Does your horse keep biting you? Even a small nip from a horse can hurt. A lot. Not only that, but it can leave behind a significant injury. If you are tired of aching and bleeding because your horse is biting you, you are in the right place. We are going to talk a bit about some of the reasons why horses bite and then offer some ideas for how you can get your horse to quit biting you (or other people).
Why Is My Horse Biting Me?
Let’s talk about some of the reasons for biting. Until you know why your horse is biting you, there won’t be a way for you to effectively tackle the problem.
- Sometimes horses bite because they are scared. Horses, like other animals, may use their teeth for protection, either for themselves or for other horses (or for their food). If your horse feels threatened by you or someone else, its response may be to bite.
- A horse may bite because it is uncomfortable. If a horse is uncomfortable because of tack or any other stimulus, there is a chance that it will attempt to communicate this by biting.
- A horse might bite out of aggression. If you have a horse that is “spirited” in disposition, you might expect biting as one possible show of spiritedness. This is one of the fun things you can look forward to if you get a stallion (and yet another reason they are not suitable for beginners).
- Horses may bite others to teach them a lesson. This will only happen if a horse perceives itself to be dominant with another. Hopefully you will not find yourself at the receiving end of such behaviour; if you do, it means your horse does not respect your authority (and thinks you need to be punished for something). If you have a number of horses living together, this kind of behaviour may be more common, because horses may not just bite those below them on the hierarchy, but bite in order to show others who is boss. If your horse has been busy establishing itself in this manner and thinks you should be beneath it, it may bite you to show you your place.
- Horses bite while grooming one another. You may have watched horses grooming one another before, and noticed they sometimes gently bite each other. The neck and the shoulders are often the recipients of such nips. Your horse may think that you need a good grooming now and again. While you should not agree to such an event, failure to put a stop to it could result in these types of horse bites.
- Your horse might be biting to play. Sometimes horses like to bite each other for fun. Alas, while this may be a good time for your horse, it will not be much fun for you. Horses are often not aware of just how hard they can bite, and how little “fun” our frail human bodies can handle.
- Territorial behaviour. Horses need space, just like you do, and sometimes can be protective of that space. In particular, if the space is small, an intrusion may be unwelcome. You might sometimes get a bite to signal you to back off.
- Biting could be a sign of sickness. Occasionally, a horse that bites may be under the weather or showing a sign of infection. If biting is an unusual behaviour for your horse, it might be worth looking into, especially if other symptoms are present.
What to Do If Your Horse Bites You
So, now you know some of the reasons why horses may bite. As you can see, there is a pretty diverse range of possibilities. Thus, your first step is to try and figure out the most likely reason(s) why your horse may be biting you. You can then proceed to take action. Following are some possible solutions for different biting problems.
Stop your horse from grooming you.
Your horse is most likely to try and groom you while you are grooming it. The thought is nice, right? It is trying to do you a favour. But you need to put a stop to it.
If you notice your horse trying to groom you, just push his head back. Don’t react with alarm—your horse isn’t being aggressive. Just be firm, and return to what you were doing. Over time, your horse should get the message.
Don't Give Treats When a Horse is Aggressive
Feeding your horse treats by hand can make a great reward and help you and your horse to bond. But if you are used to your horse nipping at you or intruding on your space in other ways during treat time, it needs to stop. Anytime it happens, you should immediately withdraw any remaining treats. Otherwise, you are just rewarding your horse for continuing not to respect your space.
Over time, as your horse learns to stop biting you, you can return to rewarding with treats by hand. Some people never go back to hand-feeding treats to their horses, because they find that the cycle starts again. Some horses may be more stubborn than others in this respect—or just less coordinated.
An excited horse eating from your hand could nibble or bite unintentionally, even if it knows better. So, if you persistently have problems with this, or just don’t want to risk it, replace hand-feeding with a bucket for treats.
Stop food aggression.
Pay attention to your horse’s ears during feeding time. Are they pinned back?
