Some horses are inclined to nip or bite. This bad habit can be very dangerous, resulting in serious human injury. Even though horses are grass eaters, they still have considerable strength in their jaws, and their incisors are surprisingly sharp. This behavior is quite different from windsucking, cribbing, or fence chewing.
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. Allogrooming is not intended to be a threatening behavior from a horse, just a behavior that is not appropriate to engage in with humans.
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 your saddle or girth, using a different type of saddle pad, 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, especially if this behavior has come on suddenly and is out of character for your horse. If this is the case, a physical examination conducted by a veterinarian should be done to rule out health causes.
How to Stop Biting
Depending on how badly your horse bites, it can be challenging to re-train your horse. If the biting is severe, it may be safest to enlist the help of a professional trainer or equine behaviorist.
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, teach it early that it is not acceptable to touch 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).
- Providing enrichment: Horses are grazers and are naturally inclined to chew and use their mouths during a majority of the day. Make sure your horse has enough roughage (grass or hay) to keep it occupied.
- 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.
How To Stay Healthy Around Horses. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.