young horse, don't allow it to explore you with its mouth.
- Teaching respect: A young horse needs to learn to keep a respectful distance and not initiate any contact. This may mean that you don't feed it any treats by hand until respect becomes a habit (if ever).
- Allowing for "teething": Another way to keep a young horse from biting you is to leave some hay in its stall. Just like human babies, young horses go through teething, and having something to gnaw on can be comforting and satisfying.
- Being consistent: At all times, you need your horse to keep a respectful distance and not initiate contact, not even to rub its head or explore your pockets.
- Getting professional help: If your horse is aggressive, you'll need to obtain the services of a professional trainer.
What Doesn't Work
Your instinctive reaction when your horse bites you may be to smack its nose, but this isn't always effective. In fact nip, smack, nip, smack can turn into a game for many horses. They dive in for the nip when you've let your guard down and duck away from the smack. Even if you do get the timing right occasionally, the punishment isn't applied consistently enough to leave a lasting impression.
Of course, sometimes a rap on the nose is the best way to get a horse's attention. If you go this route, be sure that you're administering the punishment immediately after the bite, so the horse associates the smack with the bad behavior.
There are some fairly ugly methods of dealing with biting that you should avoid. For example, never hold a nail so the horse pokes itself as it bites at your hand. Trying to splash hot sauce or bitter liquid into the horse's mouth is likewise a bad idea.