Case #1: Non-Aggressive Pinning
A horse behaving in this manner without displaying other more serious belligerent behaviours is uneasy, but not necessarily aggressive. But it may still bite you if it is nervous. One thing you can do is use the ear pinning as a guide for your own behaviour. When you walk up to your horse with the food, if you notice it pinning back its ears, back away.
In response, your horse will probably unpin the ears. You can then move forward along with giving some verbal praise. Keep doing this back and forth, only approaching your horse when the ears are unpinned, and backing off when they are re-pinned. If things go well, your horse’s ears will eventually stay unpinned when you get close enough to feed it, and you can do so.
Sometimes, your horse may just keep re-pinning its ears. While this is frustrating, you can try leaving for a little bit, and then returning and making another attempt. Often it will go better the next time. When you leave the food, your horse will likely re-pin the ears, but that is okay. It should stop eventually.
You might wonder whether it is worth it to have to make repeated attempts to feed your horse in this manner. The answer is a definite “yes!” It really shouldn’t take more than a few days of this for your horse to start figuring out the right approach to getting fed as rapidly as possible.
Case #2: Aggressive Pinning
Now, what about feeding horses that are even more likely to bite—those that display true aggression during mealtime?
You may want to train this type of aggression out of the horse outside. Put the food down on the ground and stand close to it, signalling your horse to come over. Have a lead rope ready. Your aggressive horse will pin its ears and try to close in on the food bowl. You cannot allow this type of approach, so you swing the rope. Your horse should back off.
If, on the next approach, your horse is still being aggressive, swing the rope again. Make it clear you mean business by stepping toward your horse if you need to, but do not hit your horse. Repeat this until your horse finally decides to stand close to the bowl with ears unpinned and a calm demeanour. Then, back away from the food.
At this point, there is a really good chance your horse will re-pin the ears. You don’t want that, but you also don’t want to chase your horse away, because on the whole, it is behaving. So, slowly and calmly, show it the rope. When it sees the rope, it should un-pin its ears. You can then let it eat. Over time, as you train aggressive behaviour out of your horse at mealtimes, it should be less likely to do things like try to bite you.
There are additional tips for dealing with food aggression in horses here.
Burn off excess energy.
Sometimes a horse gets tired of standing around in its stall, especially if it is young and bursting with energy. So, when you let it out of its stall, it may immediately become excitable, especially if it is a young horse. If you then immediately proceed to groom the horse or take care of some other chore and ask it to just stand there, how do you think it is going to react?
There is a good chance it will try to bite you, because what else is it going to do with all of that boundless energy?
One way to solve this problem is to pre-emptively burn off some of the extra energy. So, give your horse something to do, even if it is just moving around a bit and following your directions. Do this for a few minutes, and then you should be able to go about whatever it was you were going to do with your horse standing still.
Here are some more great ways to give your horse some exercise. This helps tremendously when a horse is being tempermental.
Provide plenty of hay or grass for your horse.
Horses that bite may sometimes be inclined to do so because they are not getting the chewing action they need throughout the day. If your horse were spending all of its time outdoors, it would do a lot of grazing. When it is in the stall, it still expects to “graze.”
If it isn’t able to do this because you are not offering enough in the way of hay or grass, it is going to feel the need to use its mouth on other surfaces more frequently. So, it may bite you and others. The solution in this case is simple, and that is just to make sufficient hay or grass available.
Here are some everyday items that make great horse treats. You might also like this list of fruits and vegetables that are safe to feed your horses.
Don’t encourage biting through your own proximity and cues.
It can be easy to think that it is always the horse that is the one that is getting too close. But sometimes it is the owner. Do you find yourself petting your horse without really thinking about it when it nudges you and you are busy doing something else?
When you do that, you encourage more nudging. The thing is, with horses, nudging can rapidly progress to nibbling and biting. One of the worst mistakes you can make is thinking, “no big deal” the first time your horse nibbles at you or your clothing.
If you let it go, your horse will do it again. And if you keep petting your horse during the nibbling, you are actively encouraging this. The trick to keeping all of this from taking place is just to be mindful of your own proximity and body language with respect to your horse. So, try not to let yourself slip into these habits. Pet your horse consciously with intention, and be aware of how it is responding.
If your horse keeps nudging at you anyway, whatever you do, do not react with aggression. If you swat, your horse is going to think, “Yay, playtime!” You are then going to be dealing with a frisky horse that is really going to go in for a bite.
Either 1-attempt to distance yourself from the horse calmly, and see if that works, or 2-engage, but in a way your horse doesn’t expect. Here’s what you do. Instead of swatting at your horse’s nose, try rubbing it. In short, controlled bursts, this is something your horse probably won’t mind at all.
Have you ever owned a cat? You know how a cat often likes being petted or rubbed for a while, but eventually hits a point of sensory overload? At first, the kitty is happy with the rubbing. But then, it is like, “Enough already,” and runs off. Rubbing your horse’s nose should provoke a similar response. At first, your horse will be pleased about the positive attention, but after it continues, it will start to feel annoyed.
At that point, the horse should withdraw its face on its own to escape the interminable rubbing, and the problem should be solved.
Halter a mare with a new foal when you need to approach the foal.
If you have a mare with a new foal, you will need to take care of the foal. The problem is, your mare is going to be very protective, and may attempt to bite you or even charge at you. This is, thankfully, a problem that will solve itself with time. And it doesn’t even take that much time. A week or so later, you should find that your mare settles down.
But you cannot wait a full week for that to happen, so what can you do about it? You don’t need to worry about training here, because again, this situation is temporary. But you do need to be careful.
To prevent bites, outfit your mare with a halter. Have a pole ready you can attach to the halter if necessary. That way, you can keep her from biting you as you approach the foal. This is also a way to keep her from making a run at you.
Once a week or so has passed, you can probably take the halter off and approach the foal without any aggression. You might also appreciate these notes about how vocalization is important between a mare and foal.
Don’t crowd your horses.
Do you have a lot of horses living in close proximity in one barn? If so, you are going to see a lot more territorial and aggressive behaviour. While your horses may direct the majority of that at each other, it is going to end up being directed at you as well when you are there, simply by habit.
If you give your horses more space from one another, they will probably not be so aggressive in establishing dominance and defending their territory. If you have enough money to be looking after a number of horses, you should have enough to give them adequate space. So, think about enlarging your barn or building a second one.
Make improvements to your barn.
If there is any way to give a territorial horse in a small stall more space, you might want to think about doing so (regardless of whether other horses live in that barn or not). If you cannot, or if doing that does not resolve the issue, you may want to install a screen or bars in stall openings. That way, your horse will not bite you or anyone else through them.
Here are some tips for creating a homey space in your barn for your horses. It's their home. Make it welcoming for them.
Stop adjusting tack incorrectly (or picking the wrong tack).
Does your horse tend to bite after you have put on tack, or while you are doing it? That is a sign that the tack itself or the way you are adjusting it is potentially the problem.
You’ll need to figure out which it is. If it is the tack itself that is ill-fitting or chafing in some way, you will need to replace it. Once you do, the biting should stop. If it is the way you are adjusting it, try different adjustments, and see if the horse stops biting. It could also be the process of the adjusting. Maybe you are too fast when you are tightening the saddle cinch, for example.
If you go more slowly and gently, the biting may stop. Keep in mind that if this has been going on for a while, your horse is conditioned to dread you putting on the tack, and may bite in anticipation of the unpleasantness, even before it happens. That can make it a little hard to troubleshoot. It also means that the biting may still happen even after you fix the problem for a bit, until your horse learns to stop associating the tack with pain and discomfort.
Not sure if it is a tack issue? Check out these tips for how to know your tack isn't working properly. Tack is a huge issue with unhappy horses and is usually a very simple fix.
Don’t let young horses form a biting habit.
If you have a young horse, you can expect nibbling or biting to begin with. It is just what horses do at this age. If you let it continue, it will become an ongoing behavioural problem, and one that becomes more dangerous as your horse gets older.
How do you stop it? Along with general training methods (which we will go over), temporary use of a halter can be helpful.
If you think your horse may be sick call your vet
If you think it is possible that your horse could have a sickness or infection, and that could be the reason for the biting, the solution is to treat the underlying condition. You can check for signs of infection and sickness yourself to start, but you should probably calling your veterinarian. If there is a sickness or infection, after it is treated, your horse should start feeling better and stop exhibiting problematic behaviors like biting.
Make sure you stay on your vet's good side with these tips!
Don’t ignore the start of an aggressive series of interactions with your horse.
Learning to read your horse’s body language is critical when it comes to avoiding bites. This is especially true if you have a spirited horse with aggressive tendencies. Equally important is responding appropriately to aggressive body language from your horse right away, rather than blowing off the interaction and thinking that will be the end of it.
If you ignore aggressive behaviour, there is a good chance that it will start to escalate, even if it began as something subtle. So, let’s say you are going about your business, and your horse pins its ears, stomps, or does something else that raises a red flag.
There are two common mistakes in response to subtle aggressive cues:
- The horse’s owner may try to soothe the aggression with petting, treats, or so forth. But by doing so, they merely reward the behaviour and/or fail to disrupt the horse’s aggressive thoughts. This is the sort of thing that we think would make us less hostile if we were the horse, but an aggressive horse does not think this way.
- The horse’s owner puts some distance between themselves and the horse. They might be doing this because they are nervous, and/or because they are just going about their business and trying to ignore the situation, hoping that dissipates it. Alas, your horse is going to take such an action as a sign of submission, which will increase the aggressive behaviour. The next time, the behaviour might include a bite or even a charge.
So, if you are seeing subtle signs of aggression from your horse, you need to be the one who takes control. You don’t want to provoke your hose, so do not get aggressive yourself. Just make it clear that you are not going to back off, and it is your horse that needs to do so. Direct your horse to go somewhere else or even just do a task. You will establish dominance in the interaction and break the aggressive string of thought and behaviour. Hopefully this will prevent biting and other dangerous incidents.
Tap on legs.
We have gone over a number of recommendations for preventing horse biting in conjunction with specific scenarios, such as a new foal, feeding, tight spaces, and so forth. Now let’s go over some recommendations for general training to curb biting.
Horse trainer Monty Roberts offers the following method for teaching a horse to stop biting:
- As your horse goes in for a bite, use your foot to tap its shin. Tap lightly. The goal is not to produce a painful sensation, just a distraction.
- Continue with whatever you were doing as if nothing has happened.
Your horse will try to bite you again at some point. It might be within seconds or minutes, or it could be tomorrow or next week.
When it happens again, repeat the same steps. Tap on the shin.
According to Roberts, you only need around 6-8 repetitions before the biting behaviour is disrupted. He writes,
You will see the horse begin to bite, hesitate and look down at his leg. Its pretty cute, actually, to watch their brains work.
It is a super simple method, and it can be really effective!
Try clicker training.
Clicker training is another option. It is a form of training that we typically see used with dogs, but you can use it with other animals as well such as cats or horses.
In case you don’t know, a clicker is a little device you can press on with your thumb to produce a loud “click” noise.
- Feed your horse a treat and make the “click” sound as you do.
- Do this a few more times with a few more treats.
- Repeat the steps above in several sessions.
- Now, your horse thinks “treat” whenever it hears the click. Direct your horse to do a behaviour you want, like moving its head or backing away, and click-treat immediately when it starts to do as you direct.
- Continue doing step 4 in your training sessions, but wait longer to click-treat over time. So, when you first start, you might do it the moment your horse begins to move its head away, but by the end, you are doing it only after the full motion. Eventually, you can wait a few minutes after the action and then deliver the treat.
- Start tying in a verbal command if you haven’t already.
Eventually, you should be able to simply give the command to your horse, and click, and the horse will think “reward on the way!” and move its head. Try to give the treat as soon as it is convenient every time. Be as consistent as you can.
And since we are specifically trying to use the clicker training to help prevent biting, you should give the treats in a bucket, not out of your hand. You might be wondering whether it really makes sense to use food for horse training.
In response to this question, The Willing Equine writes,
Yes, horses do learn from pressure and release (negative reinforcement), but they also learn from positive reinforcement, negative punishment, and positive punishment. These are all forms of operant conditioning, which is a way through which animals of all species learn, how they teach each other, and how the environment teaches them …As trainers, we have to choose how we wish to teach our learners what we wish them to do... And the way we choose to do that should be as humane and low stress as possible.
If you don’t want to use food, you can go with any type of reward you want, like scratching, petting, or praise. If you are considering sending them for training, check out these things to remember for horse training first.
Teach your horse commands to back off.
Whether or not you try clicker training, it does make sense to teach your horse to back off when it is starting to nose at you or nibble. Even without a clicker, you can still offer a verbal cue, and then immediately give your horse a treat when it does as directed and moves its head away from you. It may take you a couple dozen repetitions to really solidify such a command, but once you do, it will be much easier to move your horse’s head away when necessary.
You can use the same basic method to teach a verbal command for your horse to step back from you. Ideally, you want to work on getting your horse to back up a few steps, not just a single step. When your horse can’t reach forward to bite you, that is the perfect distance.
Don’t be afraid to call in a professional trainer.
Hopefully trying some of the methods above will help you to get your horse’s biting habits under control. But if you are still struggling, you shouldn’t continue to go it alone. Safety is what matters most, so you may need someone to help you out.
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You can ask around in your local equestrian community for help or suggestions, but if that isn’t sufficient, it may be time to work with a professional trainer. Not only will doing so help to ensure your safety and that of others, but it will also help you to pick up a lot of useful skills that will make you a more effective trainer in the future.
Sometimes, you just need to learn a bit better about how to communicate with your horse, and they are well-equipped to make that happen.
What Do You Do In the Moment of a Bite?
Finally, when it comes to biting, prevention really is key, which is why we have mostly talked about what you can do to keep your horse from biting you in the first place. But what do you do if you are actually being bitten in that moment?
Different people take different approaches to dealing with this situation. But one thing you should not do (and a lot of people do this) is swat. As we already mentioned, swatting at your horse’s nose as it tries to bite you will just signal, “Play! Try biting me again! And do it harder next time, please!”
Here are some alternate ideas:
- If it is a small bite, a small pinch in return (like on the lips) is often sufficient to stop the behaviour from continuing.
- Raise your elbow so that when the horse goes in for the bite, it instead hits its own head on your elbow. You are not hitting the horse. Instead, its own movement backfires on it. Thus, it is deterred from continuing.
- A light smack can work, but avoid the head or neck. Instead, aim for the shoulder or chest. Remember, your goal is to startle your horse out of the biting, not to hurt it. Even a tap may do the trick.
- Lightly pushing your horse’s head away may be sufficient, as might a verbal command, if you trained it well enough.
- If the biting seems particularly dangerous, hop around, wave your arms, and yell loudly. Feel free to smack your horse, but again, not on the nose. Basically, act like you are insane with anger and are very dangerous yourself. Your horse will hopefully back off fast and not do it again. Just make sure you don’t do this if your horse is tied or if there is any danger that your horse will hurt someone else or itself.
Whatever you do, do not try to punish your horse later for what happened. Like a dog, a horse is not going to understand what you are angry about if time passes. Also, if you have to resort to shouting, jumping, and waving your arms, you do not want your horse to be afraid of you in a general sense, just for a few seconds. Your horse needs to trust you.
So, once your horse has backed off, immediately restore your usual calm demeanour. Talk to your horse and pet your horse as usual.
Take Action Fast. Horse Bites Can Be Dangerous.
No matter the reason why your horse is biting, you shouldn’t mess around with this behaviour. The first small nip may not seem like a big deal, but when it starts turning into a habit, or the bites get harder, or your horse overestimates your toughness, you could be in for a serious wound.
So, don’t delay when it comes to putting a stop to biting. The faster you get it under control, the less likely it is that your horse will cause you or another person a serious injury.